Chapter 7: Support from Far and Wide
Saturday May 18, 201X
11:45 PM BST (7:45 PM Japan time)
Before lunchtime back in West Didsbury, Kakeru confined himself alone in the bedroom that he and Nana were normally sharing. He sat on the bed with his head down as he was extremely disappointed with the last training session and knew there was no chance he’d be in the starting XI despite all the efforts he put earlier during the week. Indeed, Kakeru was only second to Robin in training among the 4 strikers who spent time in training. Outside of the bedroom, Nana and Noriko stood there, completely powerless at the time.
"I’ve never seen him so down." Noriko said.
"He put himself so much pressure on his shoulders. In the end, he went over the top." Nana said.
"Is there nothing we can do to help him, Nana-chan?"
"I only know one person who experienced pressure ahead of a professional debut in a men’s league not so long ago, Noriko-chan. I hope he’ll answer the call soon... because he’s the only one who can talk to Kakeru about his own experience in order to help him now." Nana replied before she heard a beeping sound on her laptop signaling an incoming call on Skype. "Speaking of the devil."
Quickly, Nana put the call through on her laptop. "Hello! Nana-chan?" a man asked at the other end of the line.
"Thanks for replying so quickly." Nana replied.
"I wasn’t going to say ‘no’ to you, Nana-chan. Where is Kakeru?"
"Hold the line for a second." Nana replied before she went knocking at the bedroom’s door. "Kakeru, you have a call."
"Not now, Seven." Kakeru replied coldly.
Nana kept knocking at the door. "I have Araki-san calling in from Japan right now and he's asking for you. Please answer him."
"What?" Kakeru asked before he went storming out of the bedroom and got himself in front of the laptop's webcam. "Araki-san?"
"I really didn’t expect you to call here today. What’s up?" Kakeru asked.
"Nana-chan sent me a text message earlier saying you had a tough time in training today and that you are a little down. What happened?" Araki said.
"I don’t know. I looked tired, I was out of pace, my passes weren’t as sharp as usual, and my shots didn’t have the pace nor the accuracy I wanted. In short, everything was awful today. Because of that, I won’t make it into the starting XI when I genuinely thought I could make it after being called into the squad." Kakeru replied dejectedly.
"Well, trying to start ahead of world-class players in the prime of their careers like Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney was always going to be difficult. That was a lot of pressure you put on your shoulders."
"Earlier during the week, I thought I’d be able to be one of the 2 strikers to start the match against City; I really did. I was only behind Robin based on how I performed in training on Wednesday and Thursday."
"Was there something else that bothered you before today’s training session? What did you do yesterday?" Araki asked.
"I watched Sir Alex’s press conference, then we went out jogging in the middle of the afternoon. After that, we spent a few hours studying, but then I started feeling not so well in the evening. I think it’s because I was thinking a lot about how to get myself into the starting XI after today’s training session. My family, Nana’s mother and our friends will arrive here in late afternoon today, so I really wanted to get a spot in the starting XI for them. To make matters worse, a few reporters from Japan came asking all kinds of questions at the doorstep when Nana and I left for training this morning. Our roommate had to call the police to make sure they leave the area." Kakeru replied.
"I see. It’s a case of pressure overload due mainly to your own expectations, but also combined to new pressure coming from outside, notably from the media who came following what was said in Sir Alex’s press conference. I also felt something similar before my professional debut last year; reporters stood outside of my house, I couldn’t find any sleep and I was thinking too much about how to do well." Araki said.
"How did you get rid of your own anxiety? I remember you did well in your J-League debut." Kakeru asked.
"Do you remember what Iwaki-sensei told us in March? It was exactly the same thing he told me last year when I called him before my debut." Araki replied. “He told us: what comes first is always to have fun when playing soccer.”
Kakeru remained silent for a few seconds before he replied: "You’re right, Araki-san. How could I forget those words at such a moment in my career?"
"It’s OK, Kakeru; we all need to be reminded at times. A couple of days before my first game, I looked physically fine, and yet I was really awful in training. Back then, I turned to Iwaki-sensei for advice. It was the best thing that could happen back then because I managed to get over the pressure, thanks to his words. And just before I left to the stadium on the day of the match, Mom told me that she didn’t need me to make a good impression to make her proud; she told me she was already proud because I’m her son and that I made it there. That’s all what I needed to enjoy my debut and make it memorable at the same time. I’m almost sure your parents are also thinking the same thing right now." Araki said.
