Benno’s drive to inspire the City pathway

There are veterans and then there are footballing veterans. At the ripe young age of 36, Alan Bennett chuckles when this ageing correspondent’s dodgy back elicits an involuntary groan as I attempt to sit down beside him.
Benno’s drive to inspire the City pathway

“Did you hear him? Did you hear that noise he made?” Bennett grins at a colleague.

“That’s me getting off the bus on a Friday night after being away and five or six hours travelling.

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 (Caulfield), to be fair, gives me that time. It’s the recovery, all about the recovery. When the games come around I actually feel quite good but it’s after the games, that’s the problem. It just takes an extra day.”

A class act on and off the pitch, the way the man they call ‘Benno’ has learned to look after himself means that, after some 17 years in the senior game, eight of which he spent in England, there will now be at least one extra season with his hometown team in 2018 before he finally hangs up his boots.

“Yeah, it’s really good,” he says with a smile. “I think John understands I’m probably the last phone call he needs to make. There’s not a problem.”

Ask him if his return to City, the club with which he won the league title back in 2005, has exceeded all his expectations, and his answer is unequivocal: “Yeah, 100%.”

He doesn’t hesitate to cite his successes with Cork as the highlights of a career which also saw him gain senior international recognition.

“I think that if you asked me right now, I’d say this league campaign, 2005 and then winning League Two with Brentford, that kind of order,” he reflects. “Maybe 2005 and this one we’d have a good chat about over a few pints but that’s generally the way that it is. I’m a Cork lad, I grew up following Cork City.”

Bennett was slap bang in the middle of his career in England when he was forced to look on helplessly from afar as the club he loves faced extinction.

“Someone asked me did I feel a sense of responsibility coming back and probably subconsciously I maybe did,” he reflects.

“I was probably sitting in England in my house, not worried about my wages, not worried about the club I was employed by going out of business. So, maybe there was that underlying current in me that I thought: ‘I’ve got to go back there and give that club that gave me so much, some good years.’

“But when I was looking in from outside I was just praying that it wasn’t as bad as what I was reading. Turns out it was — and worse. And you don’t want to be texting lads saying: ‘How is it there?’ because you’re only adding to their stress.

“Neal Horgan wrote two books on it, covered it really well. It was probably really a microcosm of the boom and bust. A little reflection of everything that can go so wrong and everything that can go so right. And I know which way I want it to go so I hope lessons have been learned.”

But does he think they have? Or could what happened within a few years of the ’05 title happen again?

“It’s not inconceivable but I think having John at the helm, there’s no looseness in the club,” he says.

“Because he knows this place inside out, top to bottom, and every cent and every penny he’ll understand the value of. And I think, him, people like Eanna (Buckley), Pat Lyons, the board, the volunteers that I could talk to you all day about, those people genuinely have an affiliation, ownership and sense of responsibility towards the club that I see being acted on every day. And that’s important. And that compared to then is, I think, the main difference.”

For Bennett, the success of a football club should be measured not just in silverware but in its capacity for developing talent.

“Seanie Maguire and Kevin O’Connor left Cork as 21/22-year-olds, with 100 odd games under their belt. A cup medal under their belt. Now a league medal under their belt. Fifteen European games. So they have probably 120 games overall as 21-year-olds. You equate that to a 21-year-old in England — I’m not sure they’d have those games unless they’re really exceptional.

“So it’s crystal clear in my mind that this is the ultimate unique selling point for our league, that you can put together a good young man, who’s well-rounded as a person having grown up at home, played 120 games, 15 of them against European opposition, been successful, understands what’s required for success and, look, if he has to move on, he has to move on.

“That’s just the nature of the environment. That’s what separates our game in Cork from the GAA and the rugby. You move on. But this is something that needs to be higher frequency in my mind. We have to see more Kevin Doyles, more Seanie Maguires, more Shane Longs, more regularly.”

Bennett is already doing his bit for that cause as a coach with the City U15s.

“Billy Woods is the manager, Dan Murray and myself help out,” he says. “Conor McCormack is with the 17s. Colin Healy’s with the 19s.” Once again, what he calls the “strategic influence” of John Caulfield is evident in this involvement of former and current senior players with the club’s underage teams.

“It would have been with his blessing, without a doubt. Anything that happens here is with John’s blessing. He wouldn’t have got a text on a Monday morning that caught him by surprise! No chance. There’s a lot of stuff that people wouldn’t see regarding John.”

Bennett has his own designs on going into coaching/management when he retires as a player but accepts that, with a limited range of full-time job opportunities available here, he may have to go abroad again.

But, first, his short-term personal ambitions and long-term hopes for Cork City will coalesce again at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow when the skipper and his team-mates look to claim a historic double for the club which has always been closest to his heart. Such glory days, he knows from experience, can serve to inspire the next generation.

“In ’05 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 (picking up the league trophy after the Bray game) 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. There’s only us and Cobh.

“So it is absolutely important that kids can see a legitimate pathway 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 them. I think there’s a few similarities there between us and the GAA. As opposed to England, where there’s absolutely zero comparison.”

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