David Bentley: Much more superhero than villain
He's derided as arrogant, but when football has so few characters let's embrace a great entertainer who always plays the game with a smile on his face. Steve Tongue meets David Bentley
Sunday 09 November 2008
Football, according to Tottenham's David Bentley, can be "a bit of a pantomime". It therefore requires a pantomime villain or two, and he is unabashedly happy to play the role, as part of the great entertainment process that he believes is the point of the sport.
If it all involves some hissing and booing from the audience, whether in the stands or the press box, he will take that too, as Arsenal supporters discovered when they made their feelings known the week before last at the Emirates Stadium. "Bentley, Bentley, what's the score?" was an obvious taunt for their former player when it was 4-2 to the home side, but the last laugh lasted longest after Tottenham's astonishing comeback to equalise.
And laugh he did. "I feel like Superman, I could fly home," he smiled afterwards, a typically disingenuous quote interpreted in some quarters as coming from the mouth of a supremely arrogant young man. "Superman or Superclown?" asked one columnist under the stern headline: "Bentley must learn how to walk before he boasts of ability to fly".
It is not difficult, however, to imagine how high he must have been at the time. As a Spurs supporter, returning for a local derby to the club that only ever allowed him one Premier League game, he had been booed all evening, scored the goal of the season, then helped his team to an invaluable and highly unlikely point after being two down with two minutes to play.
A week later, sitting on a sofa at the Tottenham training ground, the sense of excitement still shone through: "It was brilliant. That's what you play football for, what you dream of doing when you're a kid. We'd watched videos and seen Almunia was off his line a lot. It just dropped for me and I decided to have a go. When you do something like that, you celebrate it." And the Superman line? "Sometimes you go into interview mode and have to toe the line and be robotic and pretty boring. I was just happy, probably saying what all my mates were saying."
He grew up with many of those friends deep in Tottenham country at Cheshunt after a peripatetic childhood following his father, an RAF serviceman, from Peterborough to Belgium. Paul Gascoigne was his favourite player, but Arsenal were the club who took him to their school of excellence and had him training with the seniors at 16. His debut in the FA Cup against Oxford in 2003 brought comparisons with Liam Brady's 30 years earlier and his first goal, against Middlesbrough, led to talk of Arsenal having found the new Dennis Bergkamp.
It was enough to turn a teenager's head, but not Arsène Wenger's, and although he was given only one League game, once the 2004 League title was won, Bentley now says: "I was there at the time of the Invincibles, who didn't lose a game. It would have been very hard for a manager to put a player in [that team]. There was Pires, Ljungberg, Bergkamp, Henry. So I'd never criticise the manager for that."
A loan seemed the obvious solution, and he was packed off to Norwich for a full season in the Premier League. He believes the expectations of him were excessive, as "a skinny little 20-year-old" with one League appearance to his name, but the experience was a valuable one. "I enjoyed it even though we got relegated. It was very difficult. We were losing and you can underperform, but it shapes you as a player and a person and I learnt a lot about myself."
After he was dropped by Nigel Worthington for hoofing the ball high into the air at a training session and shouting " 'Ave it!", Peter Kay style, one of those lessons was that it would not be a good thing to try at one of Wenger's sessions. As it turned out, there would be no more of those in any case. Making it clear to a reluctant manager that he wanted another move, Bentley headed north to Blackburn and, after an initial loan, signed permanently; which he celebrated by scoring a hat-trick at Old Trafford.
"I wanted to play football, I didn't want to hang around," he says. "I'm quite an impatient person. Blackburn was a great club with great lads and I loved every minute of being there. It had a heart, like we're trying to develop here. Everyone was in the boat together and it was a great environment to work in. A great laugh, every day."
A £15 million move to his boyhood club last summer should have been perfect, though as it turned out, laughs were thin on the ground until the transformation of the past couple of weeks; which, it should be remembered, has still left Tottenham bottom of the table going into this afternoon's game at Manchester City. "I was looking round the clubs and when I found out Tottenham were interested, there was no other place I wanted to go. It's a club that's growing, with the new ground and new training complex. We want to be a top club, and I wanted to be a part of that. I want to look back on my career and say I've done something special, and hopefully that can be doneat Tottenham."
All of which must have made the worst start to a season in the club's history something of a shock? "I'm passionate about winning and the start was so disappointing. Rome wasn't built in a day. We're trying to build a club and give the club heart and soul and make every person and every player care about the club."
