Arrival in Manchester
Sunday July 30
Manchester Airport, Manchester, UK
7:12 PM BST
After a long flight from Narita to Manchester, including a stop in London, the Manchester United team finally landed on home soil. Most of the players were exhausted by the long flight and the jet lag, but everyone was happy to have returned in familiar territory nevertheless. Once the players got past the customs, and went past the luggage claim area, they were greeted by their wives, girlfriends, and children. Only one person was waiting for Kakeru and Nana.
"Kakeru! Nana!" Noriko shouted as she spotted her friends.
"Noriko!" Nana replied as she and Kakeru went forward to hug their closest female friend for the last few years.
"How have you two been?" Noriko asked.
"We had the best time ever in Japan. We met nice people in our clinical workplace, and we fully enjoyed every moment of training camp at home too. You couldn't ask any better of a summer." Kakeru replied.
"Speaking of summer, you got yourself quite a nice tan, Noriko." Nana added.
"Thanks. I spent my summer vacation at the French Riviera, then Spain, and Gibraltar with my friend Sarah. Plenty of beaches and sun, it was great."
"Did you find a boyfriend in your travels?" Nana asked.
Noriko sighed when the word "boyfriend" came up in the conversation. "No luck at all. I still can't find a way to get genuinely interested in a guy although there were a few nice-looking guys." she replied.
"I see. We'll keep it quiet then." Nana said.
"Where is Yusuke?" Kakeru asked.
"Sorry about the delay, guys. It took them a couple more minutes to get my luggage in the claim area, but it's all fine now." Yusuke replied as he arrived behind Kakeru and Nana.
"It's all right, Yusuke." Kakeru said before he made the introductions. "Noriko, this is my long-time friend Yusuke Saeki. Yusuke, this is Noriko Catherine Lewis, our roommate since we arrived in 2013."
"Nice to meet you. You can call me Yusuke."
When Noriko came face-to-face with Yusuke for the first time, the half-British half-Japanese woman froze for a few seconds. For a moment, her mind appeared to be elsewhere while her facial features displayed an uneasy feeling.
"Lewis-san..." Yusuke said.
Coming back to her senses, Noriko shook hands with Yusuke to make the formal introduction. "You can call me Noriko, Yusuke-san."
"Is everything OK?" Yusuke asked.
"I just had a strange feeling of déjà vu for a second. However, it wouldn't make any sense at all since this is the first time we meet."
Meanwhile, Kakeru and Nana noticed Noriko's uneasy reaction too. It was the first time they saw Noriko reacting like that since the day they first met, a few years ago.
"What was that?" Kakeru asked Nana with a low voice.
"I don't know. It was as if she saw a ghost or something."
"What does that mean?" Kakeru asked.
"I'm not quite sure, but..." Nana replied.
"I'm sure all of you must be tired from the long flight. I'll drive us home then." Noriko said to her friends as well as to Yusuke.
"Sure. Let's go." Kakeru finished.
After a drive from Manchester Airport to West Didsbury, Noriko, Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke finally arrived at the apartment. As Yusuke could see, the 2-story apartment was neat and cozy.
"Nice place you have there. Did you do the decorating yourselves?" Yusuke asked.
"Some of it. It was already a good-looking apartment when we first arrived here." Kakeru replied.
"From the outside, it looks small and a little old. However when it comes to the inside, it's really different in a good way."
"The apartment below has more or less the same features: a nice lounge, a kitchen, 2 bathrooms, a master bedroom, and a second bedroom of which you can do whatever you want with it. It will be yours after we complete the paperwork for the sale tomorrow." Kakeru said.
"I think I have a few leftovers. It's not much for a full dinner, but it should do since you'll need a big night of sleep more than anything to get rid of the jet lag." Noriko said. "I'll get those ready."
"I'll give you a hand too." Nana added as she and Noriko went to the kitchen.
"I'll be unpacking our luggage upstairs if you look for me." Kakeru replied.
Then Kakeru went to his and Nana's bedroom upstairs to unpack the luggage, and to store some of their belongings. A short moment later, Yusuke went upstairs to have a chat with Kakeru.
