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The First Eleven

The blue and white striped football jersey
plucked from the peg, more chilly
than our own skin as we shrugged it on.
Then clattering out, boot studs grating
on the gravel, to the field and the first kicks
of a ball that would suck the grass’s wetness
into its leather panels, bumping
along heavily, resistant to the boot,
and, if not avoided by ducking, the head.

Here's the First Eleven team photograph,
the year painted on the ball in white.
Five boys seated on wooden chairs
with six standing behind, all in striped jerseys
except for the one wearing a plain blue sweater,
the only one allowed to handle the ball.
And now he holds it in this photograph
firmly in his hands, the boy who let in
more goals than the team ever got close to scoring.

Those that have survived this long
will not have kicked a ball in decades
and have now set their eyes on the walk back -
but not to a communal shower of tepid water
and a consoling mug of cocoa in the hall,
nor to a class of history or double maths
where they would gaze out of barred windows
and lazily score their names into an ink-stained
wooden desk with a twisted compass point.

Names like Dizer, Leggatt, Priestley-Cooper,
alongside the more familiar Gerrard, Turner, Archer.
United on the football field, at half time we'd gather
round a master, sat on a shooting stick,
as he gave his pep talk through wreaths of smoke
puffed from the cigar clamped to his mouth,
our noses crinkling as we sucked on orange halves.
Schooled to take on the world - and to fail with grace -
proud enough to have been once in the First Eleven.

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