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Cherished Ireland caps can't compare to league titles for Cork City's skipper

Alan Bennett is eager to lead his hometown club to more silverware in Sunday’s FAI Cup final.

Alan Bennett Alan Bennett at this week's FAI Cup final media event at the Cork International Hotel. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

WHEN FINANCIAL DIFFICULTIES left Cork City Football Club in a perilous position nearly a decade ago, Alan Bennett had to watch from a distance as the drama unfolded.

Having just captained Brentford to the League Two title, Bennett followed the media reports from back home as his friends and former team-mates often played without pay.

A rescue mission was executed by the club’s supporters in 2010, but the early stages of life as a fan-owned club were still challenging. City sought to stay afloat while remaining competitive on a shoestring budget in the First Division.

Bennett observed the situation closely. He was keen to see a recovery for the club that launched his professional career but had business of his own to tend to elsewhere. The opportunity to assist with the reformation of Cork City FC would eventually come.

“Any time I gave an interview when I was in the UK, if I was asked about long-term plans I always said I was going to go home,” says Bennett, who had spells with Reading, Southampton, Brentford, Wycombe Wanderers, Cheltenham Town and AFC Wimbledon during an eight-year stint in England.

“I still get tweets from people saying ‘he always said he was going to do that so fair play to him’. When times were tough for the club, I was looking at it and hoping that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Unfortunately it was, but we’ve come a long, long way since then.”

Soccer - FA Cup - Third Round - Cheltenham Town v Everton - Whaddon Road Bennett tackles Victor Anichebe during Cheltenham Town's 2013 FA Cup third-round clash with Everton. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Events in the League of Ireland seldom resonate beyond these shores — and often even within them — but that doesn’t dilute its importance to those involved. In recent weeks, Alan Bennett has exemplified why it matters and means so much.

Bennett has represented his country at senior level and his club career took him as high as the Championship in England. But nothing he has experienced in football could compare to the euphoria that followed his side’s draw with Derry City just over a fortnight ago, which confirmed Cork City as Premier Division champions.

As captain, he collected the trophy after Friday’s 1-0 win over Bray Wanderers. From debuting as an 18-year-old beanpole wide-midfielder, to leading his hometown club back to the summit of Irish football as a colossal central defender, it has been quite a journey for the only first-team starter to feature in two league-winning campaigns in Cork City’s 33-year history.

The photographers who have documented the climax to City’s league season captured some powerful images of Bennett at Turner’s Cross over the past couple of weeks. After enduring consecutive runner-up finishes to Dundalk when he returned from England, Bennett — who turned 36 last month — had to be patient before finally adding to his league medal from 2005.

“This season has been really, really special,” he says. “With the football we played and the results we were getting in the first two series’ of games, it’s probably the most confident I’ve ever been as a footballer. You were going into every game thinking ‘we’re going to win this’ and not having any doubts about that.

“Getting to bring the league trophy around the ground after the game on Friday, it was magic. I spotted my wife, her mother and her brother in the crowd. Then around the other side my mother was there behind the dugout. I was able to go over to her, my uncles were there, my two cousins, and friends in other parts of the ground as well. They’re really personal things.

“Why does it mean so much? It’s a good question when you stop and think about it. There probably is more to it than it simply being my hometown club. I suppose I know I’m coming towards the end, for a start. You’re always going to appreciate stuff more when you know that very soon you’re going to be watching from the outside.

“There was also a little part of me that wanted to be a Cork City player with two league medals. In my legacy with the club, I wanted to be that guy who raised things to that next level. Nults [City goalkeeper Mark McNulty] has a medal from 2005 — I’m not sure how many games he played — but he’d say himself that wasn’t the same for him as this year.

“I think it was important that we won it at Turner’s Cross too. Bucks [City midfielder Garry Buckley] was there in 2005 watching as a supporter. Hopefully there were kids, boys and girls, in the crowd who thought to themselves ‘that could be me in a few years’ time’. That’s important for Cork and for the future of the club.”

Alan Bennett celebrates winning The SSE Airtricity League Bennett parading the Premier Division trophy at Turner's Cross after Friday's game against Bray Wanderers. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Bennett, who’ll extend his career for another year by signing a contract with Cork City for the 2018 season, will be able to reflect more lucidly on his achievements when his playing days eventually reach a conclusion. Nevertheless, he’s certain that nothing — including playing for his country — will eclipse helping Cork City to become champions of Ireland.

In the summer of 2007, just a few months after he left City to join Reading, Bennett was summoned by Steve Staunton for two friendlies in the US. Ireland played out 1-1 draws against Ecuador and Bolivia, with Bennett starting in both games.

“Looking back now, I was a guy who got an opportunity to be involved,” he recalls. “I felt I did quite well, but if someone asks me was I an international footballer, I’d probably say no. I’d say I played, but I wasn’t a proper international.

“I feel like you have to be in a competitive situation to do that. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but it would be similar here if someone was around the group but hadn’t really played for the season. Maybe they wouldn’t feel like they were part of this league campaign either. As a player you have to feel like you made a contribution.

“I cherish it, don’t get me wrong. Standing there for the national anthem and wearing the Irish jersey, no one will ever take that away from me. I look back at all those moments and images very fondly. But where will it stand in the overall scheme of things? Not as high as winning two leagues with Cork City.”

inpho_00228229 Playing for Ireland against Ecuador at Giants Stadium in New Jersey in May 2007. Source: INPHO/Donall Farmer 

A team going into an FAI Cup final on the back of winning the league with two games to spare shouldn’t have any doubts to dispel, but Sunday’s decider against Dundalk at the Aviva Stadium offers Cork City an opportunity to prove a point.

John Caulfield’s side were untouchable for the vast majority of the season, taking a remarkable 64 points from a possible 66. However, results took a drastic dip following the departure of top goalscorer Sean Maguire for Preston North End in July. The champions are now eager to show that they can prosper without the Irish international striker.

“It’s a very important motivation for us, to be honest,” Bennett admits. “Even though we conceded a late equaliser, the draw with Dundalk in the league a few weeks ago was when I felt that we finally kind of settled down in the new dynamic.

“People were able to work with each other and find patterns with each other. From there the rest of the games seemed to blend into one, in the sense that we were just seeing it out. I suppose you could say those performances showed glimpses of the new Cork City.”

Having first represented the club 17 years ago, Bennett has seen Cork City in many different guises. Should they complete a maiden double this weekend, the current version will go down as the most successful team to represent Leeside since Cork Athletic clinched both league and cup honours way back in 1951.

Whatever the result, there’s unanimous agreement down south that Alan Bennett’s contribution to a supporter-owned Cork City Football Club was worth waiting for.

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Paul Dollery

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