"You know, I can't help but think how you two have been good at keeping your feet on the ground despite achieving stardom recently. You could have fallen into buying extravagant stuff like many celebrities do, but you chose to live like common people do instead. It's really nice." Yusuke said.
"Thanks. It is something Nana and I always wanted to do until the day we get married, finish our medical studies, and attain a more stable situation. After all, we love this kind of life: to be like any normal college or university student, and keep whatever money we earn now for something bigger of a project in the future." Kakeru replied.
"What would that be?"
"We're not there yet, Yusuke."
"Sure, of course... Speaking of your situation here, I'm curious about something. You live with 2 smart, soccer-loving and beautiful girls under the same roof for nearly 10 months a year. Did you ever have... you know... a 3-way party with both girls?"
"If I ever had a 3-way... N-n-no, Yusuke! W-w-why are you asking me that?" Kakeru stammered, totally flabbergasted by the nature of Yusuke's question.
"Come on, Kakeru. Why so defensive? It was just a normal question like another. I'm not a sex-crazy guy at all; I’m single, and I'm still looking for the right woman. Besides, we can speak about it between men. After all, your roommate looks really pretty to say the very least, so I was just wondering if that kind of temptation was ever strong for you."
"Of course not! You already know I'm not the most comfortable guy around women except Nana, thanks to us being childhood friends. I just can't see myself getting that intimate with any other woman.” Kakeru was still embarrassed. "Please, stop doing that. I already had Kouta teasing me a lot about it in the past."
“OK, I’ll stop there. Seriously, how did you meet this roommate of yours?” Yusuke asked Kakeru.
"Well... It was quite a coincidence when Nana and I met Noriko after graduating from high school. We discovered that she was going to attend medical school in Manchester the following year, and that she is a big Manchester United fan. It was right on the day after United first approached us. Because she lived in Manchester until age 7, and was set to return there after finishing high school, it helped us making our decision."
"I'm sure there’s more to that."
"Indeed. Noriko always wanted to become a sports doctor... United's first team doctor, to be more accurate. It was Nii-chan who told her that she would be a great fit as a sports doctor based on what he saw of her as a team manager for Daiichi Junior High School." Kakeru explained further.
"She knew Suguru-san?"
"More than that: she was his girlfriend. They met each other when he was in his second year. She was in her first year. It was mutual attraction at first sight according to her."
Yusuke was surprised when Kakeru revealed the nature of Noriko's relationship with Suguru. "He never told anyone he had a girlfriend at all. Also he never let any sign indicating there was someone in his life."
"He kept it as a distance relationship because he knew both of them would be invested into their respective paths for some time; him as a player and her as a student aspiring to get into medical school. It was so secret that he didn't write anything about it in his diary. They never consummated the relationship. Nevertheless, they continued to keep in touch with each other until the day he died in the accident."
"I see. So where does Noriko stand since she met you? In other words: how does she treat you as her late boyfriend's brother? She must have had a shock when she met you because she could have seen him in you, Kakeru."
"She did, but she also saw how close Nana and I were, and still are. At the same time, Noriko quickly became very good friends with Nana, so she never tried to go beyond friendship with me. We are almost on a brother-sister type of relationship." Kakeru replied.
"Well, that's good for you on all accounts if any." Yusuke said.
"Dinner's ready, guys!" Nana called from the lower floor.
"Coming!" Kakeru replied.
Around a couple of hours following dinner, Yusuke went to sleep on the couch in the apartment's living room for the night. Meanwhile, Noriko was already asleep in her own bedroom. In the master bedroom, Kakeru and Nana were about to go to sleep as well.
"You said something earlier about Noriko seeing a ghost. What did you mean by that?" Kakeru asked Nana.
"When Noriko froze for a moment, I think she felt something in Yusuke that reminded her of Suguru-san. I can't tell you exactly what, but that was my impression. She never reacted like that to any other man she just met, and we both know how difficult it is for her to feel anything for a man except for Suguru-san."
"It has been a long time since Nii-chan passed away. However, how can she see something that is reminiscent of him?"
"It's really hard to explain how such a connection can be made. Only she might be able to explain. I don't know how she will cope in the long run with Yusuke around as a neighbor for an extended period of time after what we saw. It can either be good or bad." Nana said.
"What do you mean by 'bad'?" Kakeru asked.
