Fairytale Debuts Don't Exist
Stories and real life should be kept separate. Good things never fail to happen in stories and fictional works. That doesn't mean the same applies for real life. Fact of the matter is that it's completely the opposite.
When I discovered that my first official game in charge of Liverpool would be against Manchester United, apparently one of the strongest teams in the world, I was immediately hit by a wave of pessimism.
"Liverpool and United are huge rivals. We're going to have to make something happen or the fans are going to be on our backs," Hayama had said two days prior.
I didn't see how we could possibly 'make something happen' though.
After our tour of the United States and pre-season fixtures, I already had a fair idea of who my best players were, and what was the strongest starting eleven I could deploy.
Unfortunately, five out of the eleven I had in mind were injured, namely Sakho, Can, Henderson, Lallana and Sturridge.
It was as if the deities of luck themselves were favoring United.
I failed to see an outcome where we would come out of this with a positive result. Was there a way to forfeit a game before it started?
That was a question I strongly felt like asking, but it probably wouldn't sit too well with the players currently gathered in front of me decked out in the red jerseys of Liverpool.
They expected fighting words, morale boosting quotes to give them the belief that they could stand victorious at the end of 90 minutes.
"So, uh," I scratched my cheek. Never in my life have I managed to hold the attention of more than five people at once, let alone the eleven footballers and counting currently in the room. I struggled for a few more seconds, before succumbing to honesty. "Alright, I don't know what to say. Just get out there and do your best."
The players stared at me, strange expressions on their faces. Some even started to chuckle. I sighed mentally. Those weren't fighting words at all.
Beside me, Hayato Hayama appeared to be very concerned regarding my terrible team talk. He looked just about ready to step up and give a better pep talk of his own.
"Okay," I took a deep breath. "Let's try that again." As the players looked at me with expectancy, I continued. "Look, I don't like to tell lies. Of course, I do lie occasionally, but when I was a kid my parents taught me never to-"
Hayama nudged me rudely. "Just get on with it, please," he whispered.
I glared back at him, annoyed at his interruption. "Anyway, I don't like lying so I'll say it, I don't think we stand a chance of winning this one. It's obvious that the squad we have available today isn't as good as the opponents in certain areas."
As I finished my sentence, the men addressed began to murmur among themselves.
"Now," I paused, studying their reactions. "Get out there and prove me wrong."
There, that was it. I tried my best.
Thankfully, my best seemed to be enough, as the entire squad started nodding and agreeing with each other.
Hayama smiled and shot me a thumbs-up. I declined to respond in kind - he was just an assistant manager, not a friend.
The sight of Liverpool's home stadium Anfield awed me. Not exactly the stadium itself, but the audience that had filled into the seats to spectate the upcoming clash.
Of course, we also had people flocking to watch our games during pre-season, yet this afternoon was on a whole other level.
As I had just discovered, competitive matches meant a whole lot more than mere friendly games. The atmosphere was electric. The moment I stepped out of the tunnel, it felt as if I had entered a different world entirely.
Fans were waving flags the color of Liverpool red and belting their hearts out. It all got to me a little and I started to tremble. If it had been made known to me beforehand that football was this big of a thing in England, I might have thought twice about accepting Haruno's offer.
"Good afternoon Mr Hikigaya," I turned at the sound of the voice. It belonged to a tall man with outrageous hair. "Let's have a good match."
This was the manager of Manchester United, or so I'd been told. I looked at his face, and his terrible hairstyle, and quickly decided he wasn't my type of person.
I reluctantly accepted the man's offer of a handshake and proceeded to separate from him, returning to my side's technical area without any pleasantries of my own.
As the players from both teams marched out onto the pitch, I briefly went over in my head the starting eleven selected for my first game in charge.
Picking Mignolet ahead of Adam Bogdan, whose abilities I wasn't completely convinced of, was a no-brainer. Clyne, Skrtel, Lovren and Moreno made up my defense, which would be further protected by Lucas Leiva.
