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The First Eleven

The blue and white striped football jersey
plucked from the peg was more chilly
than our own skins as we shrugged it on.
We would clatter out, boot studs grating
on gravel, to the field and the first kicks
of a ball that sucked the grass’s wetness
into its leather panels and bumped along
reluctantly, a dead weight against 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,
with five boys seated on schoolroom chairs
and six standing behind, all in striped jerseys
except for the one in an over-large sweater,
the only one allowed to handle the ball,
and so he holds the ball in this photograph
firmly in his hands, the goalie who let in
more goals than we ever got close to scoring.

That was decades ago and those still alive
fear for their knees if a ball hits their foot
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
and gazing blankly out of barred windows
or scoring their name into an ink-stained
wooden desk with a crooked compass point.

Dizer, Leggatt, Priestley-Cooper, Lempinsky
Gerrard, Turner, Archer... legends to ourselves,
at half time we'd gather round the games master
as he gave his pep talk through wreaths of smoke
puffed from the cuban cigar clamped to his mouth
and we sucked on orange halves, noses crinkling
as we contemplated disaster in the second half.
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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