"It's only a hypothesis. However, if Noriko sees Yusuke just as a mere potential replacement for Suguru-san if she wants to go for more, it won't do any good at all. Yusuke wouldn't want to be seen as a mere replacement for Suguru-san at all, and that's if he ever feels interested in Noriko." Nana replied.
"I think there might be a chance, Nana. Yusuke told me he's still single, and that Noriko looks pretty to him."
"Really, Kakeru? Then there's some hope on his side."
"It could be. But for now, I think it's better for us to get some sleep first. There's no use worrying too much about that now until we see how the situation unfolds in the next few months." Kakeru said.
"I agree." Nana replied between yawns. "Good night, Kakeru."
"Good night to you too, Honey." Kakeru finished with a small kiss before he and Nana went to sleep.
Monday July 31
3:00 PM BST
In the morning of that day, Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke took a jogging run in West Didsbury. While doing so, the neighborhood's main landmarks were shown to Yusuke in order for him to get familiar with his new environment. Later around noon, Kakeru, Nana, Noriko and the previous owner of the duplex finally signed the papers confirming the sale; Kakeru, Nana, and Noriko officially became the new joint owners of the duplex.
In the middle of the afternoon, Yusuke asked Kakeru and Nana to show him Old Trafford. Since it was a full day off for everyone, it was a perfect opportunity for United's new player to pay a proper first visit of the new stage where he will perform from now on.
It's our home, a place of glory
It's our game, our football story
That we all fight to win the title
So let's march on, and sing our song
And we'll battle forever long
And we all shout from the East Stand
Manchester, please take me home
United Road, United Road
United Road, United Road
Won't you take me home, United Road?
United Road, United Road.
As usual on non-match days when he comes by, Kakeru parked his Nissan Qashqai in the Eastern parking lot outside Old Trafford. Walking towards the stadium, the 3 Japanese players stopped for a moment behind the United Trinity statue facing the East Stand's tinted glass façade.
"Who are they?" Yusuke asked.
"Denis Law, Sir Bobby Charlton, and George Best. They were the engine of this club in the 1960s. And that statue across the street, it's the coach from the same era: Sir Matt Busby." Kakeru replied.
"You seem to know the club's history quite well."
"With the amount of history this club has, you'll learn a lot after spending a number of years here, Yusuke." Kakeru replied.
"You told the club you wanted to see Old Trafford for the first time after training camp when you could have gone there on the day you were transferred from Yokohama to us. Is it because you wanted to do it with us?" Nana asked Yusuke.
"Yes, I wanted to have this first visit alongside you. At the same time, I can enjoy having the two of you telling me about your best memories here so far."
"Well, you had the right idea. Let's get inside." Kakeru finished.
After going through the Megastore, the 3 Japanese players walked in the corridors of the stadium before they reached the players' lounge in the Southwest corner of the stadium.
"It's really neat here." Yusuke said.
"This is the players' lounge. We use this room when we get to a match before we go inside the dressing room. We usually arrive at the stadium by bus 2 hours before kickoff, and then spend 45 minutes here. It's a players-only area at such time; the coaches go to a separate room down the hallway. We only leave for the dressing room when one of the assistants calling us." Nana said.
"In here, players can watch the television, listen to music, or have a drink, non-alcoholic of course. When the room's empty around 75 minutes before the match, the players' families can come here. The club has people who can watch over the players' children here during the match." Kakeru added.
"Well, they know how to give a 5-star service, that's for sure." Yusuke said.
"Hospitality is something the club takes really seriously. Nana and I brought our families here a few times, and they really enjoyed the experience on every occasion." Kakeru replied.
"I hope I can bring my parents here one day."
"That time will come sooner than you would think. Trust us." Nana replied to Yusuke.
"Let's have a look at the dressing room now." Kakeru said before they moved into the dressing room. In there, the most noticeable elements were the players' shirts being hung on the pegs mainly for display on guided tours.
"The dressing room in Carrington is twice as big as this." Yusuke remarked.
"Yeah, but we don't need that much space for 11 starters and 7 substitutes. The coaching staff uses the rest of the space while we keep one treatment table in the middle of the room. We don't have lockers here properly speaking, so we don't usually bring many personal effects. There are drawers below the tactical boards where you can put some important stuff there. Still, we have security, and the players trust each other, thus we don’t need personal safes." Kakeru replied.
