History Boys | Alan Bennett

With this feature taking its name from a play written by famed playwright Alan Bennett, it seems apt to bring the curtain down on this season with an in-depth conversation with his footballing namesake.

It’s a conversation that takes BEES to County Cork in the Republic of Ireland; the region where one is said to receive the ‘gift of the gab’ after kissing the Blarney Stone, the region where the Titanic picked up her final passengers at the mouth of Cobh Harbour before she embarked upon her doomed voyage across the Atlantic.

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Alan arranges a meeting at the Bishopstown Stadium – the training ground of his current employers, Cork City – some five miles from the hubbub of Cork city centre. From 1993 to 1996, this was City’s home and, with the greatest respect intended, the ageing facilities leave plenty to be desired.

A worn green carpet, adorned with the club’s logo, fills the floor; the clunky double doors are angled towards one another, testing the strength of the hinges to which they are attached; celebratory images of past success cling to the walls. Yet there’s an unmistakeably homely feel about the place.

A homely feel Alan couldn’t resist when the chance arrived for a fairytale return after seven years in the Football League. He had, after all, started his journey in the professional game with the Rebel Army as an 18-year-old in 2000 and in 2015, he returned.

“I said it from day one when I was over in England that I was always going to come home, it was just about timing,” he says, sweeping back his tousled hair after a training session in late February.

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“To be honest, the number of games in the lower leagues was catching me; there’s not many 36, 37-year-olds in those leagues and that’s for a reason. Especially in League One and Two because you need so many players to play so many games because you can’t have a massive squad of 30 players.

“When I came back here it was 33 games, it’s now gone up to 36, so it suited me better. It was more Friday-Friday-Friday, which gives you more time to recover.”

It’s easy to forget that, when Alan first crossed the Irish sea to join Reading in 2007, he was, in fact, already a well-established name at Turner’s Cross. If having won the League of Ireland Premier Division wasn’t sufficient, the fact he’d made over 160 league appearances, been capped by the Republic of Ireland at U21 level and played in the qualifying rounds of both the UEFA Cup and the Champions League was sure to catch the eye of teams of a more esteemed standing.

The Royals were the side that gambled on him, shelling out a reported £250,000 fee to bring the defender to the Madejski Stadium in January 2007. But he wasn’t the first to swap the emerald hills of his hometown for Berkshire, as he explains.

“Kevin Doyle went first; he was the first one to break the mould, really. Up until then there were 16/17-year-olds coming from Ireland, but Kev was older – maybe 21 – and he did really well. It probably cost Reading 80 or 90 grand to buy him.

“They took Shane Long for £10,000 and then they came back and took me. At the time, David Meyler and Damien Delaney were both in the youth team, too. There’s always been a steady stream of players coming through so it wasn’t a huge shock when a club came back to buy me.

“Reading were absolutely flying. From where they were at the time to where they are now, they are poles apart. When I went in January, because that’s our off-season, they had just finished outside Europe, which was probably the highest finish in their history.

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“That group and that club at the time was unbelievable and then, when I went on-loan with Southampton, it didn’t really work. They were about to explode because the club dropped to League One, so there were a lot of problems in the background.

“I went back to Reading halfway through the season and Andy Scott came and spoke to Brian McDermott, because Andy had just taken over from Terry Butcher as Brentford manager. I went on the tail end of the 2007/08 season, where the club was just mid-table and nothing was really going to happen, but Andy was getting our squad together.”

Under ex-Brentford chief Steve Coppell, Reading were relegated from the Premier League in 2008, but Alan was deemed surplus to requirements as a return to the second-tier beckoned. Along with Royals team-mate Ben Hamer, he came backndown the M4 to west London in the summer of 2008, with the pair signing season-long loan deals.

“Brentford was a club that demanded to be higher,” he recalls. “Because there was such a constant turnover of players, you had to keep the message solid. It was definitely understood.”

From the outset, it was clear that message resonated with Alan. He was one of the first names on the teamsheet come a Saturday afternoon or Tuesday evening and formed steely central defensive partnerships, first with James Wilson and later Mark Phillips, which both players have since praised during interviews with BEES earlier this season.

“Myself and Mark just loved defending and, especially in lower leagues, it’s the same thing every week: one big, one small, ball lumped into the box. Maybe sometimes you’ll get teams who like to play. You have to have guys who really want to defend, really want to do a gritty bit of defending as well.

