The Flowers of Manchester
"Never forget the importance of history..." – Author unknown.
Tuesday February 6
1:30 PM GMT
Following their most recent victory, making it 9 consecutive wins strong in all competitions, everything seemed to be going for the best for Manchester United as the team kept pace in the race for the Premier League title while continuing their way in the FA Cup. However, the current week would also be a sad anniversary of an event that marked both a whole generation and the club forever.
The training session on the day involved technical work focused on full physiology recovery for the players who took part in the previous match. After lunch, Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke were set to leave Carrington for the day.
"So what do we do next?" Yusuke asked.
"I would like to stop at a nearby flower shop, buy a few bouquets, and then we go to Old Trafford around 2:30 PM." Kakeru replied.
"Bouquets? What for?"
"It's your first season here, so I guess you don't know what this is about." Nana said, but Yusuke didn't reply.
"Don't worry, Yusuke. You'll understand soon enough when we'll get there. It's no use spoiling it now." Kakeru replied.
2:30 PM GMT
As promised, Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke took the drive to Old Trafford. After they just got off their respective vehicles inside the East parking lot outside of Old Trafford, Yusuke noticed a small crowd standing just outside of the stadium and next to the East Stand.
"OK, so what is this all about?" Yusuke asked.
"February 6, 1958... The Manchester United team was flying back from Belgrade, now Serbia's capital after they earned a place in the semi-finals of the European Cup - it was the old format of what is now the Champions League. When they stopped in Munich for refueling, the plane carrying the team, journalists, and supporters crashed in a blizzard after a 3rd attempt to take off. Out of 44 people on board, 23 died... including 8 players. The accident is known as the Munich Air Disaster." Kakeru replied.
"On the 6th of February of every year, it has become a tradition for fans to visit Old Trafford, and to pay respects to those who died because of the crash. People come and go all day. Some, like us, leave flowers and poems, some just stand silently. The focal point today will be by the Memorial Plaque later at 3:04 PM, the time of the crash. At that time, people gather to sing a song in honor of the victims even after that many decades." Nana added.
"My... I never thought Manchester United was struck by tragedy of such magnitude. When did you learn about it for the first time?"
"In the first month of February we ever spent in Manchester. Some of our senpais told us about it." Nana replied.
"People say that the legend of our club was born out of this tragedy, Yusuke. There's someone in that crowd who can tell you more about it than I'd ever do myself." Kakeru added.
Then the 3 Japanese players, bouquet of flowers in hand, walked forward, and moved through the small crowd to drop the bouquets alongside several others just under the Memorial Plaque. The 3 Japanese players prayed for a few minutes as they always do in those circumstances when those who passed away are honored.
After Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke finished praying, they moved aside to let other supporters pay their own respects. Somewhere in the crowd, someone called for them.
"Kakeru! Nana! Yusuke!"
"Mister Harry." Kakeru recognized Noriko's paternal grandfather walking towards the 3 Japanese players.
"I see you remain faithful to your habits, Kakeru and Nana."
"Since we learned this chapter of the history of the club, we never miss an occasion to honor the victims alongside common people on this day." Kakeru said.
"My granddaughter isn't with you?"
"She's working at the hospital, but she texted me to tell us she would come here after finishing her shift later.” Nana replied. “What about her father?"
"He came here in the morning before going to work, so it's fine."
"Mister Harry. I was told you're 74 years old. Being a Manchester United fan since you were very young, you lived through that particular day in 1958. How did you react when you learned about the crash?" Yusuke asked.
"Oh... I heard the news at school. I was a young teenager back then, and I was crying my eyes out at school when the news got to me. The teacher took me to another room, and I was highly emotional about it. And I was thinking 'They can't be dead'. The teacher said to me 'Sorry, Harry. I'm sorry. They are.'... It was the worst day of my life... as much as it was for several people in Britain who were old enough to remember that day. The only other event that could compare in terms of emotional impact as a national disaster was when Princess Diana died."
"I guess they were loved by an entire country if that crash left such a deep wound."
"They were, Yusuke. Football wasn't too tribal back then. Those lads were common people from the working class to begin with before they rose together to become the first teenage superstars in English football. Back then, only singers and famous actors were recognized as superstars. They had plenty of talent, confidence, hunger and desire. It was magical to see that special group of young lads play such beautiful football, and yet always enjoy company with common people. Also at the time, no one thought about fielding teenagers against teams that had only grown adults in their late 20s and over as professionals. However, they were never afraid of anybody, and they defeated so many teams with style... That Manchester United team could have been the greatest football team ever seen." Harry replied as he narrated the story with his unique voice.