"They already have my shirt hung over there." Yusuke walked across the dressing room towards the seat where a replica of his shirt was exposed for the visitors to take pictures of.
"It must be quite a feeling to see a shirt with your name and number being shown to the public for guided tours already."
"I still have a hard time realizing I'm already a part of the first team for this great organization, Kakeru."
"At least, your shirt is already there. Kakeru and I had to fight our way to get our shirts in this room. Enjoy the dream." Nana said.
"I sure will." Yusuke replied before he went back to the topic of the dressing room. "Oh, I noticed that the bath and shower area is just adjacent to this room. With Nana being part of the team, how do you manage with getting dressed and taking showers?"
"Usually, they let me go in alone first so I can get my kit on. Then the other players would come in after I get ready. After matches, I use the female officials' dressing room to have a shower, and change clothes. You know there's a female linesman in the Premier League, right?" Nana said.
"Yeah, I saw her in match highlights a few times." Yusuke replied.
"It's not as adapted for women as it is in Carrington, but it's more than decent enough for Nana in the circumstances." Kakeru said.
"Indeed. Shall we go at pitch level now? I’m sure you can't wait to see the inside of the stadium, Yusuke." Nana said.
"Let's go then."
As soon as Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke reached the players' tunnel just outside, they met one of the stewards usually assigned to the players' tunnel area on match days.
"Hello, Owen." Kakeru greeted the steward.
"M. Aizawa, good afternoon. So you are showing our new player the surroundings?"
"Yes, we are. He asked the club that we would be the ones showing him the stadium when we are back from the Far East."
"I see." Owen replied to Kakeru before turning towards Yusuke. "First of all, welcome to Old Trafford, M. Saeki. Are you enjoying your first visit so far?"
"I really do, thank you. I have seen a number of features such as the Megastore, the VIP and directors' box, the players' lounge, and the dressing room. We were about to go and see the pitch." Yusuke replied.
"Owen, Owen... Sorry to interrupt you, Yusuke." Kakeru said before he addressed to Owen again. "I was about to ask you if it is possible to play the little audio recording we play during stadium tours when the visitors arrive in this tunnel. It would give a taste of what he will hear before teams come on this pitch."
"Of course, M. Aizawa; we can have that. Just remember to not set a foot on the grass this time, alright?"
"OK! Thanks, Owen."
A few seconds later, Owen played the recording on. The audio recording consisted of sounds of applause from when both teams come on the pitch before kickoff. Along with the applause and the sounds of cheering, public address announcer Alan Keegan's voice was also part of the stadium tour experience.
“Here we go!” Nana exclaimed as she and her friends walked down the tunnel.
Alan Keegan: Welcome to Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams, home to the greatest football team in the world. Behold the record-breaking 2X-time League champions. Behold the...
As the 3 Japanese players walked out of the tunnel, and on the sideway leading to the dugout without touching the grass, Yusuke could only look up and around in awe at the stands' physical features.
"My word... I really don't know what to say."
"It's the feeling every single player has when it's the first time he or she comes here. When this stadium is packed to the rafters, the atmosphere is also something special with supporters remaining behind the team, and turning up the noise." Kakeru said.
"I've seen matches being played at Old Trafford on television before, but I never thought I would feel so amazed just by being here."
"Neither one of us ever thought so, Yusuke. It's the kind of feeling you can only enjoy when you have your feet in the place." Nana said.
"The only other time I ever felt in awe inside a stadium was when I first stepped in the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund. Sometimes, I wish I could have played with their first team before making the move to Manchester."
"You told me you got homesick by the end of your time with the Borussia Dortmund youth teams, did you? What happened over there?" Kakeru asked Yusuke.
"At the time I first left Japan, I only thought about growing a lot stronger as a player. I sure learned many great things to become that better player I was meant to be, but I was still a teenager who was not quite ready for such an adventure in a distant land, and I only realized it later. Mentally, I was no longer there. My performances went down so badly that they no longer wanted to keep me; that's how I ended up at Yokohama."
