Cork City’s Alan Bennett has always stood out as a thoughtful communicator, someone who is happy to share the fruits of the knowledge he has accumulated during a long career in the game - the kind of footballer you will often hear his fellow professionals, and especially the younger ones, speak of as a valued mentor and educator.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise to learn that he has embarked on new career as a secondary school teacher. Last September, he began a two-year Master Of Education course at UCC and, as a student teacher, is currently on placement with a secondary school in Cork – albeit that the lockdown means he finds himself having to engage online, rather than in the classroom, with his first and second year students.
“I’m enjoying it,” he tells me, adding that his long-term ambition would be to combine teaching with coaching.
The latter in now his main focus with Cork City but he is still registered as a player with the club and, even at the age of 38, isn’t quite ready yet to officially hang up his boots. Indeed, the impact of the corona virus on football has only reinforced for him how much he will miss the game when the dreaded day of retirement does finally dawn.
“I suppose this experience has shed some light on what life would be like without football for me,” he reflects. “I would be lying if I said that the thought hasn’t come into my mind: have I played my last game? Is my career finished? But I think it wouldn’t make sense just to stop now. I think it would be premature because, like everyone, I’m just waiting to see what happens.”
Waiting, but preparing too. Because it’s the sheer joy he feels at the thought of getting back on a football pitch which is what, quite literally, keeps him up and running through the paralysis of lockdown.
“We have this running regime that we’re doing at the moment and when you’re out there on your own, one hundred per cent it’s the thought of getting back on the pitch that gets me out to do that and put in the times that we register to Joe Gamble, who is in charge of our fitness programmes. Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, getting back on the pitch - and even just participating in a game - is what gets me out on the soccer pitch out the back here. It’s pretty well overgrown now but I’m out there running because I want to get back on the pitch.”
Whether he does get another opportunity to don the City colours is bound to be affected by the make-up of the squad available to manager Neale Fenn whenever football does eventually resume.
“We actually signed two really good centre-halves (loanees Joseph Olowu and Joe Redmond) and they were very good to work with,” says Bennett. “So, along with Rob Slevin, there were four of us in terms of centre-backs but, absolutely, I still see myself as being available for selection. Of course, the whole situation we’re in now puts a question mark over everything.
“Putting my coach’s hat back on, it’ll be about determining what kind of squad we can assemble if the resumption is in June or August or if it’s September. We had four loanees in the first five games so there’s still loads of questions about whether we’ll be able to go forward with the same squad. Everyone’s just waiting for a time-line they can work off.”
Though Alan expresses doubts about the capacity of League of Ireland clubs to facilitate ‘behind closed doors’ games, he notes that, should it come to pass, the experience wouldn’t be an entirely novel one for him.
“When you’re in the reserves in the UK you would play in stadiums that are more or less empty,” he says. “I’ve played in those games in grounds where there was basically no-one there. In terms of purely playing, you’re so focused on the situation you’re in that it all becomes really micro. But when there’s a big moment in the game – a goal, a bit of magic – that’s when you do sense the absence of the crowd."
The consequence of that, he suggests, is that playing behind closed doors would affect some players more than others.
“I think the biggest influence it will have is on those players who are out there looking for the perfect pass, the perfect goal, the perfect moment. Why are they trying to create that? One, for themselves but, two, because people will love it. When I’m playing, my motivation is probably to get the better of someone. So regardless of whether there’s one person watching or a thousands of people watching, my motivation stays the same. It comes down to the individual player and how they perceive themselves. But there’s no doubt there are players who thrive off the crowd, who are very conscious that this is sport but it’s also entertainment.”
For all his vast experience of the highs and lows of the club and international game, it goes without saying that nothing could have prepared Alan Bennett for what football – and everything else – is enduring now.
“It’s just been an unprecedented experience,” he says. “A mad situation, crazy. There’s nothing I can compare it too. It puts that famous Bill Shankly line into perspective: ‘football’s not a matter of life or death, it’s much more important than that’. It’s obviously not now. This pandemic has changed the whole landscape of how we see the game.
“Look, I miss football. A lot. I miss sport a lot. It’s such an outlet for us as a society. But now we have this terrible impact on lives and the economy is frozen, and yet, as I said to my wife (Jackie), it’s taken a pandemic for us to get healthy as a nation, when you see the amount of people out walking and running.
"There’s some irony there.”