The European Dance

'You can be a young lad playing in Europe instead of sitting on a bench in England'

Alan Bennett has enjoyed some big European nights at Turner’s Cross but there’s plenty of room for more.

Alan Bennett Cork City defender Alan Bennett at Turner's Cross. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

LAST WEEK’S TRIP to Sweden brought back plenty of memories for Alan Bennett.

He had some good times there during his previous spell with Cork City. The kind of experiences and achievements that he probably won’t fully appreciate until the curtain comes down on his career and someone else is marshalling the defence at Turner’s Cross.

City drew 1-1 with Swedish Cup holders BK Hacken at Gothenburg’s Bravida Arena last Thursday evening. A goalless 90 minutes on Leeside this Thursday will be enough to ensure that Hacken join Malmo and Djugardens on the list of Swedish clubs to have been eliminated from European competitions by City against the odds.

Malmo were beaten 1-4 on aggregate (1-3 away, then 0-1 at home) in the 2004 Intertoto Cup. The following year, Djurgardens — who went on to be crowned Swedish champions two months later — drew 1-1 with their Irish opponents at home, before being held to a scoreless draw in the return leg.

Travelling to face Hacken last week wasn’t like Bennett’s previous trips to Sweden, however. His memory recalls that those games back in 2004 and ’05 respectively “were more intimidating as they had much bigger stadiums than Hacken.”

But perhaps the prospect wasn’t quite as daunting due to the vast amounts of experience he has gained in the meantime — experience the 22/23-year-old Bennett had yet to gain back then. Knowing that a good result on Swedish soil was tangible certainly helped too.

Alan Bennett heads clear Bennett wins a header against BK Hacken's Emil Wahlström. Bobbo Lauhage / INPHO Bobbo Lauhage / INPHO / INPHO

“Maybe that’s it actually,” he acknowledges. “The stadiums might not have been as big as I remember because I was so young and impressionable. I suppose your perspective changes over time with experience and all the rest of it.”

Some complacency on the part of their opponents in those previous encounters didn’t do any harm either. Despite seeing a fellow Allsvenskan team beaten by City just 12 months earlier, Swedish international defender and Djurgardens’ captain Markus Johanesson confidently predicted after the first leg that his side would progress by winning in Cork.

“I’m not sure how much homework they did on us,” recalls Bennett, the only player in the current squad who played against both Malmo and Djurgardens, although goalkeeper Mark McNulty was among the substitutes.

“I can’t speak on their behalf and claim to know what they did and didn’t do in their preparations. But it just seemed to me that we shocked them a little bit. It felt that way to us.”

Bennett, who’ll turn 35 before the end of this season, is now in a position to impart that experience to his younger team-mates. He’ll make his 24th European appearance for Cork City on Thursday, breaking the record of 23 — held by Michael Devine and Colin O’Brien — which he equalled in Gothenburg last week.

Between 2007 and ’14, Bennett plied his trade in England, having been signed by Reading for an undisclosed fee believed to be in the region of £250,000. It didn’t work out for him at the Madejski Stadium but, after a short loan spell at Southampton, he established himself as one of the top defenders in League Two, captaining Brentford to the title in the 2008-09 season.

Danny Murphy and Daniel Sjölund Bennett challenges Daniel Sjölund of Djurgardens during their first leg at the Råsunda Stadium in August 2005. Bjšrn Tilly Bjšrn Tilly

Bennett, who won two Republic of Ireland caps under Steve Staunton, went on to have spells with Wycombe Wanderers, Cheltenham Town and AFC Wimbledon, before returning for a second stint with Cork City last year.

City’s European victories, allied to the club’s Premier Division title triumph of 2005, were what brought Bennett, as well as many of his team-mates at the time, to the attention of clubs in England. His own career may be nearing an end now, but Bennett is keen to help his younger colleagues to engineer similar turning points in their own careers.

“Yeah, and it’s something I say to them: ‘Look, one good season and doing it in big games like this could realistically change the rest of your life’. I don’t want to be melodramatic about it, but it really could. This is the stage to do it on.”

Big European nights have been among the highlights of Bennett’s career — he was also involved in victories against NEC Nijmegen (Netherlands), FK Ekranas (Lithuania) and Apollon Limassol (Cyprus) — and in spite of his seven-year absence from Cork City, he didn’t miss too many of them during his time in England as the club stumbled into financial difficulties not long after his departure.

When they finally returned to the Europa League last season, it was perhaps fitting that Bennett opened the scoring in their 1-1 home draw against KR Reykjavik. However, they limped out of the competition at the first hurdle following a 2-1 extra-time defeat in Iceland, which has merely added to John Caulfield’s side’s determination to make the most of their opportunity this season.

Soccer - npower Football League Two - Play Off Final - Cheltenham Town v Crewe Alexandra - Wembley Stadium 2012 League 2 play-off final at Wembley: Cheltenham's Alan Bennett tussles with Crewe's Ajay Leitch-Smith. EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

“It’s that old cliché but we’re only at half-time in a tie against a very good side, Hacken,” said Bennett. “The job is by no means done. Far from it. But the performance in the first leg was definitely big for us.

“We went to Reykjavik last year and didn’t do ourselves justice. That was probably in the back of the mind for a few people so we really feel like we want to make amends for that. We did that against Linfield in the last round, we did it away to Hacken and hopefully we can finish off the job.

I don’t think we have anything to fear and we certainly shouldn’t be feeling inferior in any way, shape or form. We went out there and we put in a good performance. It took a real bit of quality from them to break us down — it was a really good free-kick.

“But that’s the level that we’re at here; that’s the step-up in quality, and we were well able to match up to it for large parts of the game, so we should take confidence from that and go out and impose our abilities on the game as well.

“I’m just enjoying it all at the moment. It’s European football, massive exposure across the continent, everyone is looking at results and games. It’s an adventure. You have no idea where you’re going to end up, but that’s what makes it even more exciting. I really missed that side of things.”

Alan Bennett celebrates scoring Bennett celebrates with Garry Buckley and Kevin O'Connor after scoring against KR Reykjavik last July. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

He added: “This is where the club should be, in my mind. Cork City should be in a position where they have guys who are 22, 23, who have played a hundred league games and 20-odd times in Europe. This should be standard practice. The club should have those lads as valuable assets that they can then be in a position to sell, I suppose.

“That’s where the club should always be — getting through a couple of rounds in Europe, at a minimum. That’s where I’d like to see the club. That’s the golden goose that someone has got to crack at some point. That would be my vision for the club. It’d be good for the club and good for the players.

“You can be a young lad playing in Europe instead of sitting on a bench in England. You might be over there since you’re 17, getting maybe 10 games a year. There’s a massive difference. It’s just waiting for someone to crack it.”

The end of Bennett’s career is becoming more vivid on the horizon with each passing game. Maybe it’s the knowledge that the end is approaching, but his passion to succeed with his hometown club is more evident now than it has ever been.

He has yet to decide if he’ll continue playing into 2017, but with Genk (Belgium) or Buducnost Podgorica (Montenegro) waiting in the third Europa League qualifying round, Bennett doesn’t sound like a man who’s ready to play in Europe for the final time on Thursday night.

“Big European nights, this should be the norm for Cork City. Teams walking into Turner’s Cross, the fans getting in their heads while they’re taking a corner, the Shed rocking… these are the kind of nights I’ve wanted to be involved in since watching Davey Barry scoring against Bayern Munich when I was a kid,” Bennett said.

“I wanted to be involved in those kind of occasions myself and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do it. I’m grateful for that. But I want more.”

Trip to Belgium or Montenegro next up for Cork City in the Europa League

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