'I won't get the highs of winning trophies sitting behind a desk' - Robbie Benson has put career on hold to chase Dundalk dream
It's rare that an athlete excels in education before embarking on a career in elite sport, but there is nothing conventional about Dundalk footballer Robbie Benson. A1 honours maths, A1 applied maths, A1 physics, A1 chemistry, A1 accounting and A1 Irish.
His exceptional Leaving Cert was followed by a degree in maths and chemistry from UCD before he undertook a master's in actuarial science. He then signed for Dundalk FC.
Of course he was always a talented footballer, one who went to England for trials as a child, but his practical mind wouldn't allow for flights of fancy. He explored the opportunities that came his way but his feet were always firmly on the ground.
When it comes to success rates, the statistics don't lie. Only a very small percentage of young players make it in the ruthless world of the professional game in England and Benson was well aware of where his chances ranked. So instead of following his fanciful childhood dream of playing in the Premier League, he opted for the road less travelled.
He focused on his education, first at school in Athlone and then in UCD, with football ticking away in the background. Benson's parents both work in education: his mother is a chemistry teacher and his father lectures in the same subject. They helped shape his values but ultimately he's always taken charge of his own destiny.
So sure of his choices was Benson that in 2015 when Stephen Kenny came calling to seek his services for Dundalk, the young student, who was excelling on the pitch for UCD, wasn't tempted to put his studies on hold join the best team in the country. Even though Dundalk went on to do the League and Cup double that year, Benson has no regrets over his decision.
"I had six months left in my master's when Stephen contacted me and I chose to finish it," recalls Benson. "I achieved a lot personally that year and I feel getting my master's meant more to me than a double would have. As well as that, I got to play in the Europa League with UCD, I really enjoyed my time there, I was playing with a lot of good friends so experiencing that with them meant a lot.
"We won a round in the Europa League so UCD got a big windfall and I was thinking, 'Ok, I helped to pay back some of the investment the college made in me'. It all worked out."
It's hard to say for sure if there is any tangible benefit to being good at figures when it comes to football but it is certainly worth exploring with Benson. "I'm not really sure if it helps football at all, but I know I wouldn't take a shot if there wasn't a high probability of me scoring, I'd rarely take a shot from distance, how often do you see a goal like that go in? You want to do things that increase your chances of scoring and not do things that will increase your opportunities to concede.
"The game is all about scoring more than the opposition. I don't think about that when I'm playing the game, it's more when I'm looking back on a game and analysing what I should and shouldn't do. I look at statistics a bit too, I don't like giving the ball away and if my statistics for passes wasn't high I would be disappointed."
In December, Benson signed a new contract with Dundalk, a year-long deal. He only ever commits for 12 months at a time because he wants to keep his options open when it comes to his career. That doesn't mean he wants to look around for other clubs, the 26-year-old operates that way so he can keep control of his future.
"I don't know if this time next year I will still enjoy playing football, I might or I might not. Will the experiences we have this year mean I still enjoy it? Will I get injured? Will I be out of form? I don't know.
"If something happens, like I get a bad injury in August, people say to me would I not be better having a long contract for security; the flip side of that is I don't know will I want to come back from injury, will I want to go through the hardships of coming back or will I be happy with my lot?
"I'll have won two Leagues, hopefully by that stage it will be three, plus Cups and playing in Europe, that's ten times more than I ever thought I would do in football."
When it comes to his career after sport, the impact of being out of the normal working environment for a long period does play on Benson's mind a bit.
"It is a concern. How long do I want to play for, how long do I want to be away from the pathway I'm going to be on for the rest of my life? I've been playing football for three years, that's a very short amount of time relative to your working life. The main part of my working life will be after football. This time is the part that I'm enjoying, I'm getting to play football.
"When it's all said and done, in 50 years I'll remember most of my life working. I want to be a footballer now, I enjoy it, I won't get the highs of winning Leagues and Cups sitting behind a desk.
"I'm very fortunate to be doing what I'm doing. I want to do it for at least this year and probably more, it's 95 per cent that it will be more than that but there is a five per cent chance that I might get to the end of the year and say, 'I've enough now and I want to move on'."
A year after Benson opted to finish his master's in UCD, Kenny came calling again. The timing was right for Benson and he was delighted to join the League champions. Other clubs had shown interest but Dundalk and Kenny felt right.
"Around that time I met with a few managers and Stephen was the last one. I left the meeting with him having with no doubts at all. The impression I got from him was that he was very genuine, he told me things that you wouldn't tell people if you were trying to plámás them.
"He was telling me faults I had, times he saw me when I didn't play well and when I did play well too. He told me if I was signing I had to park everything I had done in UCD, that I had to focus on football and play like I had nothing to fall back on. It was something I never thought about before and it was good advice."
The transition for Benson from UCD to Dundalk was fairly straightforward. Admittedly, even if he wasn't playing football for the college, he wouldn't have lived the life that most students did so there weren't too many changes to make to his lifestyle.
"I wouldn't be into the socialising as much as other students. I enjoy spending time with people just not the type of typical college scene, going out drinking and going to nightclubs.
"Just hanging out would be what I'm into. It worked out well for me that I could say to people, 'Oh I've a football game on Friday so I can't go out'."
So when he arrived at his new club, Benson took Kenny's advice and got straight to work.
He spent a lot of time on strength and conditioning and although he reaped the rewards physically, it took a while to break into the starting team.
Slowly but surely opportunities came his way and he took them, scoring some vital goals on the European and domestic stages along the way. Benson is now a star player for the Lilywhites and his mantelpiece is brimming with League and Cup medals to prove it.
When the season kicks off next month, though, things will be different in Dundalk. Kenny has left his role as manger and joined the Republic of Ireland set-up. Vinny Perth is now at the helm and the current champions will be out to defend their title and keep their reputations intact.
And last week club captain Stephen O'Donnell announced his retirement from playing after six years at the club; he will stay with the Louth side as part of the coaching staff in a new role as senior opposition analyst and scout.
"We are fortunate that he is going to stay, he will take to coaching like a duck to water. He is someone I go to regularly to get an opinion, he has a great football brain. He will make a great coach, there is no doubt about it.
"Stephen [Kenny] will be missed but we have to move on. There will be pressure on us now to win the League this year. If we don't, people will say, 'Oh they couldn't do it without Stephen' and that will be a black mark on our careers and it will make people think less of the players who won the League in the previous years.
"Stephen was a big part of the success, don't get me wrong, but the challenge now is to do it when he isn't here."
Sunday Indo Sport