Chapter 6: Feeling Pressure
Friday May 17, 201X
On a rare sunny morning at that time of the year in Manchester, Kakeru woke up as he felt the rays of sunshine hitting his bare skin through the window of his apartment. Looking down to his right, he saw Nana still sleeping at his side on the bed. He could only stare at the sight of Nana's naked body mostly covered at the right places by the white bed sheets while she had that angelic smile on her face; the sight was worth a painting in itself.
'She looks so beautiful when asleep. I've never seen her look so beautiful.' Kakeru thought as he gently stroked her hair.
When Kakeru looked at the clock, it was around 9:10 AM. However, there was nothing to worry since it was a day off for the players. While Kakeru was putting his pajama shirt and pants back on, Nana also woke up.
"Ohayou, Kakeru." Nana said.
"Good morning, love." Kakeru replied with a suave voice to go with his English.
"What time is it?" Nana asked while she sat up and kept the sheets over her chest.
"Around 9:10 AM." Kakeru replied. "If only you saw yourself before you woke up. You would have been the perfect model for a painting."
Nana smiled and then leaned forward before planting a kiss on Kakeru's lips. "You ain't half-bad yourself with this body and this child-like face to make any girl fall for you."
"I'm charming." Kakeru replied with a smile. "But I wouldn't trade you for any other girl."
Then Kakeru tickled Nana playfully for a few seconds before he got up and grabbed a towel on his way out of the bedroom. "Where are you going?" Nana asked softly.
"Taking a shower." Kakeru replied.
"Don't you want me to join in?"
"If I let you, I'll lose my mind, you little seductress."
Nana grinned. "Oh! Mister Kakeru is also sensitive there."
Kakeru chuckled at Nana's last comment before he left to the bathroom. Nana then put a T-shirt and pajama pants before she stepped outside the bedroom. At the same time, Noriko came out of her own bedroom still wearing her pajama shirt and bottoms with pockets. "Ohayou, Noriko-chan." Nana said.
"You feel better today?" Nana asked.
"When I see my friends being so happy while I have nothing that makes me suffer from within anymore, there's not much better to ask." Noriko replied with a smile.
"I know that I shouldn't dwell upon the past, but how did you manage to accept us as a couple without feeling any... jealousy when you felt that familiar feeling around him?" Nana asked.
Noriko shrugged. "Of course, it felt a little weird at first. But at the same time, there was already something very different about him. Also, I quickly saw how strong the bond was between the two of you. Nana-chan, you are a good person and we share so much in common. I would have felt bad about myself if I tried to take Kakeru away from you."
"Thanks. He has always been different from his brother, and that's more than good enough for me. I always liked him the way he is although it took him a long time to ask me out."
"Really? How come? Both of you look as if you have been a couple since forever." Noriko asked as she was surprised by what Nana just revealed.
"He liked me since we were children, but he thought for years that I only had eyes for Suguru-san, which was a misunderstanding. He was not the most confident guy when we met again in middle school after being separated for 3 years; he had to work hard to learn how to believe in himself again. I was also sometimes too stubborn to admit that I liked Kakeru, but what I wanted most was for him to make the first move because I already knew that I was the only one for him. And when he did, everything went right afterwards."
"What a story." Noriko said. "I know it will take me some time to finally enjoy what I missed in life so far, but I'll also be moving forward at my own pace."
"That last bit about moving forward is exactly what Kakeru said once." Nana finished before she and Noriko gave each other a mutual smile in understanding.
11:00 AM BST
After Kakeru, Nana and Noriko all finished up showering, brushing teeth and washing their faces, they all sat down in front of the television to watch MUTV's weekly segment "The Manager's Press Conference". On every Friday at 11:00 AM, all football managers in the English Premier League hold a live press conference ahead of the upcoming game. As usual, the press conference was held in Carrington. Since the media didn't know about Kakeru and Nana's inclusion in the 18-man squad for Sunday's game, and only got news of their performances in the Reserves, speculative questions would probably be raised about both of them. As usual, Sir Alex began with a short statement about injured players and the match ahead before answering the reporters' questions.
Sir Alex: "On the injury front, Jonny and Danny began practicing on Tuesday. They should be fine for Sunday. Javier started training yesterday, but he's not there yet and I don't expect him to make it by then. As you already know, Ashley, Anderson, Nani, Chris, Darren and Scholesy are ruled out. The rest are fit, but we may have to add one or two players from the Reserves into the squad. We still have time on our hands to get the tactics right for the game. I know that we trail City on points, goal difference and goals scored. However, a derby game is a derby game, and anything can happen in a derby. We are used to play City in a big game. Hopefully, we'll be ready for it."
