Ben­nett knows the value of bring­ing it all back home

Hav­ing re­turned from Eng­land, the veteran stresses the im­por­tance of de­vel­op­ing Cork’s fu­ture

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Em­met Malone Soccer Cor­re­spon­dent

“Do you hear the noise he makes,” says Alan Ben­nett, flash­ing his best “old pro” grin and point­ing to one of his 50-some­thing in­ter­view­ers as he sits down.

“That’s me get­ting off the bus on a Fri­day night af­ter be­ing away and af­ter five or six hours trav­el­ling on a bus. That’s me on a Satur­day when my wife wants to go out and have a look around town. That’s me on a Sun­day when I can’t get off the couch and then that’s me on a Mon­day. By the time Tues­day rolls around I’m prob­a­bly back, look­ing to do some­thing again. John, to be fair, gives me that time.”

John, Caulfield that is, has been well re­warded for his pa­tience and un­der­stand­ing. This time last year, Ben­nett felt he had another cam­paign in him and the Cork City man­ager was more than happy to have him hang about. The 36-year-old cen­tre half says he is proud of what he, they and Cork City have achieved since.

More proud even, per­haps, than of 2005 when a team he was part of came from be­hind to lift the ti­tle, he says we can de­bate it some­time over a few pints. They missed out on the double that year and so it seems safe to as­sume that if they com­plete it this time the drinks can be dis­pensed with, and we will have a clear win­ner.

Be­yond that, he says, there was a League Two ti­tle suc­cess at Brentford but there is some­thing dif­fer­ent about his var­i­ous achieve­ments in Eng­land where, it seems clear, they were more a mea­sure of how he earned his keep than an ex­pres­sion of the way he con­nects to the city around him and the peo­ple who in­habit it.

“I grew up in Cork,” he says with a good-na­tured smile. “I didn’t start play­ing un­til I was 16. I grew up in a GAA en­vi­ron­ment and there was al­ways a sense of com­mu­nity, and your re­spon­si­bil­ity to­wards that com­mu­nity as some­one in­volved in a team.”

Club foot­ball in Eng­land, he says, was not quite like that but his time at Read­ing taught him to be a good pro and, af­ter a chaotic spell on loan to Southamp­ton at a time when things there were im­plod­ing fi­nan­cially, his first sea­son at Brentford was the op­por­tu­nity to show any­one watch­ing just how much he had al­ready learned. “Over­all if you asked to sum up my 10 years there, phys­i­cally I think I was okay. I clocked up quite a num­ber of games in that time but I was a Foot­ball League player, I was a League One, League Two player. I won a league at Brentford in 2009 which was big for the club at the time. I would have been in­volved in a suc­cess­ful Chel­tenham team, a Wy­combe team that got pro­moted so at the League One, League Two level I con­sider my­self suc­cess­ful enough. And I think that every man­ager I would have had would say, ‘He was a good pro and gave his all and all the rest’.

“I’m proud of that be­cause there were plenty of times that I wanted to jack it in. It was so un­cer­tain, so crazy. I mean I won the league with Brentford and the next sea­son I was asked to leave.

“Pretty much three months into the new sea­son, the man­ager changes his mind, changes his phi­los­o­phy, changes the way that he wants to play.

“You’re just af­ter sign­ing a two-year deal, you’re three months in but you’re told, ‘Lis­ten, if you want to go some­where else, it’s no prob­lem’. I couldn’t wrap my head around it, com­ing from the GAA back­ground and all of that, you think if you give your all then you’ll be treated the same. But look, that’s the in­dus­try; it’s just so re­sults driven. We had prob­a­bly had about four losses in our first six games and the man­ager was re­ally pan­ick­ing I sup­pose be­cause he was un­der pres­sure him­self.”

Ben­nett took to play­ing for other clubs within driv­ing dis­tance of his home so that he did not keep on hav­ing to up­root and it worked, he says, well enough un­til it was time to come home.

“Any­time I talked to any club in the UK, I al­ways said that I wanted to fin­ish my ca­reer in Cork so that was well cov­ered. It wasn’t a snap de­ci­sion in Neil Ard­ley’s of­fice at Wim­ble­don. He knew full well that that was my plan.”

