Chapter 3: Life of a Professional
The multi-million pound hi-tech Trafford Training Centre, often referred to simply as Carrington, is the training ground and Academy base of Manchester United Football Club. The complex is built outside the village of Carrington. Inside the compound, training and rehabilitation areas, physiotherapy and massage rooms, and remedial and hydrotherapy pools can be found. Also, squash and basketball courts, a sauna, steam and weight rooms, a restaurant, conference rooms, offices, classrooms and the club's television studio have been built as other parts of the complex.
At times, the complex has been dubbed as "Fortress Carrington" by the media due to a total of 2.4km (1.5 miles) of fencing and 30,000 trees surrounding it, and serving as protection against the prying eyes of the media and opposition spies. Like your typical military installation, you wouldn't know it was there as no road sign points towards the complex. In order to get past the remotely controlled security barrier, located a quarter of a mile from the main complex, names are checked by intercom against the day's personnel and visitor list. Warning notices bar even family, friends and agents from the training area when the players are within the complex's limits.
Wednesday May 15, 201X
9:20 AM BST
As it became a routine for almost a month and a half, Noriko drove down the road leading to the main building to drop both Kakeru and Nana there before having to drive out ASAP, in accordance to the rules of restricted access to non-authorized visitors. Nonetheless, Noriko wasn't too intimidated as she aspired to become one of the 200 people working within the walls of Carrington someday. However, Kakeru's impression of the complex was very different.
"Hard to believe that Seven and I have been here so often before. This place still looks intimidating to me." Kakeru lied as it was in fact the first time he saw the complex.
"I know; I sometimes have shivers when I come here to drop both of you at the front door. But someday, I'll become the first team's doctor and this will be my workplace." Noriko replied.
"You're very optimistic, Noriko-chan. You're sure it's not too high of a bar to reach?" Kakeru asked.
"Not at all. Eva Carneiro is currently Chelsea's first team doctor. Besides, United will need a female specialist in sports medicine when Nana will play at senior level."
"You're in good spirits as always. We'll make sure to make a great first impression today with the first team." Nana said.
"I know you will. You belong in that league." Noriko finished.
Finally, Noriko's car arrived just in front of the Training Centre's main building. Kakeru and Nana got off the car with their training equipment, and both waved Noriko goodbye before the latter drove her way towards the exit for the day. As the 2 Japanese rookies walked their way into the main building, they were greeted by Dutch striker Robin van Persie and Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who both arrived just a little earlier.
"Kakeru! Nana-chan! Ohayou!" Shinji greeted first.
"Ohayou, Kagawa-senpai!" Nana saluted back.
"Hello!" Kakeru said for both Robin and Shinji in English.
"I got the text message this morning saying that both of you are in the main squad now. You're nervous?" Robin asked.
"To be honest, I feel a little nervous." Kakeru replied.
"It happens to everyone when you join the first team in training for a first time. Don't worry about it. Just see it as a normal training day doing what you know best."
"Thanks for the advice, Robin." Kakeru said.
"Anytime, kid." Robin then left for the changing room first.
"I can't wait to see the Little Witch in action today. Just as Robin said, just keep it simple." Shinji said this time in Japanese.
"I know. We are surrounded by the best people we could ask to make us feel comfortable, Kagawa-senpai." Nana replied.
"Thanks for the compliment although I'm also still a first-year here. See you in the fitness room, you two."
"Later!" Kakeru finished as he and Nana left towards their respective dressing rooms.
In the Training Centre, there was of course a separate dressing room with showers for female personnel; it was the place where Nana was getting changed on every day of training while Kakeru was in the team's dressing room. After Kakeru got his full training kit on, he went into the fitness room where the stationary training bikes were. He was in awe after he saw some of the state-of-the-art facilities on his way in. Before he got onto a bike, Kakeru looked around at the other players.
'Giggs, Ferdinand, Vidic, Rooney, they are really here. It's almost unreal.' Kakeru thought.
"Hey, Kakeru. Are you warming up on that bike or not?" Nana asked.
"Yeah, of course."
Kakeru and Nana then spent the next 15 minutes warming up on the stationary bikes to get the blood pumping through their legs as the required step before going on the training pitch. Once the bike warm-up was done, Kakeru and Nana joined the rest of the team outside for the second part of the warm-up at 10:00 AM. Needless to say, Nana's presence already made heads turn since the first day she set foot in Carrington; the curiosity level just got a few notches higher as she was now training with the first team.
The warm-up session on the training pitch lasted 15 minutes and consisted of the following in that order: 1) a little jog, 2) several multidirectional stretching exercises (including squats, forward lunges, lots of dynamic movement with the legs, etc.), 3) exercises testing the quickness of feet with runs into narrow areas in short bursts of 5-10 seconds, 4) forward runs combining jumps over very small hurdles and body shifting towards the left or right, and finally 5) sideway runs with stepping over the same hurdles. Following the warm-up, first team coach René Meulensteen got all field players to the next drill: the 30-minute possession play drill, also commonly known as "boxes" or "keep away".
