Alan Bennett knows the value of bringing it all back home
Having returned from England, veteran stresses importance of developing Cork’s future
Alan Bennett: “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.” Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
“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 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.
“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 that is something that needs to be higher frequency in my mind. We have to see more Kevin Doyles, more Seanie Maguires, more Shane Longs, and more regularly.”
He has, as he says, been there and done that. Money will not be the primary motivation as he goes out at the Aviva and tries to help win the cup for Cork. And whatever happens he’ll be back next year having decided that, with an understanding manager, his body will get him through another campaign.
“I think John probably understands that I’m probably the last phone call that he needs to make. There’s not a problem. We have been speaking. I’ll do another season. It’s not signed yet. But it’s pretty much . . . ”