Milner, operating in central midfield, assisted a creative front three of Ibe, Firmino and Coutinho, while Benteke would spearhead our attack.
When the game kicked off, United worked swiftly and Mignolet was forced to make a save just sixteen seconds in.
I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Their passing was slick and sophisticated. Not even a minute had passed and it was easy to see which team was the better one.
These 90 minutes might just be the longest 90 minutes of my life.
I cringed as Mignolet was forced to make another save.
There was no doubt about it - after 20 minutes, United had quickly established themselves as the dominant side. As Liverpool's manager, this was incredibly nail-biting to watch.
At the very least, we were holding our own. United were clearly desperate for an early goal and despite winning in possession, could not find a breakthrough.
All we had to do was keep this up and eventually our time to score would come.
Just as I thought that, the referee gave a foul in favor of United. I cursed silently. Had I jinxed it? No, the free kick was some way off of our penalty area. There wasn't any way for the ball to be struck in from this range.
Juan Mata, a name I would soon come to remember and fear, stepped up to take it.
He swept it past every other player standing nearby, accurately firing the ball straight for our net. It was a gorgeous free kick, one that caused my mouth to hang open in shock.
Miraculously, Mignolet was successful in keeping the ball out of the goal, diving down to parry the shot.
I was about to breathe a sigh of relief, that is, until United's forward charged forward like a rampaging bull, leaving behind the mystified Lovren, and smashed the ball into the net unchallenged.
Yes, thank you God, for bringing my hopes up before dashing them. I appreciate it.
As United celebrated their goal, I looked towards the clock.
Just 64 minutes left.
64 minutes left, to find an answer to United's lead, and at the same time prevent them from scoring more goals. I wasn't sure if we could pull that off.
The referee blew the whistle, signalling for half-time.
The Liverpool boys filed into the dressing room, their faces possessing various sorts of emotions. Some were dejected, others simply looked frustrated.
United's goal had seemingly rejuvenated them and they had endlessly pressed the attack shortly after, searching for the equalizer that never came. United's defensive line was unbreakable.
"1-0," I said. "It's not the end of the world. I'm sure you all know this, but making a comeback from here is not impossible. We can still get something today."
Hayama decided that this was the time for him to speak up. "Nothing is impossible in football. When you guys get back out there, hit them back hard!"
Who allowed him to butt into my team talk? Nevertheless, I let it go. There were more important matters at hand.
"The scoreline doesn't reflect how we've played. You are all doing well and exceeding my expectations so far," I continued. Well, that wasn't the case, but sometimes white lies needed to be told. "Keep doing what you're doing and our time will come."
The players nodded in unison, some even punching the air and uttering battle cries. I looked on with satisfaction. Now for their fighting spirit to transition onto the pitch itself.
Unfortunately, for some reason or other, United upped their game after the half-time break. They increased their dominance, to the point where we were unable to get any possession at all.
With each passing minute, the chances of a Liverpool goal looked even more unlikely. It was the exact opposite for United, who had already forced several key saves from Mignolet, our side's best player so far this half.
I could tell that the players themselves were getting exasperated. That was proven all the more late on in the 71st minute, as Lucas roughly pushed a United player onto the ground.
Who was that United player? Yes, indeed, it was Juan bloody Mata.
It was Lucas' second yellow card. Off he went. I didn't like to swear, but I couldn't stop the "for fuck's sake" that came out of my mouth.
I switched things up, calling for Joe Gomez to replace the tiring Skrtel, who was having anything but a good time against the opposition forwards. Regardless, it already felt like the game was over.
My fears were confirmed barely five minutes later, as Mata knocked a ball over for his teammate, an amazing pass that eluded Lovren and Milner, who were both ready to intercept.
Striking it past Mignolet was all that was left to do. And it was done. 2-0.
Two assists. Brought my team down to ten men. Man of the match.
Juan Manuel Mata Garcia was most likely a name I wouldn't ever forget for the rest of my managerial career.