Chapter 9: Match Day, An Old Enemy
Sunday May 19, 201X
10:25 AM BST
After a very good night of sleep, Kakeru and Nana felt perfectly well rested for the big day. Following breakfast at around 7:30 AM and a little jogging in the neighborhood a little later, the 2 Japanese rookies were all set to join the rest of the team for a team lunch in Salford. Meanwhile, Noriko was also getting dressed before leaving the apartment for the next few hours as well.
For a day like this, the young British-Japanese woman also had a share of rituals as a fan. For example, after putting her blue jeans on, she would put her lucky socks that are kept aside in the drawer only for the day of a big match. Furthermore, she would always put her right sock on before her left sock. Then she would put on her red United shirt, which bears number 11 and the name "GIGGS" in the back, followed by her black leather jacket on top of her shirt. Finally, Noriko would finish by putting on her team’s retro scarf, which bears a red background with small black bars on top of slightly wider white bars on top of the red background.
"Socks… checked. Red Giggs shirt… checked. Jacket… checked. Scarf… checked. Ticket… checked." Noriko said out loud to herself before she put on her white and purple Mizuno running shoes, right foot first before the left.
"Ready to go, Noriko-chan?" Kakeru asked.
On this occasion, Noriko was driving her friends as she did often. For the day, she put on some music to avoid any radio distractions. "Welcome to Noriko's music show, I'm Noriko Lewis. Today's musical selection for this match day is titled Written in the Stars, by Tinie Tempah and Eric Turner." Noriko said while imitating a music radio host.
Nana laughed at Noriko’s impersonation. "Nice one, Noriko-chan."
Oh, written in the stars…
"You should be the one in charge of the musical playlist in the dressing room." Kakeru said.
"I'd gladly accept that extra task when I’ll write the details of my first contract as United's team doctor." Noriko replied.
Seasons come and go
But I will never change
And I’m on my way
"As the song says, it's written in the stars that you'll play no matter what." Noriko finished.
Oh, written in the stars
A million miles away
A message to the main, oh
Seasons come and go
But I will never change
And I’m on my way
In just 15 minutes, Noriko's car arrived in front of the 5-star Lowry Hotel where all Manchester United players usually meet together hours before a big home game. Already dressed with the team's red training jackets and black training pants on, and carrying their equipment bags, Kakeru and Nana walked into the lobby where Sir Alex and the captain Nemanja Vidic were already present to greet all arriving players.
"Good morning, Boss." Kakeru and Nana said.
"Good morning, young ones. So how are you feeling today?" Sir Alex asked.
"A lot better, thank you. I did what you asked yesterday and I feel more relaxed now." Kakeru replied.
'You really are ready for this indeed, Kakeru. In less than a day, you found a way to take that pressure off your shoulders. You will play at some point for sure.' Sir Alex thought.
"Great to see you're doing well, Kakeru." Nemanja said as he greeted Kakeru and Nana with high five handshakes.
Once Kakeru and Nana got to the floor where all Manchester United players had their assigned rooms, Robin, Shinji and Rio were the first players to greet Kakeru and Nana on the floor.
"Hey! You both look quite ready for today." Shinji said.
"Thanks, Kagawa-senpai." Nana replied.
"No matter what will happen today, I will enjoy every minute of the time I'll have today as a part of the squad." Kakeru added.
"Good to see you back with a smile, Kakeru." Robin said.
"Since this is the day when you could become a man, professionally I mean, we have a present for you." Robin said.
In a matter of 2 seconds, Rio snuck behind Kakeru and put a towel full of shaving cream in Kakeru's face. Surprised at first, Kakeru quickly understood the joke and then laughed with everyone around.
"Nice one, guys." Kakeru said. "You owned me big time, Rio, as expected from the biggest joker of the team."
"That was Nana's idea." Rio said.
Kakeru then turned towards Nana, who then tried to show an innocent look in her eyes. "Hey, it's not me. Rio only told me about what pranks he makes." Nana said.
In a swift motion, Kakeru got the towel with the shaving cream in Nana's face. Caught off guard by Kakeru's reaction, Nana then playfully pushed Kakeru, who also returned the friendly pushing. Needless to say, everyone knew Kakeru's mindset was excellent before the match ahead. All doubts following the practice session from the day before were erased.
11:05 AM BST
Before going for lunch with the rest of the team as scheduled for 11:30 AM, Kakeru and Nana went to their assigned hotel room to relax a little bit. Kakeru was listening to some soft music with his iPod when he remembered what Sir Alex said after practice on the day before regarding someone that the young Japanese knew very well from his high school days. That old enemy, once a player of Tokyo Shuukyu Academy High, was now playing for Manchester City.
