Alan Bennett is enjoying a “bit of a touristy day” in London, and en route to the Natural History Museum, when he takes the journalist’s call.
“I actually had a bit of flashback there when I was walking past a hotel in Kensington,” he says. “I was like, ‘I remember that place’. I stayed there with Reading about 10 years ago. I remember it so well because we were on our way to a game and there was a Reading fan waiting outside for autographs. He came over to me and I went to sign his book but he just said ‘nah, nah, not you’.
“Doyler (Kevin Doyle) was right behind me and that’s who he was going for. That was a slap in the face if ever there was one. I’ve never presumed anything since and always wait until I’m asked to sign something now — not that it happens too often.”
It turns out though that, for the 35-year-old Cork City defender, the game is still not without its pleasant surprises such as the fact that the reason he’s getting this phone call from Ireland is to inform him that he’s won the SSE Airtricity League/Soccer Writers Association of Ireland ‘Player Of The Month’ award.
“It’s for November, yeah?” he checks. “So for one game? Maybe if we only play one game a month from now on I’ll do OK!”
The self-deprecating humour is appealing but, in reality, the award is fitting recognition for the veteran who finished off a consistently strong season with the high of a terrific performance at the back for City in their FAI Cup final victory over Dundalk.
“I really am very proud to win this award,” says the man they call ‘Benno’. “I’m humbled, to be honest. We finished the season exactly how we wanted to by winning the FAI Cup and to get this too caps it off. We’ve had a great year: Seanie [Maguire] finished as top scorer, we kept 21 clean sheets from 33 games and I think we can hold our heads up high. Ronan Finn got man of the match in the final so to be recognised like this is very nice.”
Collecting a winner’s medal, Bennett reveals, was almost certainly a decisive factor in his decision to extend his playing career for at least one more year.
“I definitely needed it,” he says. “It was my third final and I’d lost two. I couldn’t go through the process of losing another and then having to come back for next season. I had to win the game or I could have done something knee jerk after the game. Who knows? It was great to win something meaningful and it has re-energised everyone at the club.”
Apart from hoping to go one better in the league — at the fourth attempt — next season, Bennett says that another productive tilt at Europe ranks high in the club’s ambitions for 2017.
“Do you know, when you are young you are a bit of an idiot really,” he reflects. “I thought it was normal to play in Europe with Cork and have these opportunities but when I moved across to England and was playing in the lower leagues you soon realise it isn’t normal at all. It’s a privilege and you should do all you can to make the most of it. I’ve been in dressing rooms and lads have been genuinely interested to know about the trips I went on: ‘oh, you’ve been to Red Star? You went to Malmo?
“Europe is definitely the key for Irish clubs. It’s a bit like rugby lads who were playing for Cork Con and then got the chance to perform in Europe with Munster. That’s the springboard for their development and to become better players. It’s the same for us. I have the most European appearances for the club in Europe now and it’s something I’m very proud about.
“We did well in Europe this year and the game I always go back to and use as a reference point was the away game in Genk. We lost the game but played some breathtaking football. It was our best performance of the season and that’s the level I’ve kept telling the players we need to reach on a consistent basis, because we’ve shown we can do it. It’s up to us to push on and try and achieve what Dundalk have.”
Bennett is doing his coaching badges with a view to mapping out a long-term future in the game but, first up, he is relishing the prospect of what will probably be his final season as a player.
“I’m already looking forward to pre-season to get back into action,” he says. “We’re back training in the first week of January and then we’ll have the President’s Cup soon after. We have got to keep upping our own game because Dundalk are only going to get better. I was just thinking about the Presidents Cup the other day and I went to the gym straight away because of that. I can’t wait to get going again.”
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