When you find yourself jostling for a permanent parking space in the back line of an elite team you have to grow up pretty fast.
Kaeden Atkins knows that only too well, after having made his starting debut as centre back for the Thirsty Whale Napier City Rovers' 2-1 victory over newly promoted New World Newlands North Wellington at home in the opening Ultra Football Central League match last Sunday.
Parking alongside blokes in the mould of fellow centreback James Hoyle, captain Fergus Neil on the right flank and Liam Schofield on the left, it's so easy to overlook that Atkins is, after all, just a teenager.
It's not that the building apprentice, who turned 18 on February 21, is complaining — far from it, because he enters a realm where if you're good enough then you're old enough to get the job done.
"Bill was happy with my performance but, obviously, there are a few bits I need to work on," says Atkins of coach Bill Robertson before they kick off in the second round against hosts Integration Works Waterside Karori at 2.30pm today.
The Blues are the defending champions in the elite winter league that Capital Football drives with predominantly Wellington campaigners.
However, they had lost to the Rupert Crump-coached side last season — one of two losses — at Karori Park in a fiesty clash that Atkins recalls saw the Rovers pick up two red cards.
Today the hosts are coming off a 4-1 whipping on their home turf to Stop Out Sports Club last Saturday.
"It's going to be a tough game again," he says.
Atkins says the experience off the bench last season and the scant but invaluable minutes with the Thirsty Whale Hawke's Bay United in four games as well as training with the ISPS Handa Premiership squad over summer all add to the incremental gains he has made.
The former Napier Boys' High School pupil reveals the quality is there for Robertson to mould a collective template but time is the variable factor.
"We're a good bunch of lads so that obviously helps with the team spirit because the winning mentality is still there."
Atkins says the depth and experience in the squad mean individuals need to maintain their standard or risk losing their positions.
While they had conceded a goal in set-piece against North Wellington, he says Robertson has put them through the spin-dry cycle this week to refine the defensive systems.
Robertson says the Rovers have lost only 25 per cent of their squad from last season, including veteran defender Danny Wilson who has retired.
"We've lost a couple of overseas players and the goal keeping situation has also changed," says the Team Wellington defender, revealing they had lost the services of Ruben Parker Hanks and Mackenzie Waite.
Robertson is mindful the expectations for the Blues to win has skyrocketed as they carry a target on their backs at every outing.
"You know, there's a lot of pressure there but it was good to get a win in the first game."
He says while Atkins is still young it is crucial if newbies wish to make the step up to the highest echelons than they put in the hard yards.
"I think Kaeden's developed in the seven months in our environment and four months in the summer youth league ... and now we've given him the opportunity," he says, adding the formula is the same for any Bay youngster wishing to emulate midfielder Karan Mandair's feat last year.
The Rovers are wary of what they suspect is a predominantly young Waterside Karori outfit and Robertson is familiar with Crump who was part of the Team Wellington set up a few summers ago.
"We're expecting a tough game because it's our first away game of the season so it comes with the long journey as some of the new players haven't done that before."
He says Neil is coming off a lengthy layoff from injuries and rehabilitation but has worked incredibly hard to acquire a level of fitness to command a position, never mind the leadership armband.
"There's still improvements to be made because, I think he's said, it's been 20 months since he last had a competitive game so he got through about 70 minutes last week and he'll just have to continue with his match fitness."
Robertson says the Blues looked shaky in a couple of occasions in certain facets of the game against North Wellington and also tweak a few areas where they feel they can be better.
"The more time we spend together and the more training sessions we have the better we'll get but, while doing that, we want to keep picking up points."