"Was it difficult for the club to rebuild everything, Mister Harry?" Yusuke asked.
"This is where the story has a better ending although it was painful at times. The board thought about shutting down the club for the rest of the season, but the coaching staff, especially the late Jimmy Murphy, made colossal efforts to keep the club going on, to start rebuilding the team right away, to rebound, and to aim towards glory again. Coach Murphy said it best: 'It's not about honoring their memory. It's about showing who we are to the world. Showing we'll not be bowed by tragedy. Because how we are in the future will be founded on how we behave today'. They finally won the European Cup with a mix of new players and 2 surviving players from the crash 10 years later."
"The 8 players who died were just like us: young people who wanted to play football. Whenever I think of this tragedy, it reminds me of when my own brother died in an accident that could have taken my life as well. Just like when I took the burden of carrying on my brother's unfulfilled dreams instead of dwelling on the tragedy, the surviving players in 1958 did the same for their fallen comrades." Kakeru said in English to Yusuke so Harry would understand the conversation as well.
"Rising from the ashes time and time again, like the phoenix; this is the real legacy of the club." Nana said.
"I only wish I knew about the history earlier. This is really big; a great story about determination." Yusuke said.
"It is never too late to learn, young man. If you can find your inspiration from that story to grow stronger and show the world what you are made of, just like the surviving players did, then you are bound to become a great."
"Thank you, Mister Harry." Yusuke replied before he turned back to Kakeru. "About that song for 3:04 PM... is there a lyrics sheet somewhere?"
"Sure. I'll fetch a few sheets for all of us."
Kakeru then went to one of the organizers of the main gathering, and got the lyrics sheets from him. In the few minutes coming before the fateful time of 3:04 PM, the group of fans sang a few tribute songs, and read poems in honor of that group of players known as the Busby Babes.
When the clock hit 3:04 PM at Old Trafford, the small crowd started singing a song that was originally written by a man named Eric Winter. The song was later recorded by a folk group named The Spinners, which included vocalist and United fan Mick Groves. Titled "The Flowers of Manchester", the song described the tragedy. It was that the only sound that was heard from the people gathered by the Memorial Plaque, including Kakeru, Nana, and Harry joining their voices in the singing while Yusuke was silently reading the lyrics on the sheet.
One cold and bitter Thursday in Munich, Germany,
Eight great football stalwarts conceded victory,
Eight men will never play again, who met destruction there,
The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester.
Matt Busby's boys were flying, returning from Belgrade,
This great United family, all masters of their trade,
The pilot of the aircraft, the skipper Captain Thain,
Three times they tried to take off and twice turned back again.
The third time down the runway disaster followed close,
There was slush upon that runway and the aircraft never rose,
It ploughed into the marshy ground, it broke, it overturned,
And eight of the team were killed when the blazing wreckage burned.
Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, who were capped for England's side,
And Ireland's Billy Whelan and England's Geoff Bent died,
Mark Jones and Eddie Colman, and David Pegg also,
They all lost their lives as it ploughed on through the snow.
Big Duncan he went too, with an injury to his brain,
And Ireland's brave Jack Blanchflower will never play again,
The great Matt Busby laid there, the father of his team,
Three long months passed by before he saw his team again.
The trainer, coach and secretary, and a member of the crew,
Also eight sporting journalists, who with United flew,
And one of them was Big Swifty, who we will ne’er forget,
The finest English ‘keeper that ever graced the net.
Oh, England's finest football team its record truly great,
Its proud successes mocked by a cruel turn of fate.
Eight men will never play again, who met destruction there,
The flowers of English football, the flowers of Manchester.
After the song, Kakeru, Nana and Yusuke took their time to have a chat with visiting fans outside of Old Trafford about football, about the Munich Air Disaster and other topics. A few former United players were also mingling with the fans for the occasion as well. As it already got dark at around 5:40 PM, Noriko arrived outside of the stadium where she spotted her boyfriend, her friends and her grandfather standing by the Memorial Plaque where a few other fans gathered to pay their respects.
"Hi, Noriko!" Kakeru and Nana exclaimed.
"I'm glad you're finally here." Yusuke said.
"You finally made it, Noriko. I wasn't sure you'd come." Harry added.
"You were the one who taught me what this day meant for all United supporters, Grandpa. I wouldn't spend a 6th of February in Manchester without paying my respects to the Babes."