Reporter 1: "Sir Alex. Would you say that the pressure is on City since they have been on top for most of the season?"
Sir Alex: "Of course. They showed that they played very well this season. They are on top of the table by 3 points, and they have goal difference as well as number of goals scored on their side. Nonetheless, we are still fighting for this title. We are here to play the game and we won't give them anything easy."
Reporter 2: "Sir Alex. When the schedule was originally planned last summer, people talked about the final derby as a potential title decider if it goes down to the wire. Now that you are in a situation reminiscent of Arsenal in 1989 before they went to Anfield facing Liverpool in a title decider for both teams on the final day, could it be a source of motivation for the players?"
Sir Alex: "Well, Arsenal won back then and that could be an inspiration for the players. Nevertheless, it's a derby game, it's played at home, and motivation shouldn't be a problem for the players."
Reporter 3: "Sir Alex. With the many injuries and the superb performances from your most recent signings, Kakeru Aizawa and Nana Mishima, in the Reserves, should we expect them to feature on Sunday?"
Sir Alex: "It's a possibility, but we also have other players who are also playing well with the Reserves at the moment and a few regulars returning from injury. Hence, we are open to all possibilities. Regarding Kakeru and Nana, they are still young, but they already show plenty of good things for the future in such a short time. We also have to remember they just graduated from Japanese high school a month and a half ago."
"As expected, Sir Alex is not showing his cards and tries to play mind games with the opposition. It's OK." Noriko reassured Kakeru and Nana.
"I know." Kakeru replied. "I'm glad that he did, but I wonder what more he will say about Seven."
Reporter 1: "Speaking of Nana Mishima... since you gave her a tryout and then signed her with the Reserves, FIFA lodged an official protest to the Court of Arbitration for Sport against Manchester United by reminding everyone of the 2004 ruling against mixed-gender football teams, stating that 'there must be a clear separation between men's and women's football. For now, the club managed to put the proceedings on hold through lawyers. What's your take on FIFA's statement?"
Sir Alex: "Since I started in the managerial business, I always looked for young players who have the skills and the character to perform at the club. If Nana was able to get my attention, I don't see why such separation should exist. From what I can understand, no one ever came up with a clear and valid reason."
Reporter 3: "Former German female international Birgit Prinz revealed in 2010 that she declined an offer from an Italian Serie A club in 2003 because she feared that her transfer would be used as a publicity stunt and that she would end up on the bench. What would you say to the critics who think the same could happen to Ms. Mishima?"
Sir Alex: "Such line of thought is ridiculous. This is Manchester United we're talking about, and we don't use signings merely for publicity purposes. Nana is a tremendous prospect. I was reluctant when her name came up, but then I saw videos of her performances and I was convinced to give her that tryout by my own scouts. It proved to be a good decision. All players who play for Manchester United always have a chance to show what they are made of although I made some mistakes at times when judging them. If you spend time on the training ground, you'd see how good she is in controlling and passing the ball. She has quite an amount of natural talent, but she's one of those players who'd come to the training ground, and she'd just practice and practice. Nana will, someday soon, prove all critics wrong because she has what it takes to be with the best."
Nana sighed in relief when she heard Sir Alex's last answer regarding his unconditional support in her attempt to make history; it was all she wanted to hear. "Thanks, Gaffer." Nana said softly.
"You were hoping the Boss to come out telling FIFA and other critics to think twice. There you have it!" Noriko said cheerfully.
"And I'll be ready to thank him in the best possible way when the time will come." Nana replied.
The rest of the press conference went down with other questions related to players' form, about the opposition, etc. However, Kakeru and Nana were pleased with the answers provided by Sir Alex in the first pre-match press conference where their names were mentioned ahead of a match involving the first team.
After the middle of the afternoon, Kakeru and Nana went out jogging, and then spent the last 3-4 hours listening to lecture recordings, studying their course material for the Introduction to Medicine and History of Medicine courses. In the early evening around 7:30 PM, Kakeru and Nana were reviewing their course material on the history of medicine by playing a little game of linking names with medical achievements. It was their fun routine in consolidating and testing their knowledge.
"If I say Kitasato Shibasaburo, what do you say?" Kakeru asked.
"He co-discovered the infectious agent of the bubonic plague in 1894. One big feat was that he demonstrated the value of antitoxins to produce passive immunity in the 1890s." Nana replied. "Now my turn: Wilfred Gordon Bigelow."
Kakeru didn't answer as he was yawning. Furthermore, it looked like he didn't listen to the question.
"Kakeru. Wilfred Gordon Bigelow, what do you say?" Nana asked again.
"Oh, sorry. He developed the use of hypothermia as a medical procedure in cases of open heart surgery in the 1950s. He was also involved in developing the artificial pacemaker." Kakeru replied.