Suddenly, Kakeru felt as if a heavy burden was taken off his shoulders when he integrated everything Araki just told him. "Araki-san... Thank you very much for sharing your own experience with me."
"Either way, all of us Enoshima High alumni are behind you.” Araki said. “When we last played in that little friendly match at school, we knew both you and Nana have something special that would lead into a career in Europe. No matter what happened today, no one among us will ever think otherwise."
"You can join the European adventure if you want to, you know." Kakeru said.
"When the time is right, I will probably try." Araki replied. "What about you, Nana-chan? Not feeling the pressure?"
"Everything is fine for me so far, Araki-san. I worked several hours with a great senpai who always reminds me to keep things simple. He’s probably the best in the world for that and people describe him as modesty personified." Nana added.
"Paul Scholes, I know. I’m glad to hear it." Araki replied.
"Araki-san, we have one favor to ask from you." Kakeru said.
"Seven’s father couldn’t make the trip to Manchester and had to stay back in Kamakura because he’ll be working on Monday. If you plan of watching the game with the guys somewhere, can you send him the invitation?" Kakeru asked.
"Sure. In fact, Iwaki-sensei, Mine-sensei, and most of the guys who played for Enoshima High in the last 3 years already discussed for a while about meeting at The Tavern, a British pub in Yokohama, on the day there’s a serious chance you’d make your professional debut. It looks like that time is coming. We’ll make a reservation for Sunday late evening and we’ll also make some room for Nana-chan’s father."
"Thanks, Araki-san. I really appreciate it." Nana said.
"No matter what happens on Sunday, I hope Manchester United will kick the hell out of Manchester City. To see a team that was nothing not so long ago, suddenly owned by a rich owner and splashing so much money from his own pockets to buy success like that, it’s not funny anymore."
"We’ll do everything we can if we get the nod, Araki-san!" Kakeru said.
"I know you will. Still, don’t think of the match too seriously. It doesn’t matter whether you play soccer alone or in front of thousands of spectators and millions of viewers worldwide. Just enjoy playing the game. Perhaps a little run outdoors in the neighborhood later would be a good idea to clear your mind before you meet your family later. Good luck and see you back home in the summer." Araki replied.
"Thanks for everything again. Bye!" Kakeru finished the conversation just before the communication ended.
"Kakeru, why don’t you check your e-mail inbox? I’m sure Araki-san was not the only one with words of encouragement for you." Nana said.
Then Kakeru went to check his e-mail inbox and he was astonished by the number of supporting messages from friends, teammates, former opponents and some other people. One e-mail from Coach Iwaki caught Kakeru’s attention.
"Since you left to England, I’ve been watching all of your highlights and, yesterday, I heard about the possibility that you might earn your senior debut in the biggest game of the season. Over the last 3 years, I’ve been privileged to see you growing in confidence, improving your skills, following your own path and finally finding your place as the pure striker you were always destined to become. As you can imagine, I’m really proud to see you, one of my finest pupils, on the verge of playing alongside and against some of the best professional footballers in the best league in the world. Should you make it onto the pitch at Old Trafford on Sunday, always remember to be yourself and to have fun. -Coach Teppei Iwaki." Kakeru read out loud.
There was also an attached file going with the message. When Kakeru clicked on the file, it showed a picture of Coach Iwaki and Dr. Ayaka Mine standing together, holding hands on one side and also holding a Manchester United scarf on the other hand as their way to show their full support. Kakeru smiled when he saw the picture.
"Who are they?" Noriko asked.
"The man was my coach in high school. The woman, Dr. Ayaka Mine, was my counselor since Nii-chan passed away." Kakeru replied.
"They look lovely as a couple." Nana commented about the picture.
"I agree. They’ve known each other since they were high school students." Kakeru replied.
After scrolling down all the messages, Kakeru found a message from his long-time friend, Yusuke Saeki, and started reading it: "No matter what people might say or think, you rightfully have your place in the squad and in that league. This is only the beginning of a great journey and I hope you’ll enjoy every minute of it. After all, the point of playing is to have fun. Good luck and Red Devils all the way! -Yusuke."
"That was very kind of Yusuke-san." Nana said.