Flashback – Tactical team talk in Carrington's video room, Saturday
"Last but not least, there's also someone you should know more about: Ricardo Vernardi. He's a ****ing tough customer in any position he plays in the back 4. He changed the game by himself when he came on against Norwich 10 days ago and he is not to be blamed in City's defeat in the FA Cup final on last Saturday. Chances are that he may play as a left-back and also act as a threat on corners. Make sure you have an eye on him and always move your feet when you challenge him. Nonetheless, he's only 19, he made mistakes when he arrived in January, and that means you have to exploit the potential gap there because of his overall limited experience. The less time you give him to react, the more mistakes he will make and our chances to win tomorrow will be good." Sir Alex said.
Meanwhile, the players were listening carefully to the Boss' final instructions.
"Any questions? You're happy with that?" Sir Alex asked before the players' silence meant there was nothing left to say furthermore. "All right, let's go."
While the players were leaving, Kakeru and Nana were discussing about Vernardi.
"I really hated playing against him when I was in high school." Kakeru said.
"I know. He said that he's in to write history with City when he signed for them instead of United in January. In fact, he joined them for more money and Noriko-chan is still furious when thinking about him. Vernardi was injured for quite some time since March, but he came back strong in their last League game and in the FA Cup final too." Nana said.
"Just my luck." Kakeru said dejectedly as this news added to his bad day at the time.
At that same time, Shinji overheard the conversation.
Kakeru heard someone knocking at the door of the room. Then he went to open it and Nemanja was waiting at the doorstep. "Captain?" Kakeru asked.
"Shinji spoke to me earlier. He told me that you once played against City's newbie before. My fellow defenders and I would like to know what to expect from him. Can you tell me more about him? What is his style?" Nemanja asked.
"He is a good tackler, he makes good first passes, and he uses his body well to shield the ball. He also tends to play on the edge." Kakeru replied.
"Furthermore, Vernardi has good sense of anticipation and also knows how to time his runs forward. Yet, he's beatable on quick and accurate passes." Nana added.
"However, I can't tell you exactly how much he may have improved since he left Japan to become a professional." Kakeru said.
"On what occasion did you play against him, Kakeru?" Nemanja asked further.
"It was during my high school years. He was part of a special football academy in Tokyo where young talents like him, Leonardo Silva and Patrick Jenpa were the backbone of that team. I also faced him at international level for the U-21s, but my most memorable game against him happened over 2 years ago." Kakeru replied.
"What happened in that game?"
Then Kakeru told Nemanja what happened in the match which led Kakeru to his first taste of glory following the rebirth of his playing career. In the end, Nemanja was satisfied to some extent as the club's Serbian captain got the answers he wanted and hoped his partners in the back 4 would apply Kakeru's tips during the match.
Much later at around 12:50 PM, the team received the word to gather in the lobby and then to get on the bus for the drive towards Old Trafford although the game was scheduled for 3:00 PM. The bus would be escorted by police bikes for a 9-minute ride to the stadium, where some fans and TV cameramen were already there to watch the team arriving.
'Finally, the day has come.' Kakeru thought.
1:17 PM BST
After Noriko dropped Kakeru and Nana a few hours earlier, she joined her parents in touring Manchester with the Aizawas, Mrs. Mishima, Mai and her cousin Taeko for over 2 hours. After they finished the quick tour and ate lunch, everyone went to the Sam Platt's pub as Robert recommended. When the group arrived at the pub, there were already many people standing outside, mostly under a tent, drinking and loudly singing songs to get pumped up before the match. The pre-game party had been going on since noon.
"Wow! They are really at it early on." Mai said.
"And it sounds like the songs are mocking the opposition a lot." Mito added.
"I know. That is a typical English atmosphere before a match. But as Tae-itoko will tell you, the fan support in the J-League is quite intense in some places too." Noriko replied.
"I've seen some intense stuff in places like Saitama and Osaka indeed." Taeko added.
"It's mostly banter, but it's also a good way to let what's bad out of your system." Robert said.
Listening to the song that the fans were singing about her favorite player, Noriko jumped on the occasion to add her voice in the mix: "Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, running down the wing. Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, running down the wing. Feared by the Blues, loved the Reds. Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs."
"You sing it like a pro." Mai said.
"Thanks, Mai-chan. I can call you Mai-chan, right?" Noriko asked.