“It sets the tone for everything when you have somebody like him [Mark] who is obsessed with clean sheets and obsessed with restricting chances. We had a really good back four and Ben was obviously flying, too. Lads with a lot of points to prove so that probably helped to click us altogether as well.

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“I’ve been playing football a long time and you don’t really get that too often, so it’s really special when you are in there because it’s just so easy and everyone just expects high levels. Momentum is used every week in football and it was just massive that year.”

Later down the line, he’d often captain the side, in the absence of Kevin O’Connor, who spent various spells out injured through the latter part of 2008 and 2009, too. It was, essentially, his first senior leadership role in English football and from there, he went on to assume the armband at various clubs from there on in, including Cheltenham and AFC Wimbledon.

As a born leader, he, naturally, takes such responsibility in his stride.

“It was brilliant,” he continues. “At the time, you don’t really think too much about it because you are so focused on moving along with momentum to the next game, recover, next game – you are just flying through the season. But looking back, I do get a little buzz when that picture is put up of me and Kev and all the boys lifting the trophy.

“I don’t recall much of what happened after we won the league at Darlington; John Halls took me home in a taxi, that’s all I remember!

“But the Luton game was chaos! I remember, in the second half, we were playing towards Ealing Road so the dressing room was over to the right, so the Luton fans would’ve been behind us and the Brentford fans at the bottom. Maybe I’ve been watching too much Game of Thrones but there were police horses on the pitch; I was defending and they were just steaming up the pitch, like a scene out of Braveheart!

“The Brentford fans were behind them, but could only get so far because there was a wall of stewards coming up the other way. It was just chaos and that image will always stay with me; the fans steaming up the pitch and me just thinking how I could get to the safest place I possibly could! That feeling and that memory will always stay with me.

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“That day was a bit more chilled, I suppose, because my whole family came over from Ireland. Funnily enough, I can remember the pubs better than I can remember the games! We went to the Fire Station down on Brentford High Street and a lot of my uncles came over and my family were there so it was quite a cool day because it was more of a celebration.

Going around the pitch was class afterwards, that was really cool because it was rocking. Everybody was there, Dave Carter was there, God rest him. All of the staff in the background, all of the people who’d been at the club for a long time, like Pete Gilham. It was just absolutely buzzing. You could tell then how much it meant to people when you meet them but up in Darlington, it was just the group; after Luton it was the club.”

With 47 appearances and one goal – the first in the 3-1 win at Darlington on the penultimate weekend – to his name in 2008/09, Brentford fans were suitably delighted when the Irishman put pen to paper on a two-year deal that summer. Not only that, he was handed the captain’s armband, on a permanent basis – a role he’d distinguished himself as a prime candidate for.

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Ben Hamer had returned to Reading during the close season, but aside from a new right-back in Danny Foster, the Bees’ back four remained untouched, with Alan, Mark Phillips and Ryan Dickson named in the starting 11 for the League One opener away at Carlisle, which they won 3-1.

But the return to the third tier induced a sense of anxiety, more than anything. Three wins in the first 15 games in all competitions left them out of the Carling Cup, out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy and languishing in 21st position in the table. It was a similar story for Alan, who, due to the return of James Wilson on loan, the emergence of Leon Legge and, as he concedes, “Not really representing myself well on the pitch,” made sporadic appearances over the first four months of the season. There was no chance to build the momentum that had served him so well.

“I remember starting well, but picking up an injury against Norwich. I felt definite frustration, but a lot of it at myself for not being able to really show what I was able to do again. It was a very disjointed season.

“Pim Balkestein came in on loan from Ipswich and I remember raging and then that Tuesday, I got tickets to go to the ATP Masters Tennis. I was sitting in the O2 watching tennis and Pim Balkestein comes in and sits down right beside me! So I got talking to him and he was actually an alright guy, but that day I just had the hump because he’d come in and that afternoon I was sitting beside him watching tennis!

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“I suppose, thinking back now, Andy’s recruitment was strong in the title-winning season and maybe that laid a blueprint for him in his mind that he needed to keep a high frequency of players coming in. I’m older and a bit wiser now but from his point of view he was looking at the group and he felt like he constantly needed to refresh it. But in that second season, I don’t think it worked because you had a core group of lads, like he said, who ran the dressing room for him.