Noriko then put her own bouquet of flowers alongside several others that were laid on the ground for the occasion, and prayed for a minute. A short time after a small chat with Kakeru and Nana, Yusuke and Noriko moved a little away to have their own talk together.
"A broken plane, a broken dream, a broken heart, a broken team, no word said, a silent vow, we loved you then, we love you now... This is the phrase every supporter of this club has to remember on this day and even beyond." Noriko said.
"You know, you could have told me about how much this event meant for the people here." Yusuke said.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't sure if my words would have been enough to tell you how big this is. Kakeru, Nana, and I knew that Grandpa would tell you about it a lot better through his own experience than I would ever do. He is the storyteller in our family after all." Noriko replied.
"And you were right: I truly had goosebumps when I listened to your grandfather narrating the story. That feeling also carried over when people sang 'The Flowers of Manchester'. I don't think there would have been any better way than this."
"So how do you feel now?" Noriko asked.
"Seriously? I feel strongly inspired. I really want to become an important part of that legacy for many years to come. I know I'm already doing well, but I also know I can be an even better player."
"Yusuke... I know you have what it takes to become a great, and I will support you all the way." Noriko finished before she leaned her head on Yusuke's chest, who then wrapped his arm around Noriko.
Meanwhile, Kakeru and Nana were looking at their friends.
"Yusuke has somehow changed, but it's also for the best." Nana said.
"Something tells me he will feed himself off what he learned today to come back stronger and become even better than what he already is now. It can only be good for all of us." Kakeru finished.
Sunday February 11
Manchester United vs. Huddersfield Town (Premier League match 27)
Old Trafford, Manchester, UK
For this special occasion as the home match closest to the anniversary of the Munich Air Disaster, the Manchester United players wore special kits reminiscent of the 1958 uniform - kits without the club's badge nor sponsors. Also in respect to the traditions of old, the starting players had their nameless shirts numbered from 1 to 11 only in the back while the substitutes had numbers 12 to 18.
Each of the 11 Manchester United players set to start the match was accompanied by a child mascot wearing a shirt with the name of one of the 11 Manchester United fatalities in 1958. Meanwhile, the Huddersfield Town players were accompanied by child mascots wearing shirts with the names of the other victims. Also, both teams wore black armbands as a symbol of mourning.
For the first time since the match against Arsenal, the 3 Japanese players started a match altogether. Yusuke managed to earn his spot by working harder than any other midfielder in training, so much that José had no choice but to put him in the starting lineup. Regardless, the biggest story about the Manchester United matchday squad was the return of Michael Carrick. The club captain, who confirmed back in late January that he would retire at the end of the season to become a first-team coach, was finally given the green light to play competitive football again.
'I wonder if you have met the Babes, and played soccer with them somewhere out there, Nii-chan. I feel privileged to be here today so I can carry on their legacy.' Kakeru thought.
"What's up, Kakeru?" Yusuke asked, wearing number 6 for this match.
"Nothing much, Yusuke. I was just thinking on how to give a performance worthy of the occasion."
"Don't worry about it, Kakeru. Just think about giving the opposition no chance when you're in front of goal; that's how you'll make the game memorable." Nana replied.
Before the players came out of the tunnel leading to the pitch, a giant surfer flag displaying an old picture of the 1958 Manchester United team and the words "WE'LL NEVER DIE" was unveiled. The flag was then moved along by the supporters in the Stretford End within 2 minutes. When the signal was given by the referee, a lone piper led the march while the sound coming out of his bagpipe was a song titled "The Red Flag". Following the piper, the referees, both managers carrying wreaths, and the players walked by the touchline before shifting their walk towards the center circle.
From their seats, Noriko, Robert, Sayuri, and Harry joined their voices with the tens of thousands of United supporters chanting adapted lyrics for the chorus of the song.
WE'LL NEVER DIE, WE'LL NEVER DIE
WE'LL NEVER DIE, WE'LL NEVER DIE
WE'LL KEEP THE RED FLAG FLYING HIGH
'CAUSE MAN UNITED WILL NEVER DIE.
After both teams and the child mascots lined up on the traced center circle, each manager laid a flower wreath inside the center circle under the applause of the entire attendance. Then a minute of silence followed as both sets of supporters held their special commemorative scarves up high: red, white, and black for United; blue, and white for Huddersfield Town. Not a single sound was heard for the whole minute.
Following the referee's whistle, the fans in the stadium shouted a roar of cheers as it was time to play the football match.