"We played against Dortmund in last year's preseason. We can only imagine what if you made it there, and faced us on the other side." Nana said.
"Anyway, let’s change the topic. What was your first goal here like, Kakeru?" Yusuke asked.
"It was also my first goal ever for this team; it was against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League. My teammates made a number of clever passes, but the last one came from a clever ball cutting back to the front of the goal. It was an easy tap-in, and I scored another one in the night. My first goal allowed us to take the lead while the second one clinched our ticket to the next round."
"Wow! That's what you call making a statement with your first goal. What about you, Nana?"
"It was against Arsenal, just 3 days after Kakeru's debut. Kakeru scored twice on that day too, but my goal ended up being the game-winning goal. It was on a counterattack. Kakeru held on to the ball, and the defenders were afraid of attempting a tackle because Kakeru already displayed good moves and top confidence. At the right moment, he passed the ball back towards the front of the penalty area, and my shot went off a defender to go in."
"I remember the atmosphere in the stadium getting crazy, and then the media going wild over those goals. So many people wanted to interview us since we became instant heroes because of that, but Noriko and the club kept us away from the traps that newly-earned stardom can set." Kakeru added to Nana's story.
"I already know you already said in an interview that your favorite goal so far at Old Trafford is one of those 2 goals against Arsenal, Kakeru. However, which one of your goals was your favorite, Nana?" Yusuke asked.
"It was no doubt against Manchester City during last season, in the 94th minute at Old Trafford. Ander made a brilliant through pass for Kakeru, then he took a shot, but the goalkeeper deflected it off the inside of the post... and suddenly the ball was begging for me to tap it in with no one else around me. It was a very important last-minute winning goal, especially because that particular game ended up making a world of difference at the end of the season." Nana replied to Yusuke's question.
"When I listen to the two of you, I think it's going to be hard for me to become a fan favorite. You have the spotlight while I play more of a supporting role."
At that moment, Kakeru received a call from his captain.
"Hi, Carras. What is going on?" Kakeru asked.
"I know that there were rumors here and there in the last few days, but everything is about to be confirmed within a few minutes. We have a new teammate joining us today." Michael replied.
"Who is this new player?" Kakeru asked. At the same time, Nana looked at a text message on her own smartphone.
"Matić? The big Serbian from Chelsea?" Kakeru asked.
"It's him alright." Michael replied. "Apparently, he had his medical at Carrington yesterday while we were in the air. I just have been informed about the signing and so are the other lads."
"What do you make of this since you have been in the English game for so long, especially with United?"
"I think it's a good signing. I'm not as young as I used to be, and your friend Yusuke is still fairly young. So I guess the Boss wanted to have someone he can trust as a reliable stopgap in-between." Michael said.
"I see." Kakeru replied.
"I don't expect Matić to play until after the Community Shield though. It's because he was singled out by the Chelsea manager during preseason. Do you need me to talk to Yusuke so he can get some assurance on his position?" Michael asked.
"I will try to deal with it. If I need help, I will let you know." Kakeru replied.
"Well, see you in training tomorrow if not before then." Michael finished.
Then Kakeru ended the phone conversation with his captain. By the time Kakeru turned back towards Nana and Yusuke, the look on their faces made it obvious that they also received the news.
"We just got the news as well." Nana said.
"We have now 3 defensive midfielders, including myself. How did this happen?"
"We did well last season, but we didn't have a proper defensive midfielder who is mobile enough, especially since Carrick is not that young anymore. It was always obvious that we would need more than one midfielder signed in this summer so we can compete on several fronts for this upcoming season." Nana said.
“But with that signing, what does that mean for me with the team though?” Yusuke asked.
"Don't worry about it, Yusuke. It’s a long season, and we will need all the help we can get in due time. If the boss went as far as Japan to look for a player, it's because he sees something in you. You will have your chances. Trust us." Nana said.
"It was the same for us before we made our first appearances with the first team. One coach told us at the time to 'keep working hard, playing well, and then our names would be on the starting XI'. That's all we did and have ever done since." Kakeru added.
"Thanks a lot, guys." Yusuke replied.
"Just take things one day at the time, and then everything will be fine." Kakeru finished.