With squads kept to the bare bones num­bers-wise, he says, man­agers set a lot of store by how many games he was avail­able for and his body was begin­ning to creak un­der the strain of a fix­ture list that in­volved 50 games a sea­son.

“I said, back in Ire­land the league is 33 games and you’re in­volved in three cups so you know you’re look­ing at a min­i­mum of 36 games and that’s sort of where I see my­self phys­i­cally. He com­pletely un­der­stood and wished me well. It was just the right de­ci­sion I sup­pose.”

In his sec­ond sea­son back he played in just 23 of Cork City’s 33 league games but the scale of his con­tri­bu­tion went well be­yond what the bare num­bers might sug­gest. He un­der­stands Cork City, what it has been and what it needs to be. He speaks pas­sion­ately about the how, in a part of the world where it can of­ten feel like the poor sport­ing re­la­tion, it must in­spire then ap­ply it­self to de­vel­op­ing the next gen­er­a­tion. And he knows this spell of suc­cess has the po­ten­tial to be another sig­nif­i­cant step along the way.

“In 2005, when we won the league, Garry Buck­ley was in the crowd, y’know? Gearóid Mor­ris­sey was watch­ing. Hope­fully there’s girls and boys who watched us the other night and will think, ‘Why can’t that be me in five years?’ I know I’m prob­a­bly blow­ing a horn for Cork City now but I hon­estly think we’re a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent down here in how the club is run and just the county we’re in.

I think there’s a few sim­i­lar­i­ties here be­tween us and the GAA. As op­posed to Eng­land, there’s ab­so­lutely zero com­par­i­sion.”

He would, he makes clear, like to be a part of a process like the one he en­vis­ages tak­ing shape around a club that has al­ready suc­cess­fully de­vel­oped some very fine play­ers al­though he is, as he was when he went away to make a bet­ter liv­ing, acutely aware of how limited the op­por­tu­ni­ties are likely to be here at home.

“I think the foun­da­tion of why we’re all here is sport,” he says. “That’s what brings loads of peo­ple to­gether and that is an ab­so­lute passion for me. Soccer is ob­vi­ously the game I ex­celled at so I’m more pro­fi­cient in that. If you talked to me about do­ing any­thing else, I’d prob­a­bly hum and haw about it but I want to be in­volved and I’d like to fash­ion some­thing that’s sus­tain­able for me – that’s the key in this game.

“But that’s hard. Be­cause you have got, what, maybe five full-time man­agers? How many of them have full-time staff? Four? Three? That’s a small num­ber. There are foun­da­tions be­ing put in. I was in­volved with the 15s this year and those things are im­por­tant but, un­for­tu­nately, I’d prob­a­bly have to go abroad to do that in be­tween time.”

Whether he is away from the con­struc­tion job be­ing done for a year or two, those foun­da­tions, he is con­fi­dent will con­tinue to take shape; they have to, he be­lieves, if the league here is to have a more mean­ing­ful fu­ture.

“It is ab­so­lutely im­por­tant that kids can look and see a le­git­i­mate path­way,” he says, “by stay­ing at home and be­ing a pro­fes­sional at Cork City and not hav­ing your con­tract ripped up af­ter six months be­cause the club is strug­gling for cash.

“It’s im­por­tant for par­ents to see too that your kid can be 16,17,18,19,20 and un­der­stand what it is to be at your home club and play for the them.

“But the his­tory of Cork City has been boom and bust and that has to stop. Sus­tain­abil­ity is the key word – that ab­so­lutely PHOTOGRA PH: INPHO needs to be in place.

“I hope as a fan of Cork City that John is putting in those foun­da­tions now – I see it my­self. I hope, for in­stance . . . Seanie Maguire and Kevin O’Con­nor left Cork as 21/22-year-olds with a hun­dred odd games un­der their belts. A cup medals un­der their belt. Now a league medal un­der their belt. Fif­teen Euro­pean games. You equate that to a 21-year-old in Eng­land – I’m not sure they’d have those games un­less they’re re­ally ex­cep­tional.

You’re just af­ter sign­ing a two year deal, you’re three months in but you’re told, ‘lis­ten, if you want to go some­where else, it’s no prob­lem’. I couldn’t wrap my head around it

Cork City’s Alan Ben­nett cel­e­brates win­ning the SSE Air­tric­ity League Pre­mier Di­vi­sion at Turner’s Cross, Cork, last month.

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