Wembley reward for Bennett's resolve
THIS time last year, Corkman Alan Bennett experienced the most turbulent close season he had endured in over a decade. Today, he leads Cheltenham Town out at Wembley in the League Two play-off final, hoping to record his third victory at this stage in three seasons.
Despite having captained Brentford to promotion in 2010, his relationship with then-manager Andy Scott soured and, coming to the end of last season, Scott told him he wanted him to leave the club.
"I had picked up a few injuries and I felt he didn't give me enough time. I was loaned to Wycombe, where I played under Gary Waddock, and won promotion with them, but my contract with them finished at the end of the season.
"Last summer was the most turbulent I have had since I was 18. I didn't know where I was going. These things happen in football, and it was a matter of waiting to see. I had an offer from Ireland and from abroad, but a few managers here were writing me off because of my injuries, which annoyed me the most.
"Then Mark Yates phoned and took me to Cheltenham and the game at Wembley will be my 51st this season, so it is good to prove the doubters wrong."
Bennett, 30, lives in West London, just outside Twickenham, and he decided to stay there, commuting to the West Country. "It's a one-and-a-half-hour drive to Cheltenham, but I don't do it every day, maybe two or three times a week, and stay with another lad in Cheltenham."
As a twice-capped Republic of Ireland international -- against Ecuador in the Giants Stadium and Bolivia in Boston -- he has experience of the big occasion, apart from winning the League with Cork City, playing in Europe and in an FAI Cup final. "Wembley may not be as highly regarded in Ireland as here," he said, "but here Wembley is the Holy Grail."
Last Wednesday, the Cheltenham players visited the dressing rooms and walked around the pitch.
"Usually you would get a training spin before playing at Wembley, but because the League One final is on Saturday we won't get another walk around until the day of the game. The important thing is to make sure you play the game rather than the occasion."
Cheltenham also made it to the third round of the FA Cup this year and played Tottenham at White Hart Lane in front of 35,000. "That experience will stand to us," said Bennett.
However, that Cup run seemed to interfere with their League form. "We slipped back and were out of the play-off places by March," he recalled, "but then we hit form and in April/May we knew we were going to be in the play-offs and we were able to rest players and that is standing to us now. It was our two second-half performances that steamrolled Torquay in the semi-final, so we are going into this game really confident."
Crewe, though, are favourites, having beaten Cheltenham in close games each time they met. Renowned for the good football developed at their academy, which is rated the best in their area, they also include Nick Powell, the young Manchester United-bound striker.
Bennett will be hoping to keep tabs on him, and maybe add to his own two goals this season. "I could have scored more, but that's not really my game," he said. "Still, no better place to score than Wembley."
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