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600 points in the Leaving Cert, a master's degree and two goals in this season's Champions League

Dundalk midfielder Robbie Benson spent five years studying at UCD but his move to full-time football could hardly have gone much better.

Benson picking up SSE Airtricity/Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland Player of the Month for August.
Benson picking up SSE Airtricity/Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland Player of the Month for August.
Image: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

ROBBIE BENSON CAN’T complain with how well his debut season at Dundalk is going.

Along with Patrick McEleney, the midfielder was one of two signings made by Stephen Kenny back in December as he looked to fill the significant void left by the Richie Towell’s departure for Brighton.

24-year-old Benson had to bide his time and made five appearances from the bench before being handed his first league start for the current Premier Division champions.

However, the Athlone native was yesterday named SSE Airtricity/Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland Player of the Month for August after his heroics in the Champions League qualifiers.

A late goal at Tallaght Stadium wrapped up the famous 3-0 win over BATE Borisov, and Benson also struck a magnificent volley away to Legia Warsaw as the Lilywhites just missed out on becoming the first Irish club to ever reach the group stages.

Source: Football Universe_11_of_11/YouTube

“Obviously we were through anyway, but that first one in Tallaght was the icing on the cake because they then needed two in the last minute to qualify which wasn’t likely,” said Benson, when asked which of the two is his favourite.

“Despite how good it was, I’d trade the one in Warsaw for us to have got through but that’s the way the goals went.”

Having come so close, it felt like a missed opportunity but having the Europa League to look forward to greatly eased the pain. Dundalk will meet AZ Alkmaar, Zenit St Petersburg and Maccabi Tel-Aviv — starting away in the Neterlands next week — after they were drawn in Group D.

“Everyone was thinking on the night, ‘Champions League, Champions League’,” he says.

“In the immediate aftermath, you’re disappointed that we didn’t accomplish what we set out to do, but it didn’t take us to long to realise what we had.

“The Europa League might be a better suit for us this year. We haven’t experienced the group stage before so it might be a good stepping stone and a good learning curve for us.

“If we were in the Champions League coming up against some of the giants of European football, those nights mightn’t be too enjoyable from a football perspective if you’re chasing the ball around for 90 minutes.”

Joining Dundalk ended a five-year association with UCD, the club he moved to from his local side Athlone Town as a teenager in 2011.

There had been other offers on the table at previous stages but Benson, who got 600 points in the Leaving Certificate, choose to focus on his academical studies out in Belfield and majored in chemistry and maths before earning a master’s degree in actuarial science.

“It was a choice I had to make,” he explains. I felt I needed to test myself in full-time football and not to be looking back, when I’m 40 or 50 and working in a job, at a time when I could have made a jump. With Dundalk this year, it has worked out.

The time was right to move. I had opportunities earlier but I said I’d wait until the time was right and thankfully it’s working out for me now.

“Not only did I play there for five years, it was my home. I lived on campus for five years. That’s where my live revolved around.

“We played them (UCD) in pre-season which was nice but this is the first time playing them in a competitive fixture. Hopefully we can get through.”

Robbie Benson scores from the penalty spot Benson during his UCD days. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

As he mentions, Benson’s current club take on his former one in the quarter-finals of the FAI Cup at the Belfield Bowl tonight (7.45pm).

The current champions will be heavy favourites to progress to the last-four against the Students, who are third in the First Division and chasing promotion via the runners-up spot.

Benson is proud to be one of the latest talents to come off the UCD conveyor belt, but doesn’t necessarily believe the sports scholarship route is the right one for everyone.

“People ask me would I recommend it for young footballers,” he adds. “I always say it depends on the person. I wouldn’t shoehorn anyone into spending time in college if it wasn’t for them. It’s a very tough process.

“There is no point shoving someone into a college if they don’t want to be there just because it gives them an opportunity to play football as well.

I would definitely recommend it for anyone who is intent on getting their education if that’s an important thing. As (team-mate) David McMillan said, you can get an education at UCD and play a lot of games at the top level. Especially for us, when they were in the Premier Division.

“They’re in the First Division now but they’re doing well there and hopefully they will get promoted.

“To be able to play in the Premier Division with all the top teams and still get your education while playing so many games at a young age is really invaluable for someone that went through that process like myself.”

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