Rob Hawthorne: From the pain of the past to the demands of the present, it's time for a new chapter of this Premier League campaign. Now the players have a difficult job of putting the occasion out of their minds. They have to concentrate on the game itself.
In the starting lineup for the special occasion, Manchester United lined up David (#1; goalkeeper), Antonio (#2; right-back), Eric (#5; centre-back), Matthias (#4; centre-back), Luke (#3; left-back), Yusuke (#6; central midfielder), Pog (#8; central midfielder), Nana (#10; central midfielder), Kakeru (#11; right winger), Romelu (#9; striker), Alexis (#7; left winger). Meanwhile, Sergio (#12), Phil (#15), Ashley (#18), Nemanja (#13), Michael (#16), Jesse (#14), and Anthony (#17) were the 7 substitutes for United.
Huddersfield Town kicked off the match, but United immediately got to work as they controlled most of the ball possession time to limit counterattack opportunities for the team that was nicknamed as the "Terriers". Just 11 minutes into the game, that ball control finally paid off as United found the gap they were looking to exploit.
Rob Hawthorne: It's cleared away. Now, it's Saeki...
After a clearance from a Huddersfield Town defender, Yusuke picked up the loose ball in midfield with excellent control, and saw the opportunity to run forward. Avoiding a sliding tackle, Yusuke made a pass forward for Nana, who then completed the give-and-go with a pass straight into Yusuke's run.
Rob Hawthorne: A pass to Mishima, back to Saeki... He goes on...
Left unmarked by the Huddersfield Town players, Yusuke unleashed a piledriver from some distance with the left foot. The result was devastating as the ball easily went past the Terriers’ goalkeeper.
Rob Hawthorne: Saeki! OH, WHAT A STRIKE!!! Only 11 minutes into the match, Manchester United take the lead, and it's Yusuke Saeki who opens the score on his return in the starting XI. Unstoppable!
"Well done, Yusuke!" Kakeru exclaimed as he was the first to mug Yusuke after the goal.
"Get in!" Nana added.
Yusuke was quickly congratulated by his teammates, but wasn't too exuberant in the celebration unlike the rest of Old Trafford. Despite the smile, his eyes were basically telling to everyone "This is not done yet. Let's hit them with more."
"OK, let's go for more, lads!" Pog vocalized the message coming from Yusuke's gaze.
Following instructions, the players in red went back to their positions for the restart looking for more. Just 7 minutes later, Yusuke got himself into the heart of the action at a key moment again on a rare attack from the Terriers.
Rob Hawthorne: Huddersfield on the attack now... it's a clever ball through...
As the pass was about to reach the Huddersfield Town striker who stood behind Eric, Yusuke quickly ran in to tackle the ball away with authority. A split second later, the Huddersfield Town player was sent sprawling on the pitch after he went into full contact into the brick wall that was Yusuke's back.
"That's how to do it! Well played, Yusuke!" Noriko shouted, and so did thousands of United supporters as they showed their appreciation of Yusuke's physical intervention.
Rob Hawthorne: Great tackle by Saeki. It's recovered by Shaw...
The play continued as Antonio retrieved the loose ball, and passed forward to Nana for the counterattack. The Little Witch then passed the ball towards the dashing Alexis on the left. Following the Chilean winger as they fell back, the Huddersfield Town defenders tried to keep up the pace. But suddenly, Alexis switched his run towards the inside of the field, and surprised the Huddersfield Town defenders before he sent a swift through pass towards the far post, where Kakeru managed to find a gap between 2 defenders. The Japanese forward found himself in a perfect position in front of goal.
Rob Hawthorne: Sánchez... Great pass into AIZAWA!
With a swift kick of his right foot, Kakeru sent the ball into the top corner of the goal, and sent Old Trafford into its second pandemonium after the start of the match. In a reflex move, Kakeru pointed to the sky with both hands as he dedicated his goal to the departed Busby Babes as well as to his own brother on the same occasion.
Rob Hawthorne: Exquisite finish by Aizawa. United are 2-0 up!
Alan Smith: Well, they were going forward, Huddersfield. But when they lose the ball, the counterattack comes in, and the Huddersfield players get caught. Sánchez, on the left hand side, cuts to his right, and finds the gap for Aizawa, who was never going to miss with that kind of time and space.
