The rise and unfortunate fall of my favourite Manchester United player
It was my very first game at Old Trafford.
I'd never had the chance to see Manchester United in the flesh, but after years of desperation my Dad and I had swapped tickets with a friend in order to take my first ever seat at the Theatre of Dreams. That friend happened to be a Norwich City fan, so we found ourselves sat down in the away allocation at the far corner of the South Stand; looking up at a cauldron of 76,000 fans. I watched giddily, league title already near-clinched in early March of the 2012/13 season. That game would go on to etch itself into my memory with greater detail and clarity that most of my Christmases, largely down to a single United player, and by far his best ever performance for the club.
I didn't know that would be the last season Manchester United would win the Barclays Premier League for the next seven (and likely many more) years. I certainly didn't know that it would be game that diminutive Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa would become my favourite football player in the world. Signed from Borussia Dortmund for a fee of £12,000,000 I had only heard news that we had bought the player from classmates at school, catching them say "I used to like Kagawa, but now he's signed for United." I was excited at the thought of a (personally) unknown player joining my team, but soon thereafter with the signing of Robin van Persie from Arsenal, that marquee acquisition of a league-winning striker immediately overshadowed the arrival of the Japanese maestro. I arrived at Old Trafford knowing little about Shinji, or what he could do with the ball at his feet.
That game against Norwich made it near-impossible to contain my excitement. Sat between a sea of green and gold scarves (which I hope to see more of) and fully-grown men wearing green dinosaur onesies (which I hope to never see again) every goal of United's decisive 4-0 victory felt like agony to suppress celebrating. The game wrapped up with Wayne Rooney scoring what is perhaps still the greatest goal I have ever seen in the flesh, but prior to Rooney's 90th minute thunderbolt, the most unlikeliest of scenarios had played out on the Manchester turf: Shinji Kagawa had become the very first Asian player to score a hattrick in the Premier League.
It was a very understated hattrick. Calm and collected. Slotting the ball into the goal with effortless composure. With his third goal, United's new Japanese number 26 jogged down the touchline, jumped up and punched the air in celebration right in front of us. He was my favourite now. He was the best football player in the universe.
It never got any better better for Shinji. Injuries blotted his short career at United, and with the retirement of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson coming at the end of Kagawa's debut season, the chaotic upheaval of Manchester United's post-Ferguson era hit the player harder than perhaps anyone else at the club. David Moyes arrived, hand-picked as a replacement by his predecessor and lasted just ten months into a six year contract before getting sacked. Kagawa barely featured, and certainly not in his preferred position in behind the main striker.
He was always demonstrative of his talent in close control and creative intent, but he would never live up to that mesmerisingly placid performance against the Canaries. His appearances were limited, his performances often disappointing, but the naivety of my youthful and optimistic heart would forever cling on for my favourite player to return to the form that had so totally enamoured me as a young fan. As a player that had played so instrumental a role in the success of Jurgen Klopp's "heavy metal" Borussia Dortmund after joining the Yellow Wall from Cerezo Osaka in 2010, under a different succession of managers, at a different time, Shinji Kagawa had absolutely every chance of progressing into the player he always had the potential to become. Unfortunately for him however, in January of Moyes' sole season, the worst thing possible could've happened to my favourite player: a replacement arrived.
I love Juan Mata. There's a printing of him hung up in my room, but when arriving by helicopter as (effectively) a replacement for Shinji Kagawa, the writing was on the wall. After just 18 months at the club, a new central attacking midfielder arrived from Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, and Kagawa barely saw the light of Premier League football again. A Champions League appearance against Louis Van Gaal's Bayern Munich with new boy Mata cup-tied would give me hope that the Japanese midfielder could impress, but he did not. Japan's football captain went out with a whimper. Van Gaal would end up taking the reins at United after the sacking of Moyes and a final chance was slid Shinji's way: League Cup second round, away to League one MK Dons - easy stuff...
No, actually. Apparently not easy stuff. Manchester United lost 4-0 away to MK Dons with Kagawa in the lineup, and soon after was purged from the squad altogether. It is fitting that that 4-0 scoreline, so positive for Kagawa's real 'arrival' in Manchester against Norwich, would too prove to be his death sentence in Milton Keynes. Of the 18 man squad that travelled to Stadium MK that fateful day, only two would remain at the club after 'LVG' has left. Van Gaal was as embarrassed as any of us fans and took to the squad a machete of ruthless destruction. Unfortunately it just so happened that my very favourite player was in his mad Dutch warpath. I don't blame Shinji for us losing to Milton Keynes, the team had Marnick Vermijl and Saidy Janko in defence and none of you even know who the fuck they are. No, sadly that game was the final nail in Shinji's MUFC coffin, and Kagawa was sent back to Borussia Dortmund for a discount price, and my favourite football player was long gone.
He plays for Spanish Second Division team Real Zaragoza now, after a short loan spell in Turkey at Besiktas. The tragedy of Shinji Kagawa is a short one, but it is perhaps the bitterest disappointment I have ever experienced with a player. Inexplicably more upsetting than David Beckham to Real Madrid, or Ruud van Nistelrooy to Real Madrid as well, or Cristiano Ronaldo... also to Real Madrid (Real Madrid broke my heart with three separate transfers as a child.) Still, the player somehow remains one of my favourites to ever grace the Stretford red and white. I still sign him in career mode, always wanting to give him that one last shot at making it for the team. Oh well, I guess I'll always have that first, incredible game at Old Trafford to remind me of him.
Thank you, Shinji. I miss you.
Ben Wheadon is editor and founder of Slow Motion Panic Masters. He is a Welsh musician and English Literature student at King's College, London and he should be writing a dissertation instead of creating a blog.
Michael Regan began work as a trainee sports photographer in January 1998. He has covered five World Cups, six European Championships and five Wimbledon Tennis Championships. His work is outstanding and we are extremely grateful for his permission to use his exceptional photography here on SMPM. Find him at @michaelregan on Instagram and Twitter.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in London, England.