"Did you receive any messages of encouragement too, Nana-chan?" Noriko asked.
"Checking that now. I didn't have time to think about it earlier." Nana replied before she looked at her smartphone and then she browsed her own message inbox. "I have messages from my Nadeshiko Japan teammates, one from Mina Meier and a few more from others."
"What did they write?" Kakeru asked.
"Mina Nakae of Nadeshiko Japan congratulated me for earning all the praises from the Boss himself yesterday and wrote that she can’t wait to see me accomplish something that a number of female players dreamed of." Nana replied first before she went to another message: "Mina Meier wrote that she hopes to see me succeed with United and become an important part of the squad soon in order to prove that female players can match male players, even at the top level."
"It feels great to know that there are so many people supporting us from far and wide." Kakeru said.
"I couldn’t agree more." Nana added.
"And by the way..." Kakeru said as he got up from his seat and embraced Nana. "Thanks for having the reflex of calling Araki-san so quickly. What would I do without you?"
"You know I’ll always be there for you just like you are here for me when I need you." Nana finished as she returned the embrace.
2:15 PM BST
Just over 2 hours before leaving for the airport, Kakeru and Nana went out for a little jogging inside Fog Lane Park in order to blank everything out of their minds as Araki suggested earlier. After a sustained run, both took a short break in the middle of the park. Just nearby in the open, a group of kids aged around 7 or 8 were playing football. While taking the break, Nana suddenly felt something rolling to her feet; it was a small football that belonged to the group of kids.
"Sorry, Miss. Can we have our ball back, please?" one of the boys asked.
Nana looked at Kakeru into his eyes, and then he immediately knew what she wanted before giving her an approving nod: Nana suddenly felt the urge to show some of her juggling skills and Kakeru thought about doing the same too.
"Sure. But watch this first, kids." Nana said to the children.
Then Nana began her juggling demonstration with a few kick-ups before she alternated at times between the around-the-world move and chest flicks. Finally she passed the ball with a sombrero flick to Kakeru, who began to showboat himself with a chest flick before he let the ball bounce off his forehead a few times, then continued with a few kick-ups and finished if off with a Rabona pass back to where the children were standing. The kids were left in awe.
"That was very tasty!" another boy said.
"Wanna play with us, please?" a young girl asked. There were indeed a few girls among the kids.
"Please. Come and play with us." the kids said altogether.
"Sure!" Kakeru replied before he and Nana joined the kids. For several minutes, Kakeru and Nana acted as the ball holders, just like in the ‘boxes’ drill, while the kids would try to take the ball away from them. Kakeru and Nana made all kinds of passes and used their dribbling skills. Everything was done on the ground so the kids would be able to follow. As one of the passes went by a 7-year-old girl, the girl missed the interception and landed on her backside.
"Sis!" one of the boys shouted.
"We’ll take care of her. You keep going." Kakeru told the kids before he and Nana attended the little girl sitting on the ground. As asked, the other children continued playing a little further.
"Are you OK?" Kakeru asked.
The girl shook her head and showed a look of embarrassment on her face. "No, I messed up."
"It’s fine." Kakeru replied to the girl. "I messed up a few times when I was your age; it also happens to me now."
"Me too." Nana added.
"But when I play football with my brother and my friends, I fall a lot." the girl mumbled.
"Why do we fall? So we can pick ourselves up." Nana said.
"You never give up?" the girl asked.
"Never. Let’s try it again. I’m sure you can do it if you keep trying." Nana said as she and Kakeru both pulled the girl up on her feet. The 7-year-old girl went for another run, managed to remain on her feet for the rest of the time, and was even able to snatch the ball away from Nana’s feet once. Needless to say, the little girl was very happy at that moment. In the end, all the kids had fun for almost an hour.
"Brendan! Claire! We have to go now." a mother then called for her children.
"Yes, Mommy." said the girl who got cheered up earlier.
"OK, Mom!" said the girl’s older brother.
"So your name is Claire? It’s a beautiful name." Nana told the young girl.
"Thank you, Miss." Claire replied.
"Thank you for having an eye on the kids, you two." the mother said before she recognized the people she was talking to. "Hold on. Are you... Kakeru Aizawa and Nana Mishima?"
"Well, guilty." Kakeru replied.