However, neither Kakeru nor his teammates were satisfied just yet. The Red Devils continued attacking the Terriers relentlessly, scoring chance after scoring chance. The Terriers defended as bravely as they could to keep the gap at 2 goals so they could have a chance of cutting the lead down to a single goal, which would plant the seed of doubt in the minds of the local side. However on the few attacks the visitors had, they were stopped by the Manchester United defenders and midfielders, who tackled and headed balls away with authority to protect the 2-goal lead. As inevitable as it was, Huddersfield Town's resistance was cracked again in the 32nd minute.
The Terriers conceded an indirect free kick just outside their own penalty area. Following a little tactical discussion between a few players, the Manchester United players moved into their assigned positions. Everyone expected Nana to whip the aerial ball into the penalty area, but the Little Witch had other plans.
Rob Hawthorne: Mishima to take the free kick... Layoff to Saeki...
Nana spotted Yusuke in a good position outside of the box for a shot. With a quick low pass sideways, the Little Witch got the ball into Yusuke's path before the latter unleashed a hard and long shot with his left foot. Although the Huddersfield Town goalkeeper got a touch of the ball, the sheer power behind Yusuke's shot got the best of the goalkeeper as the ball flew between the catching gloves and straight into the back of the net.
Rob Hawthorne: It's 3-0! Yusuke Saeki with his second goal of the afternoon puts Manchester United further ahead. It may already be over with only 32 minutes gone.
Yusuke congratulated Nana first for the clever layoff pass. Within seconds, Yusuke was mugged by his other teammates.
"Great shot, Yusuke." Nana congratulated.
"Thanks, Nana. That was a clever pass." Yusuke replied with his usual modesty.
"Woo hoo! Great goal, Yusuke!" Kakeru exclaimed while he was ruffling Yusuke's hair.
"First time you score twice! Well done, kid!" Matthias said.
"Danke (Thanks), Matthias!"
The final minutes of the first half winded down, and halftime came with United leading 3-0 over Huddersfield Town. The local fans were happy and entertained by their team's performance after 45 minutes. While the main topics of discussion among fans were the goals, the oldest member of the Lewis family in the attendance was particularly interested about Yusuke's overall performance as it was reminiscent of past memories.
"It's almost unbelievable." Harry said.
"What is it, Grandpa?"
"I can't tell if it was fate, Noriko. But today's number 6 has shown shades of the number 6 of that time in '58, Duncan Edwards."
"Really? You told me lots of stories about Big Duncan, but I didn't think you would as far as to compare Yusuke with him." Noriko said.
"Like Big Duncan, that boy shows excellent physical fitness, superb ball control, and a very good first touch. He's primarily a defensive midfielder playing with authority in his tackles, but he also has a fantastic footballing brain. He has shown quite a lot of qualities: right foot, left foot, heading play, accurate passing, balance, fierce long-range shots, surging runs up the pitch..." Harry replied.
"...He's also calm and humble off the pitch." Noriko completed.
"Yes. Big Duncan also shunned both publicity and limelight despite all the plaudits he received, but he was one hell of a leader when it was time to play. It’s unbelievable to see Yusuke playing in a way that he reminds me of Big Duncan on this day of all days."
"That's a very big compliment for him, Dad." Robert replied
"I'm sure he would be happy to hear it, Grandpa." Noriko added.
Meanwhile in the Manchester United dressing room, the Manchester United players were chilling. With 45 more minutes had to be played, they knew that giving at least a solid effort would see them get all 3 points without a fuss. Nevertheless, the big topic for talk in the dressing room was about the 2 goals Yusuke scored.
"Already 2 goals scored, Yusuke. You're on fire." Romelu said.
"You blew them away." Pog added.
"It's all nice and good, lads. Let's give the fans 45 minutes more of the same." Matthias reminded his teammates of the task at hand.
"I know some of you will be tempted to pass me the ball so I can score a hat-trick, but I don't care about that at all. Let's just play normally, keep the ball, and let them open the gaps for us." Yusuke replied.
"Controlling the ball, that's the key now. Let's do this." Matthias gave his final halftime instructions before the coaches came in, and provided tactical advice under the recommendations of the manager. Just a couple of minutes before the players were set to walk back out, Yusuke was joined by Kakeru and Nana.
"Think you can score another one?" Kakeru asked.
"I don't know. I'm just interested in doing my job to keep that good result." Yusuke replied.
"Take it if you have a good chance." Nana said
"Let's not overthink about it. After all, I can't recall the last time I scored a hat-trick." Yusuke finished.