"Fine by me, Noriko-chan. Can I add my voice in too?"
"Can I too?" Mito asked as well.
"Who said you couldn't? The more the merrier." Noriko said.
Quickly, Mai, Mito and Taeko joined voices with Noriko in the next song to be sung by the several dozens of fans around: "...but what we like most is kicking a blue, kicking a blue, kicking a blue. What we like most is kicking a blue."
Meanwhile, the parents were looking at the young half of the group having fun. "Looks like the young ones are quickly enjoying this experience." Mrs. Aizawa said.
"I know, Honey. Unlike us, they grew up in a soccer culture and it's only natural they would find this fitting to them." M. Aizawa said.
"They are still young too. It's good to see them full of energy, especially when it comes to embracing the club's culture and hating City." Sayuri said.
"You also embraced the same culture quite well too." Mrs. Mishima said as she looked at Sayuri wearing an old United shirt and a scarf of her own.
"I did although I'm not as expressive as I used to be over 20 years ago. I never regretted becoming a true supporter of this club since Sir Alex won so many trophies after I started cheering for them." Sayuri replied with a wink.
1:57 PM BST
When there was only one hour left before kickoff, a vast majority of fans were already on the move towards Old Trafford. Noriko, Taeko and Mai didn’t stop singing for the last 40 minutes as they, the Aizawas, Mrs. Mishima and Noriko's parents walked their way to the stadium by following the group of fans. At that point in time, they arrived within sight of the stadium's East Stand.
"What is the entrance that's nearest to our seats?" M. Aizawa added.
"We have to go under the South Stand, in the 'Munich Tunnel' first. Then we show our tickets to the ushers at one of the entrances there." Robert said.
In order to prevent any trouble, several police constables were patrolling the area around the stadium and all fans were obliged to drop their beer cans, bottles and plastic cups in the garbage bins. When the group arrived outside in the Southeast corner around 2:04 PM, several police constables on foot and on horses were positioned to divert the flow of Manchester United fans into the Munich Tunnel as it was also near the entrance area for opposition fans. As City fans were waiting in line to enter the away section reserved for them, they were the target of anti-Manchester City chants and insults from the fans in red.
As people slowly walked towards the entrance of the Munich Tunnel, a pair of City male fans started taunting the group of Japanese spectators from their side of the police's human barricade.
"How does it feel to come here watching City lift the trophy, you glory-hunters?" a City fan shouted.
"You should go back to bloody Asia; we don't want ****ing rats like you here!" another City fan shouted while he and his friend were ordered by the constables to move out.
While the parents and Mai gave a cold glare at the source of the taunts, an angry Mito gave the City fans the akanbe gesture before Noriko added her response in the form of the doubled loose fist wanker sign after she pointed at them.
"I cheer for my only home team and real winners at the same time, you racist inbreeding wankers!" Noriko shouted back.
Being a tough girl of her own, Taeko also showed the rude British two-fingered salute with the palm facing inward as her reply to the City fans. "**** off, City! **** off to hell!"
Within 2 seconds, several nearby United supporters gave their bigger share of gestures towards the City fans. The United supporters, including Noriko, also chanted even louder: "U-N-I-T-E-D, UNITED ARE THE TEAM FOR ME WITH A KNICK-KNACK PADDY WHACK. GIVE THE DOG A BONE. WHY DON'T CITY **** OFF HOME!?"
"That was wild, Noriko-chan." Mai said.
"Just warming up; I keep my best for the City players." Noriko replied.
"Especially for that Vernardi guy, am I right?" Mito asked.
"You got that right. I cannot stand him after he snubbed United in January." Noriko replied.
Soon enough, the group went inside of the Munich Tunnel and reached the entrance to the South Stand of the stadium. Finally, they arrived just in time to see both teams warming up on the pitch.
After the players arrived at the stadium at around 1:00 PM, they did different things to stay as relaxed as possible and take their mind off the game during the penultimate hour before kickoff. From their own admission, professional players say that the hour before the final hour is the worst because they would sit around and bored while wanting the game to start. In Kakeru and Nana's case, they spent their time mainly playing a video game with a few teammates in a separate room adjacent to the dressing room.
Around 1:15 PM, Sir Alex took 20 minutes to inform the players in the 18-man squad about their status for the beginning of the match and to give his instructions. Kakeru and Nana were told by Sir Alex that they both were to start on the bench, but were also asked to be ready to come on at any moment.