"OK, people. I want Giggsy, Wazza, Robin, Michael, Rio, Vida, Patrice and Antonio in the first group on one side of the field. On the other side: Rafa, Jonny, Danny, Tom, Shinji, Kakeru, Nana, Jonesy and Alex. You know the drill." René said.
The squad was split into a junior and a senior group, and then 2 members of each group were enclosed by the rest in a small area of roughly 10 yards wide on each side. For this time, Kakeru and Nana wre put into the junior group where the younger half (Rafael, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck, Tom Cleverley, Shinji Kagawa, Phil Jones and Alexander Büttner) of all available field players made the group. For the first round, Kakeru and Nana started out playing defense with the task of chasing and intercepting passes while the others' task was to keep moving the ball quickly with one-touch passes.
"Ready?" Tom asked before the drill started.
"Bring it on, guys!" Nana replied.
"She's quite confident for a first-timer." Tom said to Shinji, standing at his side.
"You have no idea." Shinji replied.
Then the drill began with Shinji making the first pass to Tom, who then passed the ball to another teammate in one touch of the ball. The players on the sides of the box passed the ball around well for around 20 seconds before Kakeru intercepted a pass from Jonny. Following the rules, the player who made the bad pass switched places with the player who intercepted the ball in the middle; thus Kakeru joined the passers while Jonny went into the middle alongside Nana.
"Nice catch, newbie." Tom congratulated Kakeru.
The passing went on again for a little while, but Nana managed to intercept a pass from Phil. Once Nana switched places with Phil, the drill continued with players passing the ball over and over again. Players sometimes switched positions from passer to defender and vice-versa, but Kakeru and Nana managed to succeed all of their one-touch passes and nutmegs for the rest of the first 10-minute slice of the drill. Among the people watching the drill while players were enjoying themselves, inured veteran midfielder and part-time coach Paul Scholes looked alongside Sir Alex Ferguson at Kakeru and Nana's performances in the drill.
"So what do you think of those two, Coach?" Paul asked René.
"They are very good, Scholesy. That little protégée of yours has shown quite the skill and the attitude shining in her first "boxes" drill with the first team."
"I would like to see them perform with the senior group for the next 10-minute slice." Sir Alex said.
"I was thinking the same thing too; I'll make the switch." René replied before blowing the whistle signaling the 60-second break between 10-minute slices and announcing the changes. "Kakeru and Nana, I want both of you joining the senior group. Antonio and Patrice, you switch to the junior group and show them how to do it."
As the switch was made, Kakeru's eyes widened when he saw the group of players he was about to join. The team's best passers and defenders were there; all were players who caught Kakeru's attention whenever he saw them play on TV. The switch also meant that more intensity and quicker passes were expected in the drill from both Japanese newcomers. At the same time, it was a reward for Kakeru and Nana's excellent passing play in the junior group.
"Welcome to the senior group, Kakeru, Nana." Ryan Giggs, also known as the Welsh Wizard, said.
"Thank you... Giggsy." Kakeru replied as he shook hands with Ryan, who then did the same with Nana.
"Ready for a faster kind of game, you two?" Wayne Rooney, the one nicknamed "Wazza", asked.
"Let's find it out." Kakeru finished.
Then the next 10-minute slice of the drill kicked in. As expected, the passes were quicker, more nutmeg passes were successful, and the challenges put by the defending players were a lot more energetic than they were in the junior group. However, Kakeru and Nana proved themselves to be not very intimidated by the long strings of 25-30 passes in succession each. Both Japanese newcomers were having fun like never before.
Finally, the last 10-minute part of the drill was a situation of 9 passers surrounding 8 defenders in a larger space on the field, but with the same rules of quick passing and ball chase being applied. At the very end of the drill, all field players were already enjoying themselves as the day just started off on a very good vibe.
After the "boxes" drill, Kakeru and Nana took part in a 16-minute drill which consisted of combination plays. Those were the various set-up plays between midfielders and strikers in the attacking zone while defenders took part in a different drill. Normally, the traditional set-up of the training dummies marking starting positions would include 4 midfielders and 2 strikers as in a 4-4-2 formation. However this time, the dummy set-up had been changed to include one deep-lying midfielder, 2 inverted wingers, a playmaker in the middle and a lone striker. This set-up using inverted wingers, one playmaker and a lone striker is analog to the more flexible 4-2-3-1 formation. The point of the exercise was to practice use of quick feet, link play between midfielders and forwards, and having shots on goal against one of the goalkeepers.
For this exercise, midfielders and forwards were split into 2 groups. Kakeru and Nana joined Robin, Tom and Ryan in the set-up in which Tom stood deep in midfield, Kakeru started on the right for this time, Ryan was on the left, Nana was the playmaker and Robin was the lone striker. Before the drill started, Paul, the supervisor of the exercise with the group, walked towards Nana for a little talk.
