Robbie Benson: I'd probably be playing rugby if I was growing up in Athlone now
Dundalk man has eyes firmly set on completing the double as Cup semi-final looms
Robbie Benson is confident he and Dundalk can complete the double this season. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
With a point required from four games to put their league beyond whatever mathematical doubt remains it seems safe at this stage to talk about Dundalk targeting a double. As Robbie Benson and his teammates contemplate one cup semi-final, however, the former UCD midfielder bemoans the outcome of another with the defeat by Cobh Ramblers at the same stage depriving the champions elect of a crack at something even bigger.
“To be honest, we are disappointed that the treble got away from us this year,” says the 26-year-old the morning after the midweek defeat of Derry City at Oriel Park. “We felt we really let the EA Sports Cup go. Obviously you can’t assume when you are playing that game in Cobh that it is the first part of a treble; that you would win the final or the other two but looking back on it now we could have been really in contention for it.”
Stephen Kenny played a weakened side that August evening in St Colman’s Park, something he is unlikely to do again in Oriel this evening and while Dundalk will be firm favourites to progress to another final, Benson is more wary than most of his former club after a trip out with Georgie Kelly to see them wrap up promotion a couple of weeks ago.
“I was saying to Georgie afterwards that they looked very confident and that is a big, big thing” he says. “You see with the play-off the difference between the Premier Division and First Division sides. The First Division side has all the momentum and so they will be very dangerous. People will expect Dundalk to win two or three nil on Friday but UCD have nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, they can go out and play with a bit of freedom and we will have to be at our best...”
The comparison doesn’t quite stand up, of course. Dundalk have not spent the season dragging along the foot of the table and no top flight side has ever gone into those play-offs off the back of a run of 13 straight victories so they have a bit of sense themselves of what they might be capable of right now.
Beating Cork rather comfortably at Turner’s Cross last weekend underlined it and Benson believes this second Dundalk team of the Stephen Kenny era is still getting better, something they hope to demonstrate when the European games come around next summer.
“It hurt everyone when Cork won the league last year but we had done well in Europe then lost three or four players and signed seven or eight with the intention of replacing them so there was a bit of an overhaul. Cork had probably been together two or three years and they peaked at a time when we were probably starting again.
“Now, this team is a year or two into the journey that that team that did well in Europe travelled a few years back and we’ve done well this year. It’s definitely a new team and we are getting better.
“Maybe they (Cork) haven’t had the credit they deserve for their achievements,” he continues. “It’s taken what’s developed into a bit of a dynasty situation at Dundalk to stop Cork winning more league titles; they could have won three or four but unfortunately for them they have come up against us but I think it has been great for the league that there has been two teams that have been so strong at the same time.”
Shamrock Rovers and Waterford, he expects, will look to close the gap next year with one obvious way being to poach a player or two, something that could quickly chip away at Dundalk’s supremacy but Benson is adamant that whatever about an offer coming in that is good enough to tempt him away, he will not be leaving Oriel for another Irish club.
“I wouldn’t really leave Dundalk for any other club here,” he says. “It’s the place to be. And it would take a lot for me to leave for a club away. I wouldn’t have any interest in plodding around, not challenging for something, in the middle of League One or Two. We get the chance of trophies here. We are going to win the league, hopefully the cup and we are going to get the chance to go again in Europe. Those are nights that you really remember.”
Such talk tends to be cheap in football but then this is not the sort of stuff that shores up a negotiating position when a player and club are in the process of hammering out a deal for next year.
Benson, though, has always retained a little more control over his destiny than many in the game.
At 14, after being asked over for a second trial at Newcastle, he got off a plane that had developed difficulties and been forced to make an emergency landing. Stephen Folan, now also at Dundalk, stayed on and signed for the English club a few days later.
Fear, he acknowledges, was a factor, as was fatigue after other trips away and a stint at an Irish underage training camp with an underage side. What made the decision a lot more straightforward, though, was a clear sense in his own head of how his future was going to unfold.
“If there wasn’t a problem with the plane I’d have gone but the fact that I’d been a way for the week... I was probably a bit tired and emotional, as they say.
“In the end, I just decided that going on that plane again isn’t worth going over to Newcastle for a week. But I knew I was going to stay and do my leaving cert anyway. It wasn’t as if I was going to leave school all of a sudden and go over and so it didn’t really cause me a second thought really.”
The following year he signed for Athlone and a year after that made his senior debut for the club in somewhat unconventional circumstances. “We were on the bus when they told me I was going to play and I remember saying to the youth team coach who was part of the first team set up that I didn’t remember signing any forms. He said it’d be alright but I don’t think it was, I think the club was docked points.”
Playing for his hometown club had, nevertheless, a touch of the ‘dream come true’ about it, something he feels would no longer be the case given the way it has struggled in recent years.
“I used to go to all the home games and the way it was I had local players, from Athlone playing for Athlone, who I could identify with whereas now there is no one really for a young lad who likes football to go down and see; someone who he then might see about the town.
“If you compare it to rugby with Rob Henshaw doing so well... if I was a young person in Athlone now I’d probably play rugby. I probably would because the football club isn’t what people do now on a Friday night. They’ll watch Leinster playing on TV and see Rob Henshaw so if I was down there now I’d probably be a rugby fan.”
As it was, his talent for football helped get him to UCD on a scholarship although a fairly exceptional Leaving Cert ensured he had far more options than most. He studied Maths then Actuarial Science opening up career options that come into play every time he sits down to weigh up a new contract.
Pursuing the other career is something I have to consider each year as well because if I’m 31 I’ll be starting at a stage where the others are maybe 24 or 25 which will be harder
When he pondered his first at Dundalk, a one year deal like each since, he was conscious of the privileged position he was in but says that Stephen Kenny persuaded him that he needed to set everything else to one side if he wanted to make the most of his playing career.
“We were just talking after I signed and I said something about how good it was to be able to focus on football while still having the education behind me and he said to me: “Look, you have to play as if you don’t have that’. It was good advice because you need that hunger....the first part of the Kenny magic.”
Still, the inclination towards one year deals was the upshot of having that external option, he admits, although his reluctance to commit for the longer term seems to have softened somewhat.
“My initial view was that the league wasn’t so strong and that clubs sort of went in cycles so I could sign for Dundalk, Stephen could leave, the thing falls apart and then I’m stuck there for three years.
“Pursuing the other career is something I have to consider each year as well because if I’m 31 I’ll be starting at a stage where the others are maybe 24 or 25 which will be harder. But I think now that Dundalk are a very stable club, that they are going to be competing for titles and be in Europe for the next few years, that is something that you would have to consider too.”
All of which can wait, he suggests, for another few weeks. Talks are already ongoing but for now the primary concern on both sides is this game against UCD for which he is likely to return after being allowed to rest a slight foot injury in midweek.
Losing last year’s final, he says, was particularly painful because of the absence of something afterwards to help shake off the disappointment but going out in a semi is obviously not the answer.
“It took me a couple of weeks to get over the final last year,” he says, “especially because of the penalty shoot-out. I felt we left the game behind us and then you end up losing on something that’s the toss of a coin basically. You are going away feeling crap instead of on top of the world and hungry for the new season. That’s something that has been driving me this year and I’m sure it’s been driving a lot of the others.”