"Usually, you know most of the knowledge related to heart surgery on the tip of your fingers. Are you OK? You look tired." Nana asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine. It's just a small lapse of concentration, that's all." Kakeru replied
"Perhaps we should stop studying for now; it would be better this way. After all, we have training tomorrow morning and we have Sunday's game coming up too. I'll prepare dinner with Noriko-chan." Nana said before she left for the kitchen.
Meanwhile, Kakeru was thinking a lot about the upcoming training session. After performing very well on Wednesday and Thursday at the training ground, he knew that the opportunity was there for him to make a statement ahead of his debut.
'So far, Robin is the only striker playing better than me; that was expected. Yet, I know I performed better than Wazza and Danny. If I can do well tomorrow, I may start the game on Sunday. I cannot miss this opportunity; Mom, Dad and Mito are coming all the way from Japan to see me play.' Kakeru thought.
For the rest of the evening, Kakeru's thoughts were mainly focused around his desire to perform well on the next training session with hopes of starting the big match in front of his family and friends. However, he never expected that such thoughts would end up hindering him.
Saturday May 18, 201X
8:25 AM BST
When Kakeru woke up in the morning, it was over 7:30 AM. Obviously, he didn't have a good night of sleep and he woke up a couple of times in the middle of the night because of nightmares. Nana knew that something wasn't right when she saw him for most of the morning.
"Are you alright, Kakeru? You really look tired." Nana asked.
"I'm OK. I just need a few minutes alone to get some focus back. After all, I'm still in top shape." Kakeru replied before he went into his bedroom and looked outside the window thinking of the upcoming training session.
"I'm really worried about Kakeru. He couldn't sleep well last night." Nana said.
"To make it worse, there are journalists waiting outside the apartment building. It looks like they are from Japan. How do they know you are living here?" Noriko asked as she watched through the window from the living room and spotted the journalists standing across the street.
"I don't know, but we'll need to push them away if we want to get to Carrington. Also, we need to make sure they leave you alone." Nana replied.
"Right, I guess I'll have to call the GMP (Greater Manchester Police) to make sure these guys leave and don't come back around here unless invited. However, we also have to leave earlier than usual. There was an accident on the M60 motorway according to the news."
"(sigh) You take the decision, Noriko-chan." Nana finished.
Around 10 minutes later, Kakeru, Nana and Noriko left the apartment building towards Noriko's car, which was parked outside. Quickly, the Japanese journalists and photojournalists spotted Kakeru and Nana. In a matter of 3 seconds, the journalists swarmed around Kakeru and Nana, who both wore shades and tried to make their way towards the car.
"Aizawa-san. Are you expected to play tomorrow? Will you start?" a Japanese journalist asked.
"Aizawa-san. How are you feeling when you could soon achieve something your late brother couldn't?" another Japanese journalist asked.
"Mishima-san. Are you feeling nervous now as you may become the first woman to play at the top level against men if you get the nod?" a female Japanese journalist asked.
"They can't answer your questions now. They need to report for training and we have traffic problems lying ahead." Noriko replied to the journalists while Kakeru and Nana got inside the car.
And then the journalists pushed further by pressing for a few questions to Noriko. "How did you meet Aizawa-san and Mishima-san?" a journalist asked.
"Are you the person hired to be their guide and interpreter?" another journalist asked.
"What's your relationship with Aizawa-san?" the female journalist asked.
Noriko felt the need to punch someone, but restrained herself from doing anything stupid. Finally a few seconds later, a pair of GMP vehicles arrived and police constables (PCs) wearing their yellow high-visibility jackets stepped out of the vehicles, surprising the journalists and photographers.
"For the cops, I'm the one who made the call. So blame me for that if any." Noriko replied as she got on the driver's seat.
"That's enough, fellas. I'm PC Dawson and you're on orders to let them go already!" a constable ordered the journalists.
"But we need something for our readers, Constable Dawson. We can't work if our requests for interviews keep getting denied like this." a Japanese journalist complained in English.
"We came all the way from Japan to meet them. Is this a joke?" the female journalist added.
"Obviously, you don't know how things work around here. You keep everything for tomorrow's game at the stadium following the club's regulations. Otherwise, I'm authorized to do anything to prevent any further breach of the peace if you stay here or come back later. Everyone, move aside NOW!" PC Dawson ordered again as several of his colleagues made their way to Noriko's vehicle and allowed it to leave the area quickly, much to the dismay of the Japanese media left behind with the constables.
"Bloody hell! Welcome to Manchester, idiots!" Noriko cursed out loud while she was driving.