The second half started with Kakeru and Nana kicking off the ball for Manchester United, attacking towards the Stretford End this time. United looked for more goals although they kept their composure as a group whenever defensive duty was necessary. Their patience was soon rewarded by another breakthrough in the 61st minute.
Rob Hawthorne: Mishima... finds Valencia...
Right after Nana passed the ball slightly backwards to Antonio, the Ecuadorian spotted Kakeru starting a run to move beyond Huddersfield Town's defensive line. At the right split second, Antonio unleashed the pass forward to Kakeru.
Rob Hawthorne: Aizawa's onside... Nervous defending by Huddersfield...
Kakeru faced the Huddersfield Town left-back inside the penalty area, and used a combination of feints to shake off the defender. Kakeru started with a stepover, and then switched directions twice. At the very split second Kakeru saw 2 Huddersfield Town defenders being lured towards him, he made a cheeky chip pass towards the far post. In that position, Alexis managed to beat another Huddersfield Town defender for speed in front of the Huddersfield Town goal. The Chilean's point blank header left no chance to the poor goalkeeper.
Rob Hawthorne: Aizawa... It's SÁNCHEZ! Absolutely brilliant! It's 4-0 for Manchester United!
And suddenly, the gap was widened into something insurmountable in favor of the red Mancunian side against the team from West Yorkshire.
"Well done, guys!" Nana exclaimed.
"Nice goal!" Kakeru congratulated his teammate.
"Nice pass, Caballero (Knight)." Alexis replied.
"That was clever, Kakeru." Yusuke said.
Alan Smith: Lovely football by Manchester United. Aizawa shouldn't have been allowed to have that much space if you're Huddersfield Town. The defenders come back, but Aizawa makes a couple of clever moves to pull 2 defenders out of position. Then Aizawa finds the head of Sánchez at the far post. Plenty of confidence from Manchester United today, and we are not finished yet.
Meanwhile in the stands:
"Breathtaking!" Noriko exclaimed.
"You got that right. They are having fun out there, and the other side just can't keep the pace." Harry replied.
"That United team has bags of confidence, and it shows." Robert remarked.
"We sure came a long way from that slump in December." Noriko finished.
A few minutes later, Anthony replaced Alexis. Despite the change, United didn't take the foot off the gas at all. On a special occasion such as this, the Manchester United players wanted to give their fans the best possible result. In the 73rd minute, Japan's Footballing Sweethearts went to work after Yusuke cut another Huddersfield Town attack short with a tackle in the middle of the pitch.
Rob Hawthorne: He lost it to Saeki... who sends it to Mishima.
Nana ran with the ball for some distance before she fooled a Huddersfield Town midfielder with the Witch Turn. Dashing ahead of her was Kakeru, who made the call for a pass before she did so. With only the defender ahead of him, Kakeru waited for the moment his opponent would be having his 2 feet on the ground. When that moment came, Kakeru executed a perfect Phi Trick to move past the Huddersfield Town defender, and then found himself one-on-one with the Huddersfield Town goalkeeper.
Rob Hawthorne: Aizawa... Still Aizawa...
In just one kick of the ball, Kakeru sent the Old Trafford crowd up on their feet.
Rob Hawthorne: 5-0! Huddersfield just cannot live with him at the moment.
Alan Smith: Well, it's that combination between Aizawa and Mishima going to work again. Saeki intercepts the ball in midfield. He pushes forward to Mishima, who gets past her marker with a lovely turn. Finally, Aizawa does something even better with a nice move to get past the defender, and to finish things off with an emphatic finish.
Rob Hawthorne: The full Japanese Connection hit the jackpot with a combined effort on the goal.
"Way to go, Kakeru!" Noriko exclaimed.
"That was top class." Sayuri added.
"Both Japanese lads have 2 goals each. Who do you think will score the hat-trick first?" Harry asked.
"I would put tonight's dinner expense on Aizawa." Robert replied to Harry.
"Well, I will put my money for tonight's dinner on Saeki. You pay the meal if I win." Sayuri said.
"So be it then." Robert replied with a smile, confident that Kakeru would be most likely to score.
Shortly after the 5-0 goal, Nana was replaced by Michael Carrick, who was greeted with a very warm welcome from the crowd. Later in the 77th minute, United got a foothold into Huddersfield Town's half once more. Anthony kicked the ball towards the near post, but the ball was headed away by a Huddersfield Town defender... only to be intercepted by Pog a few yards in front of the 18-yard box. After making a feint to move past an opponent, the Frenchman shot the ball hoping it would go through the maze of players inside the box. Suddenly, the ball struck the right hand of a Huddersfield Town defender, and the following reaction inside Old Trafford was loud as thousands shouted for a penalty decision to be given.