Following those last words, the 3 Japanese players moved along with the visit as they had a look at the dugout where both benches were located. Then they left the stadium afterwards. It was already more than enough for Yusuke to think about how fortunate he was to be part of a big club.
7:00 PM BST
Later in the evening, Yusuke joined Kakeru, Nana, and Noriko for dinner.
"I really didn't think Chelsea would sell Nemanja Matić to us after we stole Romelu Lukaku from them." Noriko said.
"None of us ever thought it was possible, but we were kinda expecting someone would come alongside Yusuke." Nana replied.
"Since the newcomer is someone that the Boss knows, it should help everybody." Kakeru added.
"Are you not worried, Yusuke-san?" Noriko asked.
"At first, I was worried. But now that I put some thought into it, I know I'm still in control of my own destiny at the club. So I'll just have to work hard to earn my place."
"That's the spirit, Yusuke." Nana said.
"I'm sure the Boss will make sure you'll have enough energy and better chemistry with your teammates before you earn a place in the starting XI. After all, it will be a long season." Kakeru said to Yusuke.
"So the first training session in Carrington is tomorrow. What do you think the Boss will start with?" Yusuke asked.
"He will probably start with a light training session. Nevertheless, it is important as it will prepare us for higher intensity sessions on Wednesday and Thursday." Kakeru replied.
"He can also get us to work on particular technical aspects too." Nana added.
"With Arsenal coming on Sunday, I guess the drills in the more intense days will focus on how to counter a team that loves ball possession. Am I right, Kakeru?" Yusuke said.
"With Mourinho, you can expect us to be primarily set in a way we can hit them on the counterattack. Still, we have players who can play a good possession game as well."
"Noriko. I was wondering if you can tell us the news about our next opponents." Nana said.
"Oh... Yes, of course. Arsenal... Aaron Ramsey is currently hot with 5 goals during preseason. Patrick Jenpa began his camp slowly, but picked up the pace with 4 goals in the last 2 preseason games he played. Their captain Per Mertesacker just returned from calf injury last week, so he may be rusty. Also, Ryuichi Araki got a muscle problem last week. They say it's nothing serious, but they still prefer to keep him healthy for the beginning of the Premier League season in 12 days. Lastly, their main goalkeeper Petr Cech is not expected to return until the end of September, but they still have David Ospina on the ready. Otherwise, all of their players are healthy, and appear to be pumped up for the next season."
"You really know how to make a report. You're probably the only girl I know, other than Nana, who knows how to get deep in terms of soccer-related stuff." Yusuke said.
"Well... I try to keep myself up to date." Noriko replied with a tone of voice that displayed some embarrassment.
"You don't need to be too modest, Noriko. We wouldn't be here if it wasn’t for your help back then." Nana replied.
"She's a really good scout in her own way. After all, she helped Nana and I getting through our tryout before we signed for United. She showed us what strengths and weaknesses the players at the time had. We exploited their weaknesses, and showed the coaches at the time what we were made of." Kakeru added.
"Oh, that's great. In a way, you are one big reason why we all ended up here today. Thank you." Yusuke said.
"Well... It's my pleasure. I'm glad too." Noriko's face was getting a little redder.
"Kakeru told me yesterday that you have roots here, and so you know the city. What would be your best advice to any soccer player who arrives here?"
"If I can give you the same advice I gave to Kakeru and Nana, it would be simple: don't change who you are. Manchester is one of the craziest soccer cities in the world, but the key for success is always to remember who you are and where you come from."
"I'll gladly take the advice, but my life's already changed just by being here." Yusuke said to Noriko while his gaze was looking deeply into hers.
After looking back into Yusuke's eyes for a moment, Noriko finished the last bit of her meal, and then left the table. "I'm done. I just remembered I have something to do upstairs."
"What's up with her?" Yusuke asked.
"Beats me." Kakeru replied while Nana, who had an idea of what was happening, said nothing.
"Anyway, we just have to focus on the task at hand starting tomorrow." Nana said.
"And remember: take it one day at the time." Kakeru added.
"I will." Yusuke finished.
With those last few words in mind, Kakeru, Nana, and Yusuke were set to take on the following days of training ahead of the first confrontation in the new campaign between United and Arsenal, in the national stadium of Wembley.