If the implication is that some may not have done, he is not inclined to labour the point; nor to offer too much criticism of the Juande Ramos regime, although a lack of sympathy for the bungled transfer dealings at the last minute of the summer window does come across. "It can be difficult at times, but everyone knows before the season starts that that's the transfer window. We all know the situation."
Was there surprise when the squad were called together at their Docklands hotel to be told by the chairman, Daniel Levy, of the managerial change? "It's a results business and we weren't winning, so the chairman and board made their decision. They had a more Continental way of doing things. Whether it worked here, I'm not too sure."
It sounds too as though communication, hard enough when some players need an interpreter, can only have improved now that English is the first language again; even, or especially, Redknapp's colourful version of it.
"A big thing about football is communication, and Harry's got that in abundance. He's not afraid to tell the players what he wants. Sometimes they need to be told, and Harry's got that. His experience and character speaks for itself. He's been in the game a long time and earned a lot of respect through the years. You hear off other players what he's all about, and everything you've heard is true. Just experiencing it for the week or so he's been in, it's been a real uplift and a real positive feeling."
Having been played in several different positions by Ramos, Bentley would be delighted to settle down on the right of midfield, the position in which he hopes to win back a place in the England squad. His international career appeared to be on a smooth enough progression through the various under-age teams, despite once upsetting the then Under-21 manager Peter Taylor, until the early summer of 2007.
Man of the match for an England B team at Burnley – where he was booed for his Blackburn connections – he was immediately promoted to the senior squad by Steve McClaren, then blotted his impressive copybook by unwisely declining to go to the Under-21 European Championship finals, claiming mental fatigue. Omitted for the next full international as punishment, he finally made it into the senior side against Israel at Wembley, and was booed again.
Regrets? Of course not. "You make decisions, and whether it was right or wrong, I felt at the time it was the right decision for me. That's life, isn't it? The fans voiced their opinion but once they'd got that out of the way, the rest of the games they were fine. It was them telling me they weren't happy with my decision."
A dip in his own form coinciding with Tottenham's, he was left out of Fabio Capello's last squad, and has lost ground to Shaun Wright-Phillips and Theo Walcott, as well as a certain David Beckham. Bentley has never had a bad word for Beckham – "A player like that, if he's still got the ability, then you still play him" – but despite all the competition, he still speaks of a return to the squad in terms of "when" rather than "if". "A lot of players have come into the squad and come out, and once I get back in, I'll try my hardest to stay in, like any player does."
He may rub people up the wrong way at times but his philosophy is clear: "It would be boring if everyone was the same. Play football with a smile on your face. People come to enjoy it, whether it's having a go at the opposition or cheering their own team. That's why we love it so much." He obviously does; whether cast as hero or villain.
Words of wisdom
Bentley on... Harry Redknapp: "You hear off other players what he's all about and everything you've heard is true."
The Juande Ramos regime: "They had a more Continental way of doing things. Whether it worked here, I'm not too sure."
Spirit of Spurs: "We're trying to give the club heart and soul, make every person and every player care about the club."
That goal at the Emirates: "We'd watched videos and seen Almunia was off his line a lot. It just dropped for me and I decided to have a go."
Loan spell at Norwich: "I learnt a lot about myself going there. It shapes you as a playerand a person."
Life at Blackburn: "It had heart as a club. Everyone was in the same boat together, it was a great environment to work in."
His first club, Arsenal: "I can't remember them winning much for three years. Last time they won something, I was at the club!"
Football philosophy: "Play football with a smile on your face. People come to enjoy it, whether it's having a go at the opposition or cheering their own team."
Life and Times
Name: David Michael Bentley.
Date of birth: 27 August 1984.
Place of birth: Peterborough.
Height: 5 ft 9in.
Career: Started at Wormsley FC in Hertfordshire before joining Arsenal as a trainee. Played just one League game for the Gunners and joined Norwich on loan in 2004-05, scoring twice in 26 League games. Joined Blackburn initially on loan and then on a permanent basis, celebrating in style with a hat-trick in a 4-3 defeat of Manchester United at Ewood Park on 2 February 2006, becoming the first player in Premier League history to score three times in one game against United. Was the Rovers fans' player of the year in 2006-07 and scored 13 times in 102 League games for Blackburn before joining Spurs for £15m at the start of this season – scored first League goal for them with a 40yd volley against Arsenal.
National service: Was England U-18 captain and scored the first goal at the new Wembley for England U-21s against their Italian counterparts on 24 March 2007.
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