"Nana, try using what I taught you if taking the shot. Can you do it?" Paul said.
"I will!" Nana replied, and then Paul gave a little tap on her shoulder for encouragement before pulling himself away to some distance.
As Paul blew his whistle, Tom made the first pass to Ryan on the left wing. Then Ryan made a quick pass to Nana, who then tapped the ball forward into Robin's path, and the Dutch striker finished off with a finesse shot past the goalkeeper. The attempt took only a few seconds.
"Nice pass, Nana." Robin said.
"Thanks. Great finish too."
On the second attempt, Tom made the first pass to Kakeru, who then made a quick pass to Robin before passing back to Kakeru running forward for a give-and-go. Meanwhile, Nana shifted to the right to cover Kakeru's right wing spot and Robin moved back to cover Nana's. In a swift motion, Kakeru shot the ball across the goalkeeper and into the top corner of the net.
"That's it! Brilliant, Kakeru!" Paul congratulated.
Before the third attempt began, Kakeru switched to the lone striker's position while Robin moved to the right winger's starting position. Once everyone was ready, Tom made the pass to Ryan, who then passed the ball to Kakeru, followed by a little tap-in of the ball into Nana's run. Once in position, Nana shifted her body to her left and unleashed a powerful shot from the outside of her right foot which made the ball bend with a strong curve on its way to the top corner on the goalkeeper's left. Furthermore, the goalkeeper was left flat-footed on that last play.
"Yes!" Nana exclaimed in satisfaction.
Meanwhile, the other players of the group except for Kakeru remained speechless for a few seconds realizing what they just saw there. On the other hand, Paul was already smiling at what the young woman just did.
"That was Scholesy's special. When did you learn to do that?" Tom asked.
"Scholesy taught me the basics a month ago and I kept practicing since." Nana said.
'So that's why I thought something was similar in that technique. It was a typical Paul Scholes-like shot, just like that one against Barcelona in 2008.' Kakeru thought.
And then the drill continued for over a dozen more minutes. Although he allowed 3 goals on the first 3 shots, David de Gea picked himself up as he made a number of good saves on a number of attempts, including a few from Kakeru and Nana. Nonetheless, the chemistry was building up nicely between the 2 Japanese newcomers and their teammates.
After the combination drill, the next drill consisted of an 11-a-side match for 24 minutes. To fill the 3 spots left empty by injured first team players, the coaching staff asked 3 players from the Reserves team to join in for the simulated game. For those in their first team who took part of the other training drills, it was the perfect occasion to apply what they did earlier into a game situation. Everything was done with an eye for details such as the accuracy of the passes, the weight of the passes, and the decision-making process in a game. As expected, the players looked for top intensity and quality in this match. On Kakeru and Nana's behalf, what they did earlier in the "boxes" and combination drills allowed them to have a good training match. Kakeru managed to score once and Nana ended up with 2 assists. Watching over the entire training session, Sir Alex was happy at Kakeru and Nana's integration with the first team.
'Some people might think I lost it at my age, but I can tell those critics for sure that those two are real gems of players out there.' Sir Alex thought.
Finally, the final on-field drill for the day was about fitness. For 5 minutes, all players did shuttle runs between the 18-yard box and the center line. By exposing the players to high intensity and high quality run-ins, it was a way to ensure that the players were at top speed.
At the end of the training session, Kakeru and Nana were lying on the grass for a break. "That was exhausting." Kakeru said.
"I know. I ran short on gas at the very end, but I had fun." Nana added.
"It's true for me too, Seven. That was reminiscent of my first day in Enoshima High."
"Hey, kids. Don't worry too much about getting short on stamina; it's normal at your age. You did great for your first full training with the first team on the most intense day of the week." Paul said as he came with 2 small bottles of sports drinks. "Here, catch!"
Kakeru and Nana caught the bottles Paul softly threw at them. Immediately, Kakeru teased Nana by putting his cold bottle next to her face. The young woman replied with a giggle and a smile before teasing Kakeru in the same playful manner. Meanwhile, some people were looking from afar.
"They have quite the chemistry as a duo to go with their skills. Do you think they are...?" Rio Ferdinand asked Ryan.
"I think they are, but I don't care too much about that detail now. It's about how they will show that chemistry on the field that matters." Ryan finished.
After some rest, Kakeru and Nana headed for the fitness room around 11:45 AM in order to complete the day of training by working on strength and some power work for 35-40 minutes. Among available exercises, they alternated between the bench press (upper body), pull-ups (upper body), speed squats (lower body), and weight-lifting leg extension (lower body) exercises. Once the physical workout was done, Kakeru and Nana then left to their respective dressing rooms for a most welcome shower before going for lunch.