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Robert B Appleton

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The Debut
By Robert B Appleton
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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A young footballer's big moment...

For Matt (1986 - 2008)

Peter's boots clanked and stuttered along the corridor at close to thirty-three thousand decibels, one for each voice waiting to erupt outside. That was the stadium's attendance figure for the day, or so he had been told.

But what if it reaches capacity? It's never reached full capacity before!

His brand new sleeveless shirt itched all over, especially underneath the glittering Arsenal badge he had dreamed of wearing since he was four years old. He shifted weight from one leg to the other, not to limber up, but to prevent his knees from shaking like corner-flag poles on a windy day.

Please don't let anyone notice.

The smell of cut grass filled the antique passageway, reminding Peter that, in essence, it was no different than jogging onto any old Junior League pitch on a Sunday afternoon - something he once found daunting, but no longer. As the thought produced a smile, he felt a heavy arm rest across his shoulders.

A gentle voice said, "You ready there, fella? Don't worry, it'll all change when your studs hit that grass - believe me. When it was my debut, I sweated more in the tunnel before the game than I did during the whole ninety minutes! Think of it as shedding nerves... it's something we all have to do if we want to put on a good show."

Peter tried to reply, but couldn't find the words. Tony Adams is giving me advice... Tony Adams! Indeed, the Arsenal captain was not only considered the greatest central defender in England, he was Peter's boyhood idol. I'm about to walk out onto Highbury... next to Tony Adams!

His stomach felt like the twitching coil of a fuse, growing hotter and in danger of exploding at any moment. His shins now began to itch. The new red-and-white striped socks suddenly seemed very uncomfortable, not to mention the tight straps of his shin guards. I can't scratch everywhere at once!

Kicking his shins with each boot in turn, he recalled seeing players do that very thing before important matches. That's professional. The thought comforted him.

As he glanced behind, he saw an untidy line of fidgeting red and white. Limbs flexed and flailed. Bodies swayed as if to some crazy, unwritten rhythm. Each face he recognised imbued him with an indescribable surge of pride.

Oh, my god... Dennis Bergkamp! Scored goal of the month, last month. Marc Overmars! Patrick Vieira! They're all gods... and I'm leading them out onto Highbury! What does that make me?

Peter thought he could taste the anticipation seeping, creeping down the stone steps a few yards ahead of him. Tony Adams laughed hard at something his fellow defender Lee Dixon said. Peter caught Adams' eye and smiled dutifully. The captain ruffled the young debutant's hair. The big moment inched nearer.

Peter tried to focus on the game ahead. Arsenal hadn't beaten Blackburn Rovers in their three previous encounters.

Today will be different; they've got me with them... a flying winger. Soon as the whistle goes we'll have them on a plate.

A stiff elbow from out of nowhere scraped across his ribs. Peter winced and recoiled. A stone-faced official strode past without so much as a glance in apology. Adams noticed the incident and, seeing the pain in Peter's eyes, shouted to the man, "Hey, what's that all about, ref? Ref! I'm talking to you!"

"What's wrong?" the official replied, tucking his black shirt firmly inside his already hoisted shorts.

"Aren't you going to apologise to this lad? You nearly broke his damn ribs when you barged past just now!"

"I did no such thing. I hardly touched him. Kindly watch who you accuse... the game's not even started yet. Okay?"

Adams eyed the referee carefully. "Okay, but I'd better not see you do that again. Ever! Are we clear?"

The harsh official stomped along the tunnel to the base of the steps without saying a word.

Peter had never felt more important in his life. "I'm alright," he insisted, as the captain looked at him, concerned. "Just a bit sore, that's all. You'll have to be careful from now on, skipper - he'll be on your back for the least bit of a thing."

Adams grinned. "Oh, I'm used to that. In any case, I've got tricks up my sleeve referees will never spot. That's why they're referees - they blow their whistles at our level, but they can't play at our level. You have to feel sorry for them in a way. Most referees are footballers who never made it."

Peter had never thought about it quite like that. "You're right. I suppose we should feel bad for them."

"Not too bad, though," replied the captain. "After all, they get paid without knowing offsides from their own backsides."

The two chuckled together before another official waved for both teams to join him.

This is it! The moment I've been waiting for...

Boots clattered on the stone floor like the limbs of a metal centipede. Peter took a deep breath. Climbing the steps one at a time, he followed the rhythm of Adams' stride with studied synchronization. Of a sudden, as if the roof of the tunnel had simply vanished, a new world opened up around him. A flat, green wonderland, with a surface that seemed frosted in the floodlights' mighty glare, stretched to the distance, appearing never to end.

Incredible! Applause roared from one bank of the arena to the other, here and there outdone by cries of "Borin', borin' Ars'nal!"

Peter felt as though he had stumbled onto the centre of the world.

Every eye in the stadium must be on me, wondering who I am... they've never seen me before.

Endless cliffs of scattered colours and tiny figures towered around the twilit football pitch. Though his legs seemed leaden as he stood still, Peter's whole body was buoyant whenever he moved. It was as if invisible strings helped float him above the soft grass.

The teams collected together in formation across the centre circle. After a few minutes of waiting, fidgeting, the National Anthem started. Peter didn't know the words and didn't care. I'm with the greatest team in the world. As the hymn finished and the clapping resumed, the captain leant over to Peter and whispered, "Keep an eye on that ref for me."

The entire stadium rose to their feet as players took their positions. Peter ran by the referee, clipping his thigh with a strategic elbow. The stone-faced official spun round with a harsh squint. Peter glanced over to his hero, Tony Adams, who threw the lad a sly wink of approval.

Watch yourself, skipper - he'll be gunning for us from now on.

Peter was full of determination as he ran over to the sideline. Here we go. He traced his finger across the red and gold band on his arm and smiled. Across the centre, an embroidered message read Arsenal Team Mascot, Highbury. October 25th, 1996.

Twelve-year-old Peter's debut was over, but the biggest game of his life was about to begin.

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