"PENO!" Noriko shouted. She had a very good view of the incident from her position.
Rob Hawthorne: Oh, was that hand ball? The referee points to the spot: it's a penalty! And the afternoon keeps getting worse and worse for Huddersfield Town.
After the initial roar following the penalty decision, everyone inside Old Trafford wondered who would take the penalty since Kakeru and Yusuke had 2 goals each. Most people were expecting Kakeru to try emphasizing his position as one of the top marksmen in the Premier League. However, the Japanese striker had other ideas for what was about to happen.
"Hey, Yusuke. It's all yours." Kakeru gave the ball to his long-time friend.
"Are you sure, Kakeru?"
"This is your day, so take it."
Taking a deep breath, Yusuke carried the ball towards the penalty spot.
Rob Hawthorne: People would normally expect Kakeru Aizawa to shoot from the spot, but he gave it to Yusuke Saeki instead. The man who was signed from Yokohama for a little more than £10 million can complete his first hat-trick in the Premier League.
"Come on, Yusuke." Noriko said with a low voice as she watched her boyfriend making the walk towards the spot.
"I never expected Kakeru to give that one to him." Robert said.
"I guess you can start preparing your wallet for tonight's dinner if he scores, Bobby." Harry said with a chuckle.
The referee finally blew his whistle demanding the penalty to be taken. Yusuke struck the ball hard with his left foot, and the shot then hit the inside of the side netting to the goalkeeper's left, which meant only one outcome.
Rob Hawthorne: Yusuke Saeki... SCORES! It's a hat-trick for the Japanese midfielder, and it's 6-0. Manchester United are banging goals for fun. It's a day of despair for Huddersfield Town.
Realizing how big the accomplishment was on a personal level, Yusuke celebrated this special goal with a run and then a somersault before he was congratulated by his teammates. Just as his teammates started walking back for the restart, Yusuke took a bow towards the section where Noriko and her relatives were.
At the same time Noriko was applauding Yusuke, she thought: 'I guess I'm really lucky to have him indeed. He's such a kind, humble and talented person.'
"Yusuke-kun really is quite a number of his own." Sayuri said.
"He is, Mom. I cannot imagine having a better guy around right now."
"I'm really happy to see you with that smile on your face, Noriko. Now you know what world of difference it makes when to have someone who loves you as much as you love him."
"And I know it can last." Noriko finished.
Minutes later, Romelu was subbed off for Jesse. Even after the final substitution, the hammering continued with Pog scoring United's 7th goal of the match in injury time. The play leading to the goal was initiated by Michael’s defensive efforts to recover the ball, then followed by a pass to Jesse on a counterattack, then to Anthony, and finally to Pog completing the final score at 7-0. In the aftermath, the remaining seconds of the match winded down.
PEEP PEEP PEEEEEEEEEP!
On the final whistle, the 72,000+ Manchester United supporters in the stadium applauded a performance that was so close to total perfection. Players from both teams shook hands despite the discrepancy in class that was displayed for 90 minutes. After the handshakes, Kakeru looked around, and was astonished by a particular sight.
Just by the exit to the players' tunnel, Kakeru saw his brother Suguru speaking to a Caucasian man in his early twenties as both were looking at Yusuke further away. Strangely, both men appeared to be invisible to everyone else around as they were talking and laughing to each other like old friends. The Caucasian man, both more athletic and taller than Suguru, and wearing an old-fashioned 1950s suit, was soon recognized by Kakeru. That man was someone Kakeru saw in old photos of the 1958 team.
"Nii-chan... is that Duncan Edwards?" Kakeru asked with a low voice.
Then the spirits of Suguru and Duncan turned their gazes towards Kakeru with smiles on their faces, but neither said anything at the moment.
"So you really played with the Busby Babes in heaven, right?"
Suguru waved, and then raised a thumbs-up sign back at Kakeru. At the same time, Suguru's voice spoke in Kakeru's head: "The Babes are a nice group of guys to play soccer with, just like so many others I met in heaven. But you're also a part of a great group of guys here and now as well, Kakeru. I know you guys can accomplish great things with this team, so keep on going."
"What is heaven like?" Kakeru asked.
"It's the place where dreams come true. If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true." Suguru replied. "Still, you can also create your own heaven in this world if you work hard and believe in yourself hard enough. Anyone can."