As the players arrived on the field for the warm-up at 2:15 PM, the substitutes could be identified by their black training pants while the starters were already wearing their white shorts. Obviously, Nana unwillingly was the center of attention of all fans filming and taking pictures of the warm-up as very few people thought they would see a female player being part of a men's team. However, Nana remained unfazed in front of the thousands of pairs of eyes looking at her.
A short time after Kakeru and his teammates arrived first on the field, the Manchester City players arrived for their own warm-up. On the first opportunity, Ricardo "Ricky" Vernardi's gaze met Kakeru's with a very cold glare from the Argentine.
"What's up with Vernardi?" Nana asked.
"He really wants to settle a score against me, that's for sure." Kakeru replied.
"He couldn't let it go after all this time, could he?" Nana asked
"Since Leonardo Silva is no longer around him, it's as if a beast was unleashed and his hatred against me has grown a lot since." Kakeru said.
Meanwhile, the City players didn't understand what Ricky was thinking by giving the glare at someone who appeared to be a nobody for them.
"Why are you looking at the new Japanese player?" Manchester City's captain Vincent asked.
"It's not something you would understand." Ricky replied.
"Still holding some kind of grudge or what? Oh well… Meanwhile, I wonder if their Japanese girl is as good as the old geezer on the other side thinks she is. They must be very desperate to bring a girl in their squad." City's midfielder Gareth said.
"I would not underestimate anyone on their team, Gareth. Remember that we have business to do here. Ricky, I will not tolerate anything that would compromise our chances of winning." Vincent reprimanded.
"You don't need to tell me twice." Ricky replied before he walked away.
"What the hell is wrong with him?" Gareth asked.
"I heard from Pablo that he got owned badly by 2 Japanese brothers whenever he played against either one of them in the last 5 years at school and at international level. We better keep an eye on Ricky just in case he goes out of line." Vincent replied.
10:33 PM (2:33 PM BST)
While Manchester was buzzing with only 27 minutes left before kickoff, several sports bars in Japan were also getting crowded ahead of the Manchester derby with the possibility that 3 Japanese internationals may feature in the game. In a British pub of Yokohama, named The Tavern, several members of the Enoshima High alumni as well as some of Kakeru's closest friends came to watch the game on the giant screen. Wearing red scarves like some of the Enoshima High alumni, Coach Teppei Iwaki and Dr. Ayaka Mine entered the pub.
"Hey! Over here, Iwaki-sensei, Mine-sensei." Araki shouted from one of the tables where all former students were already sitting at.
"Thanks for keeping our seats, guys. It's already quite crowded." Coach Iwaki said as he noticed a few British expatriates blending in with the locals.
"Good thing that you reserved the tables in advance, Araki-san, Iwaki-sensei." Yusuke said.
"I know. This place is very popular for watching Premier League games." Coach Iwaki replied.
Meanwhile, Ayaka spotted one of the few girls among the alumni; it was Momoko Fukushima, a former member of the broadcasting club. "Fukushima-chan, isn't it?"
"Yes indeed, Mine-sensei." Momoko replied.
"I'm glad to see girls among us for the occasion." Ayaka said.
"I used to be a commentator for Enoshima High's games and my best memories in my time at the broadcasting club were with Aizawa-kun, so I wasn't going to miss this." Momoko replied.
"In fact, we're working hard to become soccer commentators in the future and we said to ourselves that listening to the commentary in English might give us a few tricks. I heard from good sources that Martin Tyler will provide the commentary for the English feed here."” Ichirou Yamanashi, Momoko's former partner in the broadcasting club, said.
"Who is Martin Tyler?" Ayaka asked.
"He's a legend among soccer commentators. He made his debut in 1974 and quickly became a very recognizable voice in soccer commentary. Since the Premier League's inception over 20 years ago, he has been the best among English broadcasters." Ichirou replied.
"We both are big fans of Martin Tyler, Mine-sensei. We hope to have successful soccer commentating careers just like him someday." Momoko added.
"Yeah, whatever... Do you have it?" Ayaka turned towards Ryoma Oda.
"I have it right here." Ryoma said.
"Have what?" Coach Iwaki asked.
"When Kakeru arrived in England, he went to buy you something straight from Manchester and sent the package to us around a month ago. He also asked us to only give you this on the day he would potentially make his senior professional debut." Ryoma said as he gave the wrapped package to his former coach.
As Coach Iwaki opened up the package, he saw the contents inside: it was the official Manchester United red shirt with number 10 and the name 'IWAKI' in the back. Obviously happy, he didn't know what to say at the moment.
