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 1969 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.
Archer, Blackburn, Dizer, Leggatt, Lempicki,
Priestley-Cooper, Turner... legends to ourselves,
at half-time we'd suck orange quarters and gather
round Mr Fox who sat on a shooting stick
and blew acrid smoke from his cigar to disguise
the disaster to come in the second half.
Schooled to take on the world and do our best,
and then greet failure with humour and grace,
we look proudly out of the First Eleven photograph.