Finally, both spirits walked away towards the tunnel before they disappeared completely from Kakeru's sight. The Japanese striker was still a little surprised to see his late brother appear on this particular day, but he also knew there was always a reason behind his appearances although those became a very rare occurrence over the years.
"Kakeru, let's go." Nana said.
Then Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke walked their way towards the tunnel with the crowd cheering them. On his way, Kakeru looked at Yusuke's happy face as the latter was waving towards Noriko. Meanwhile, Nana was smiling at Kakeru while holding onto him. Kakeru felt that his life was already a good taste of heaven in its own way at the moment, but he also felt he and his friends are in for something even more incredible in a near future.
'I know we can see the incredible happening here as well. We will keep on going, and that's a promise, Nii-chan.' Kakeru pledged in his thoughts.
After the players left Old Trafford and stopped at the Lowry Hotel to go more or less in their separate ways to join their respective families, Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke waited for Noriko and her family to arrive.
"Ah! There they are." Kakeru said as Noriko and her family arrived.
"Hi, guys!" Noriko called out loud.
"Nice to see you all." Nana replied.
Then Noriko and her family came towards the 3 Japanese players. The first person Noriko came to see was Yusuke; she greeted him with a hug and a small kiss.
"Three goals, Yusuke! You were fantastic!" Noriko said.
"Thanks, Noriko. I didn't expect things to turn out that well. But I'm really happy that they did, especially on this day." Yusuke replied.
"Well done, Yusuke. That was a match to remember." Robert said.
"Thank you, Robert-san."
"That was a sublime performance, lad. It felt like rolling back the years when the Babes played in my time." Harry said.
"Glad I entertained you, Mister Harry." Yusuke replied.
"Oh, Grandpa. Can you please tell Yusuke what you told me earlier about the way he played today?" Noriko asked.
"Of course!" Harry replied before he turned to Yusuke. "When I saw you play today, I saw lots of similarities with the way Duncan Edwards used to play. It was beautiful; lots of great memories came back to the surface."
"I also wore his number today... But did I really remind you of him that much?" Yusuke asked.
"Big Duncan had it all: toughness, authority, top class ball control, great tackles, very accurate passes, long-range shots, surging runs up the pitch, and more. You have it all. And just like he used to be, you are a very calm and humble person off the pitch, and yet you are a leader on the pitch in your own right." Harry said.
"Well, it's nice to hear it from you. I had the feeling that someone or something was lifting me up today. It felt like nothing was impossible, and I was able to push myself to my full potential. Well, I think I'm babbling here."
When Kakeru heard Yusuke's words, thoughts about what Suguru's ghost used to do in the early days at Enoshima High School came back in Kakeru's mind.
'Could it be possible that Duncan Edwards was guiding Yusuke out there anyhow? I know Nii-chan did it for me in the past, but that would be even more surprising if someone or something unrelated to Yusuke is helping him to unleash his full potential. In any case, I just hope the spirits will continue watching over us.' Kakeru thought.
"Well, we can only hope you will keep on playing like that, Yusuke. It would be perfect." Nana said.
"Yeah, I'm sure you're right." Yusuke replied.
"Nothing you want to say, Kakeru?" Noriko asked in English.
"Not really. I was thinking about all of us going for dinner, and then have a drink to the Busby Babes. What do you say?" Kakeru said.
"At my age, I restrain myself from drinking alcohol. But once in every year, I keep one drink for the boys of 1958. So I'm in." Harry replied.
"We're in as well." Noriko spoke for herself and her parents.
"I'm in." Nana and Yusuke said altogether.
"Remember to pay for my dinner tonight, Robert." Sayuri said.
"I will, Sayuri."
"Did we miss something here?" Yusuke asked.
"Well, my parents were betting on who would score first a hat-trick goal between you and Kakeru. My father chose Kakeru, and lost the bet, so he has to pay for my mother's dinner tonight." Noriko replied.
"Well, that 'oops' result should be blamed on me then." Kakeru said.
Then everyone laughed out loud before they went on their way forward.
On a cold day in February, the footballing descendants of the 1958 team honored their departed predecessors with a performance that was the closest to perfection. Regarding the main outcome at stakes, the +7 increase in goal difference solidified United's grasp on the top of the Premier League table in case of a possible tie in points. For everyone involved with Manchester United, especially for the 3 Japanese friends since their days in middle school, that day was one to be engraved in their memories.