"We all know that your lucky number has always been number 10, but Mine-sensei was the one suggesting Kakeru to buy the shirt and she also told him about the right size for your shirt." Araki said.
"You did?" Coach Iwaki asked Ayaka.
Ayaka was blushing before she gave her reply: "Well... You always had that little extra something to make me fall for the man instead of just the talented soccer player even though I didn't want to admit it to myself for a long time after you left a playing career to become a teacher. You believed in Kakeru-kun's own potential from the very beginning... Only someone with the heart of a player could have done this. Since your guidance led him to where he is now, you truly deserve to wear this shirt, Teppei-kun."
"Thank you a lot, Ayaka." Coach Iwaki replied before he gave Ayaka a kiss.
As Coach Iwaki put on the red shirt, all of Kakeru's friends and former teammates gave a good round of applause to the man who believed the most in Kakeru's own potential as a striker 3 years ago.
"Well, how do I look?" Coach Iwaki asked everyone.
"Like a boss." Araki said.
"Very good-looking, as expected from my man." Ayaka finished.
"It looks like we are still missing someone." Coach Iwaki said.
"We are only waiting for Nana-chan's father to arrive now." Kaoru replied.
"I see him at the entrance." Kouta said.
Quickly, Araki, Coach Iwaki and Ayaka waved their hands to make their presence known to M. Mishima, who spotted them before he made his way towards the tables.
"Thank you for sending me the invitation." M. Mishima said.
"When Araki-kun told us via Kakeru-kun that you didn't make the trip, we immediately organized everything to make sure you'd watch the game with us, Mishima-san." Coach Iwaki replied.
"I hope my daughter will play today." M. Mishima said.
"For some reason, I have a feeling this is the day. If she scores a goal or an assist, I'll buy you a beer." Coach Iwaki finished.
2:45 PM BST
After the warm-up, everyone went back to the dressing room. The starting XI players put their match shirts on and their shinpads on. With only 15 minutes before kickoff, Sir Alex arrived in the dressing room for a final team talk.
"Guys... Here we are, minutes away from the biggest game of your lives. There are only 2 kinds of players: winners and the rest. You were chosen to be part of this team because you are winners, because you have done it before and have what it takes to become winners again today. Drive, ambition, skills... you have them all. Don't ever forget it right here and right here." Sir Alex said as he pointed to his head and to his chest when he said the last phrase.
"I know that many bad tongues have said that our problem is the 2-goal margin. However, City also have a ****ing problem: they think we are finished because of that. A 2-goal lead, you can get that in just one minute and you have at least 90 minutes to do it. So the only ****ing way to make them pay for that mistake is to stick it to them, to get right in their faces, push them back, outdo what they can do, outrun them, outshoot them, outscore them until they're sick of it." Sir Alex added before he paused for a few seconds.
Meanwhile, all players listened carefully to the Boss without uttering a single word. Even though Kakeru was not starting, he knew very well that the Boss' speech was one he’d remember for the rest of his life.
"Some of you have been with the club for the last 15-20 years. Some of you have signed to this club 3, 5 or even 10 years ago. Some of you are only in your first year with the club. We have everything: youngsters, veterans, men, and a woman. Still, when you wear this shirt, everyone has an equal chance to make a difference. Remember what you trained for. Remember how you depend on each other with your hearts on the line because this is what makes us better than they will ever be. You are meant to be here today because you grew up winning as a team. I'm ****ing sick and tired of hearing about how City built a great team with their money. To hell with them! This club has gone through tough times in the past, we have been written out several times, but we never gave in and we always come back on top as a team. You live for days like today. This is your opportunity to show everyone that we still are the best team in the country! So come and take it!" Sir Alex finished.
"C'MON LADS!" Nemanja, Rio and United's vice-captain Patrice Evra fired up the players as they all got up and walked towards the exit door with the starters leading the march. Sir Alex stood at the door giving a pat on the back to each of his players as they came out.
As the players from both teams went into the tunnel waiting the signal to come onto the pitch, fans and broadcasters alike were also getting ready for what would be a new chapter in one of the most heated football rivalries there are. As Ichirou and Momoko expected, the voice of the legendary English commentator was resonating all around the world.
Martin Tyler: It all comes down to this: the last game of the season between both Manchester rivals. The next 90 minutes will decide the title’s fate. Will it be City going for a second League title in 2 seasons? Or will United make a spectacular turnaround on the last day of a thrilling season? If so, the objective for the team in red is clear: they have to win by 2 goals or more in order to win the championship.