"My husband and I watched some of your highlights with the Reserves. You two are fantastic." the mother said before she turned to Claire and Brendan with a smile. "Claire, Brendan. Kakeru and Nana here play for the Reds."
"You play with the Reds?" Brendan asked.
"Not yet, but we hope to." Nana replied.
"It would be great if you make it onto the pitch. Whatever happens, just make sure to win on Sunday." the mother said.
"We’ll do our best, Ma’am. Nonetheless, we’ll try enjoying our time if we get the nod. After all, we wouldn’t be at this level if we didn’t keep having fun." Kakeru replied.
"Yes, you’re right. Sometimes, we supporters tend to forget how important it is to have fun first." the mother said.
"Can I play with the big boys one day?" Claire asked.
"Of course you can! If you keep trying and believe in yourself like you did today, then anything is possible. We promise you that we will come back here and play with you again until you make it." Nana replied with a smile as she gently stroked Claire’s hair.
"Awesome! Thank you, Miss Nana and Mister Kakeru." Claire finished and gave high fives both to Kakeru and Nana before bidding goodbye.
Afterwards, Kakeru and Nana spent a few more minutes playing with the kids before they all left for home one by one. By the time the little game was over, it was also the time for Kakeru and Nana to walk back to the apartment.
"Wow! Every time I play with kids, those memories from our time in elementary school keep coming back." Kakeru said.
"You had lots of fun, didn’t you?" Nana asked.
"Yep! I also feel a lot more relaxed mentally. Keeping those fun moments in mind will most definitely help both of us when the time comes." Kakeru replied.
As Kakeru thought again about the moments he just spent with the kids while he was going home alongside Nana, he also realized how people love football so much in Manchester as a passion that is transmitted from one generation to the next. The time spent playing with those local kids reminded him once again about what Araki told him earlier.
3:35 PM BST
When Kakeru and Nana got back to the apartment, Noriko was waiting for them. "Feeling better, Kakeru?" Noriko asked.
"I feel a lot better now. Thanks, Noriko-chan." Kakeru replied.
"That’s really good to hear. You know, there’s something I didn’t tell you earlier after you spoke to your friend, Araki-san, because I was waiting you’d get fully better first. One of my childhood heroes used to score lots of goals even though he often came on as a substitute. He was underrated by everyone, but scored a lot of important late goals including what I still believe to be the most important goal in United’s history."
"Who is he?" Nana asked.
"Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Ryan Giggs has always been my favorite player, you know that. But nonetheless, Ole scored the winning goal in the last minute of injury time of the 1999 Champions League final. I was only 4 years and 8 months old back then, but I still remember it as if it happened yesterday because it was one of my first great memories of this club. Despite that great feat, Ole was always a team player putting the team first before any personal objective although he would have had every reason to ask for more." Noriko replied.
"Why are you telling me this?" Kakeru asked.
"I’m telling you this because it’s sometimes better for a player to set smaller objectives as long as the team comes first. It doesn’t take much to make a great first impression or even become a legend in an instant. Sometimes, I have this fantasy in which you’d come off the bench in a title-deciding match and then score the goal that would write history. Regardless of how many minutes you play, from the moment you get on the pitch and play for the team with determination in every minute that’s given to you, everyone will adore you just like they did for Ole." Noriko replied.
"Noriko-chan… Thank you." Kakeru replied. "You’re right. I was so eager to make a good impression that I forgot so many things unconsciously. Fun, simplicity, team concept... I should never forget those."
"Now that everything has been told, make sure to remember what everyone told you today. OK?" Nana frowned.
"I will, all sworn." Kakeru replied with a smile.
"I’m in for a quick shower and a change of clothes before we go to the airport." Nana said.
"Go ahead. I’ll go next." Kakeru replied before he turned asking Noriko: "How are we going to fit everyone and take them to Downtown? We only have your Ford Focus."
"Don’t worry about it; I called my parents to come and give us a hand. They have a 7-seater." Noriko replied.
'I can’t wait to see what your parents look like, Noriko-chan.' Kakeru thought.
So far, the day preceding the big match saw Kakeru facing his first challenge as a professional player playing at senior level. Fortunately, he got over that obstacle quite quickly. With tremendous support from many people, reminders about having fun, about simplicity and about team concept, Kakeru knew he’d be fine for the big game.