“Once the half-time threshold comes, I can officially step over then. From youth team to legends team – somewhere in there is a nice metaphor for life...or something!”
Alan Bennett is waxing philosophical on his ‘dual eligibility’ for today’s star-studded testimonial game at Turner’s Cross which will see graduates from his Cork City youth team of nearly 20 years ago take on a club legends team, with the man of the hour – and many seasons – set to swap sides at half-time.
It’s a measure of Bennett’s standing as a legend in his own right at City, that among the many familiar names set to show their appreciation and respect by joining him in togging out are Dave Barry, Declan Daly, Dave Hill, Damien Delaney, John O’Flynn, Liam Kearney, Dan Murray, Derek Coughlan, Neal Horgan, Greg O’Halloran, Denis Behan, Ollie Cahill, and Joe Gamble, along with eight of the Cork City women’s team who won the FAI Cup in 2017 including Ciara McNamara, Maggie Duncliffe, Katie McCarthy, Christina Dring, and Kate O’Donovan.
The managers of the respective ‘Cork City’ and ‘Cork City Legends’ sides will be two more names boasting deep associations with the club - Stuart Ashton and Pat Dolan. Originally, the intention had been for some of the current senior men’s team to play an active part in the celebration but pressing circumstances for City in the Premier Division have put paid to that plan.
“To be fair to Neale Fenn, he’s under pressure big time regarding injuries and he’s had to pull the first-team players out of it, which I totally understand,” says Bennett. “They’ll be there but they won’t be playing.”
For the 37-year-old Bennett – twice capped for Ireland and once described by John Caulfield as “the best centre-back in Cork City’s history” - the arrival of his testimonial date means that the dreaded spectre of retirement can no longer be brushed aside.
“It has definitely focused my mind around the fact that it's coming,” he says. “Up until now I was probably in denial big time about the whole situation. Because you’re always on that knife-edge in training. One day you feel really good and you think, ‘I can still do this, no problem’. Then two days later, you’re really tired and really stiff and that ankle won’t ease up and you’re thinking, ‘I’m ready to finish this’.
"But then you sit down and think, ‘I’m 37’.” The plan now is for him to see out the rest of the season with City and then, as he puts it, have “a good honest conversation” with Neale Fenn and with Head of Academy Colm Healy – Bennett is currently on City's U13 coaching staff - about his future with the club.
But before all that, there’s still some vital work to be done in a bid to secure City’s place in the top flight, as the end of a season of turbulence, transition and no little trauma looms large.
“Absolutely. it’s been a very challenging, very tough season,” he says. “That’s life. You’ve just got to weather it as best you can and hopefully come out stronger for it. In terms of where we are now, I suppose there’s a changing of the guard and I feel like I’m part of that now as well, where I probably need to move on.
“But from what I’ve seen, from the glimpses I’ve had of what Neale Fenn has in mind, I’m excited about being a Cork City supporter when I’m finished, genuinely excited to see what he’ll put in place. There are some very good young lads coming through.
“Will it take time? Absolutely. But first, it’s all about getting results in the remaining games, starting with Finn Harps next Friday. It’s literally about having to stay in the moment and not thinking too far ahead. Trying to manage the situation. Confidence is such a fragile thing, it really is. And we’re in an industry where we’re scrutinised quite a lot. So, yeah, it’s get the results, get safe and start building towards next year.”
In the meantime, in an act of frankly unjustifiable cruelty, I decide to heap even more pressure on the man they call ‘Benno’ by giving him the mission impossible of picking his ‘Desert Island’ Cork City player – the very best of the best - from his own two trophy-laden terms with the club.
After exhaling at length, he confesses: “The other day, they asked me to pick my all-time Cork City XI for the testimonial programme and I sent them back 22 players.
"That’s how bad I am at this kind of stuff. I start thinking about context, about x and y, I get lost down rabbit holes. Imagine Colin Healy playing with Gearoid Morrissey…I know they did but both at the peak of their powers. Or Seanie up front with Kevin.
"Or with John O’Flynn, that front three. Or Shep up there with Dools and Kevin Doyle in the middle or…” Your answer, please!
On the day that’s in it, we’ll allow Alan Bennett to get away with two before dispensing with journalistic neutrality and taking the opportunity to join everyone at Cork City - and around the League of Ireland and further afield - in wishing one of the most accomplished and admired people in the Irish game all the very best for today and for the future.
Today’s Alan Bennett Testimonial game between Cork City and Cork City Legends kicks off at Turner’s Cross at 3pm. Part of the proceeds will go to the Samaritans in Cork and to the Cork City FC Academy.