AS Barnsley’s Jared Bird strode out of the tunnel ahead of his full debut at Wembley, he could not resist a quick glance to his side.
There stood England’s Dele Alli, a footballer rated in the £100m-plus bracket, and if the 20-year-old Reds midfielder had not already realised the magnitude of Tuesday night then he certainly did in that moment.
“It was surreal,” said Bird, who moved to Oakwell as a teenager after 10 years with Derby County’s Academy.
“Coming out of the tunnel before kick-off was crazy enough anyway. I was staring straight ahead but then had a look to my side and saw I was walking out opposite Dele Alli.
“But I made sure I blanked it out. I stayed calm, as you have to. It had to be treated like a normal game.”
Bird’s level-headed approach certainly paid off.
Coming out of the tunnel before kick-off was crazy enough anyway. I was staring straight ahead but then had a look to my side and saw I was walking out opposite Dele Alli.Jared Bird
In common with all sporting red on one of the most famous pitches in world football, the midfielder emerged with tremendous credit from a stirring performance against a side who the previous week had opened their Champions League campaign with a convincing victory over Borussia Dortmund.
For someone who captained the Under-23s last season and had just 24 minutes action with the first team to his name, Bird was understandably pleased to make such a positive contribution and the hope now is that more opportunities lay ahead.
“The gaffer has, hopefully, seen he can trust me to do a job and I just hope that can continue,” said the 20-year-old ahead of Barnsley’s trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers this weekend.
“He told me ‘well done’ after the game and asked if I enjoyed it. I did. Not many people can say they made their senior debut at Wembley and against players of that calibre.
“It was a real experience. My family were all there, too, and that was special for me. They come to every game so it was good for them that I started.
“To me, it was a really good test and I enjoyed it. Plus, if you want to be a top footballer then you have to play against the top players.”
Making his bow at Wembley was further justification for choosing Oakwell when he left Derby in May, 2015.
“I came to Barnsley because it was a great opportunity,” said the Nottingham-born midfielder. “It was the only club I spoke to, the first place I went – and, straight away, I wanted to be here.
“The club has shown there is a pathway to the first team over the years and that is why I came. We have all seen in the past that the path exists, with lads like Mason Holgate, John Stones and James Bree.
“They all came through to the first team after getting their chance – and look where they are now.”