“You can’t replace those too quickly and I felt like I was one of those players. I felt that I was having that impact in the group and if you started to pick apart those players too quickly, it can ruffle feathers, for want of a better phrase. I met him at the training ground when I’ve been there since and we had a quick chat where, he didn’t really say it, but he admitted to making a few mistakes, which we all do.”

Alan joined Wycombe on loan for a month in late February 2010, making five appearances for the Chairboys before returning to Griffin Park. Three days after his penultimate game for the Buckinghamshire side – he returned to Adams Park in late April – he was brought on as a half-time substitute for Mark Phillips in an eventual 3-0 defeat away at Brighton.

Goals from Glenn Murray and Adam Virgo had set the Seagulls on course, yet Alan suffered the ignominy of being sent off on what proved to be his final game for Brentford, his deliberate hand-ball allowing ex-Bees striker Nicky Forster to round off a comprehensive victory on the south coast. That summer, he joined Wycombe on a one-year deal.

“I do regret the way I left, I suppose,” he says, with a glum look; memories playing out in his head as he re-visits that period.

“I do regret the way it finished because it was probably too hasty because I loved being there and I loved the club. It was left to me, but I was told that there wasn’t going to be much for me, that was the end of the road. Then I spoke to a few people who I trusted in the game and they all told me to do what the manager was asking me to do, which was to move on. That’s probably the bit I regret, perhaps I should’ve stuck it out, maybe I should’ve given it more time. But then again, football is short.

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“It hurt me a bit, it stung me for a while. It took me about a year to get over that, which is quite a long time in football, equivalent to about 10 years in a normal career. I wandered a bit at Wycombe and it wasn’t until I went to Cheltenham that I rebooted myself a bit. It stung me a little bit, but that’s in the past now.

That’s not to say he winces as he recounts memories of his time in TW8.

“I remember the craic at the training ground, really. Just bouncing into the training ground. The pre-fabs weren’t even there, there was just one at the time and that was the physio room. We used to have terrible cooking; Dave Carter’s cooking was terrible and I just used to go home stinking of garlic every day!

“Just great lads, that’s all it is. We used to play head tennis for hours, me, Kev, Hunty, Gary Smith. Just those things, it’s always those things because those are the things that pass the time. The games are 90 minutes maybe twice a week, but the actual stuff you do day-to-day is the stuff you remember.

“They used to hammer my jacket. I had a leather jacket and I wore it a few times and thought I was gangster, heading over from Cork straight over to London Fashion Week! I remember going into the dressing room one day and there was an A4 sheet on the wall and everybody had signed for me to get rid of this jacket. I remember one time they clingfilmed up my trainers, too. I was loyal to my trainers and got my value out of them – I blame Newts for that one! There was always just good craic, but Kev was always positive and he always kept the place ticking over.”

All was not lost for Alan, however. He helped Wycombe achieve promotion back to League One in the 2010/11 season, before 18 months at Cheltenham, which encapsulated an FA Cup tie with Tottenham and a spot in the 2012 League Two play-off final. He then returned to London, captaining the AFC Wimbledon side that survived relegation to non-league in 2013, prior to his return to Cork, which was completed in February 2015.

And a fairytale it has been. He scored Cork’s first European goal since 2007 against KR Reykjavik in July 2005, captained his hometown club to a league and cup double and has slotted right back into daily life at Turner’s Cross like he’d never been away.

This season has been one not only disrupted by injury for Alan, but John Caulfield’s men currently look a way off replicating last year’s second place finish. But with undergraduate degrees in Business and Journalism, as well as a Masters in coaching set to be completed next month, Alan seems suitably equipped for a career off the pitch, when he decides the time is right. Is that this season? A public statement is yet to materialise.

“I’m the assistant manager of the U13s here, which is really cool and I’m really enjoying it. You go from a group of lads who probably bitch and moan a bit too much, to a group of 13-year-olds who are delighted to play football and it totally reinvigorates you. You leave loving football again because they want to know when they can watch their game and receive feedback. They’d lost this game 3-2 and they were just asking when they could see it – it’s great.

“Going forward, I’m at a bit of a crossroads; I don’t know if I want to stay in football full-time because it’s quite an uncertain industry, in the sense that you just never know what’s going to happen. Or will I go down the road of maybe going into the business world? A ‘real’ job, as they say.

“I can guarantee that, in some shape or form, football will be in my life. It’ll definitely be there in some capacity, I just don’t know what capacity yet.”

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