9:45 AM BST
On that day, it was scheduled that the training session would consist mainly of lower intensity football work focusing on tactical preparation for around 50 minutes in total. After the 15-minute warm-up, the first drill Kakeru and Nana took part was the “combination drill” alongside Tom, Ryan and Antonio while Danish backup goalkeeper Anders was defending the goal.
In the first attempt, Tom kicked things off from his deep-lying position in midfield as he passed on the right wing to Antonio, who then made a quick low cross into Kakeru’s path. However, Kakeru’s shot went wide to the goal.
"Damn!" Kakeru cursed.
"Don’t worry. You’ll get the next one." Ryan said.
On the next attempt, Tom passed to Ryan on the left, who then passed to Nana making a slight run to her right before she passed the ball towards Kakeru. However, Kakeru scuffed the shot and the ball went slowly into Anders’ hands.
As the drill continued, other attacking patterns were tried. Nana, Antonio and Ryan scored their share of goals on their own attempts on goal. In the end, Kakeru’s conversion rate into goals only reached 40% when that same rate was over 85% in previous training sessions. Watching the exercise alongside the fitness coach, Sir Alex noticed that something was going wrong with Kakeru.
"I really don’t know what’s going on, Boss. Kakeru was top form on Wednesday and Thursday, but he’s not looking good today." the fitness coach said.
"I don’t think it’s his body, Tony. It’s between the ears." Sir Alex replied.
Then Kakeru went on to practice free kick setups alongside Nana, Robin, and Wayne. Meanwhile, the others were practicing positioning on corners. However, things got worse for Kakeru as his free kicks didn’t find the bend he needed to curl the ball around the dummies or to put it into the back of the net. Whether Kakeru was acting as the main kick taker or as the layoff man, his shots missed the target. And in the final part of the exercise, all 4 players tried a new free kick setup involving 3 players in position to shoot an indirect free kick position and a player standing at 30 yards in front of the goal. Kakeru was the designated man to make the pass to the shooter in the middle after Nana and Robin made dummy runs. On the first attempt, Kakeru’s pass was a little slow before it reached Wayne, who took a shot that went a little wide.
"Try passing a little harder next time." Wayne told Kakeru.
However, Kakeru’s passing did not improve at all as it got sloppier. Hence, he was relegated to act as one of the dummy runners for the rest of the exercise while Robin, Wayne and Nana took their turns as passers. Finally the end of the training session was whistled by the coaches. It was around 10:25 AM.
As the players went back inside the complex, everyone raised questions about Kakeru’s performance in training. Robin, Shinji, Ryan, Rio and Nemanja, the captain, were mostly worried about him as they knew the Boss asked Kakeru for a private talk on the training ground. Indeed, Kakeru and Sir Alex met up on the sidelines.
"I really don’t know what happened today, Boss. I was so sloppy." Kakeru began.
"To tell you the truth... I have an idea about what happened: pressure." Sir Alex replied.
"It is an unavoidable process for any young professional player. I have seen it countless times before; you’re not the first." Sir Alex added.
"Why am I feeling this today, Boss? I never felt something like this before." Kakeru asked.
"Perhaps it’s because you put high expectations on yourself since I added your name in the squad. As a result, it crushed the balance between mind and body. Am I right?" Sir Alex asked in return, but Kakeru didn’t reply.
"Only you know the answer. Nevertheless, you are still in the 18-man squad for tomorrow and that’s because you worked so hard to be here. A bad day at the office happens sometimes." Sir Alex added.
"Boss, I... I must admit that I really wanted to be in the starting XI. That’s why I pushed myself so hard trying to get ahead of a few regulars. I guess I really screwed everything up, didn’t I?" Kakeru asked.
"I still have faith in you, Kakeru. It’s just that you are still very young and need to learn a lot before you can think of starting in such a big match." Sir Alex replied.
"What should I do now?" Kakeru asked.
"I think it would better if you take the remainder of the day off after the team talk about tomorrow's tactics. I know you want to play tomorrow, but I might not be able to give you that opportunity if you don’t relax first. Sometimes, it’s better to call timeout." Sir Alex said.
"I’ll try, Boss." Kakeru replied.
"And try to have a good night of sleep too. That is all." Sir Alex added before he left.
After the discussion was finished, Nana also finished her extra practice on free kicks under Paul’s watch. She then went to Kakeru, who was still dejected at his poor performance in training.
"Are you OK, Kakeru?" Nana asked.
"I’m fine." Kakeru lied, but Nana wasn’t fooled.
Following the tactical team talk, Kakeru and Nana left for their respective dressing rooms to get changed. Immediately as Nana got to the ladies’ dressing room, she took her smartphone and sent a text message to the only one person whose own experience might help Kakeru getting over his bad day quickly at the time.