IT is easy to forget that Ben Kantarovski is only 21.
The home-grown midfielder has been part of the Newcastle football vernacular almost since the day he walked into Lambton High School.
A big kid with an even bigger future.
In 2008 at age 15 he became the youngest player to sign a full-time contract in the A-League, inking a four-year deal.
He had been training – and excelling – with the first team for months. A team that went on to win the championship.
His debut came in the opening round the following season, nothing less than a local derby and grand final replay. He played centreback alongside Adam Griffiths.
From there it has been a dizzy ride from one national team to another - overseas tours, an under-17 World Cup, two under-20 World Cups, the second as captain, a passport coloured with stamps from almost every continent.
On Saturday night Kantarovski lines up for another local derby, his 10th.
It seems strange given his record and the lightning pace of his early ascension, but the defensive midfielder is just happy to be playing. Full stop.
For the first time in his career, the Broadmeadow Magic junior is not an automatic selection in the starting side.
Kantarovski missed all but the opening four rounds last season with a knee injury, a problem that was initially expected to sideline him for six weeks.
In that time Zenon Caravella arrived at the club, Josh Brillante had a break-out under-20 World Cup with the Young Socceroos and went on to represent the Socceroos and captain Ruben Zadkovich also earned a national team call-up.
‘‘There is a lot of competition, a lot of players who can play that position really well,’’ Kantarovski said.
Despite a strong pre-season, Kantarovski didn’t appear on the teamsheet for the opening two rounds.
‘‘Maybe Gary didn’t see something in me,’’ Kantarovski said.
‘‘I didn’t chat to him about it. You can talk all you want, but you just have to show you can do the job.
‘‘He always says the best player will play.’’
In need of some bite in the midfield, coach Gary van Egmond promoted Kantarovski for the trip to Napier.
He was superb in a screening role in front of the back four and applying a harness to danger man Carlos Hernandez.
‘‘We knew he was going to be dangerous. It was a matter of whoever was near him having to close him down,’’ Kantarovski said. ‘‘He kept coming into my area so I had to close him down.’’
Kantarovski faces a similar assignment against Mariners marquee Marcos Flores at Hunter Stadium on Saturday.
The scoreless stalemate against Wellington was Kantarovski’s first A-league appearance since round four last season.
‘‘It was great to be playing a game in the A-League,’’ he said.
‘‘It had been nearly a year. It was a great feeling to be back out there.
‘‘You take it for granted until you aren’t playing.’’
Kantarovski’s long stint on the sidelines last season, lengthened by a fractured jaw suffered in an off-field incident, was the second major setback in three years.
He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee seven months before the 2011 under-20 World Cup. He rushed back in time for the tournament but paid the price. It took virtually a full A-League season to get his mojo back.
There was no chance of rushing back a second time.
‘‘When I saw the surgeon, he said, ‘You will be lucky to play again,’’’ Kantarovski said.
‘‘That got me thinking, what am I doing here. ‘It makes you stop and think ‘how much am I going to give it a go, how much do I want out of it’.
‘‘We wanted to make sure everything was right with it.
‘‘It was a conscious decision. If I rushed back, it may never have come good.
‘‘We took our time and let it heal. Knowing I was going to miss most of the season I thought why rush back for a couple of games when I could have a full pre-season under my belt.
‘‘Now I have full confidence and full range back. It is all guns blazing.’’
His time away from playing also allowed Kantarovski to focus on other things. He ramped up his university study where he is undertaking a psychology degree.
‘‘It was good that it took my mind off soccer and my injury,’’ he said.
Van Egmond has noticed a difference in attitude with the former wonder boy.
‘‘It is the first time where he probably felt he was not an automatic starter,’’ van Egmond said.
‘‘That is a little bit from the point that he it has been difficult with the injuries he had and lack of consistent training. With that, other players have come through and the standard of the league is getting better.
‘‘He knows he has to keep improving. We forget he is only 21. He has been around a long time. There are areas he needs to get better, but it won’t be from not working hard because he works very hard in his game.’’
Off contract at the end of the season, Kantarovski still holds ambitions of a move overseas – he went on a week trial to Bayern Munich in 2009.
‘‘It is every kid’s dream,’’ he said. ‘‘Football is a very broad game. A day is a long day in football. In a whole year a lot can change.’’