The one that got away. When they come to write the history of Arsène Wenger and his unerring ability to pick out exceptional young footballers from all over the world, that is surely how David Bentley will come to be regarded. Among the Ivorians, the French, the Togolese, the Brazilians and the Spanish, how did English football's greatest talent-spotter come to overlook the kid from Cheshunt who joined Arsenal as a child even before Wenger himself arrived?
Bentley is at the Emirates today in the FA Cup fifth-round lunchtime kick-off, part of a Blackburn Rovers team who will be the latest trying to quell the erratic brilliance of Wenger's team in the cup competitions this year. But, for all the young men making names for themselves in the Arsenal team this season, Bentley too is coming of age. With six goals for Blackburn this season, including a free-kick against Bayer Leverkusen in the Uefa Cup on Wednesday, he was the outstanding performer in the England Under-21s draw with Spain this month and it would have been little surprise to see him named in the senior squad that week.
The man himself is an engaging character. He has been described as cocky; in reality he is simply confident - and in a profession where most 22-year-olds don't have an opinion in their heads he is thoughtful, reflective and unafraid of telling it like it is. The question of why Bentley left Arsenal - he finally signed for Blackburn permanently just over a year ago - seems to follow him everywhere; the answer is a lot simpler than you might think.
"It wasn't Arsène Wenger's fault, nothing to do with him. It was me," Bentley says. "This is the thing that people don't know: I chose to leave. I had signed a five-year deal six months before I left and it got to the point where I didn't want to be 24 and only have 30 games to my name. I didn't want to be like that. I have come away and luckily enough it has worked out for me. But it had nothing to with him [Wenger]. He had a lot of faith in me.
"He believed in me and always told me I was a good player. You look at the situation. At that time I had Pires, Ljungberg, Vieira, Bergkamp all playing at the top of their game. So to ask a manager to drop those players - well, he couldn't do it. No manager would do it. There was never an issue with me being English or anything like that. I wasn't going to get my chance, it was as simple as that. It wasn't his fault, just the way it is. I decided to come away because I wasn't going to hang about."
Coming away turned out to be more difficult than even an Arsenal schoolboy prodigy might have thought. He had played nine times for Arsenal when he joined Norwich City on loan in 2004 for their one recent season in the Premiership - "a little, skinny 20-year-old" - and after their relegation he joined Blackburn on loan last season. A new contract at Blackburn is already under negotiation, although the irony is that, had he stayed at Arsenal, he might just have been in the next generation that Wenger is introducing this season.
"Yeah, exactly. Certain players have been sold, certain players aren't playing well and they have been given their chance. But I wasn't going to hang around," Bentley says. "I was a bit more one-track minded. I wanted to play in the Premiership and I didn't want to give up an opportunity. I've seen [good] players who are 23 or 24 and playing in League Two, because every year you have to progress in every game.
"Now in every game I progress and slowly get better. If you're not playing you can't just pick it up. It's strange. You have to keep drumming it out, keep knocking down walls. People turn up to games and they doubt you. They'll be like, 'Well, we'll see how good he really is.' You are persuading people that you are a good player and every week everyone is looking at you. If you are playing once in 10, that's not good because everyone just sees potential. People say, 'He's all right, but it's not sustained'."
Bentley is a player who talks assuredly about the portrayal of footballers, about how in the "media-driven" world of modern football it is possible for a player to be built up before he has ever done anything. And he should know. As he went through the Arsenal ranks he was regularly, in his own words "talked about as 'the next Bergkamp'." There is an incredulous look from the other side of the table. "But I had never played a minute of football. Not one half of Premiership football.
"I went away on loan to Norwich and things were difficult because people suddenly expected me to be a fully established player - and I was a little, skinny 20-year-old and couldn't handle it every week really. I was fully exposed. But in the long run it has really helped me out because now I am more strong-minded, I know what I have to do and understand week in, week out and really dig it out to be a top-class professional."
We are talking at the Darwen Vale High School, just up the hill from Ewood Park where Bentley was marking the announcement of the £600,000 Barclays Spaces for Sports facility in Blackburn. He's a man of the North now, although his accent is unmistakably south Hertfordshire. Bentley's father was in the RAF and the family moved around: he was born in Peterborough and they lived briefly in Belgium before settling in Cheshunt, where he grew up. Now all the Bentleys, including David, have moved back to Rochdale, near to Blackburn, from where the family originally comes. And Bentley would like to put the record straight on one dodgy tabloid story: despite living in a Tottenham heartland like Cheshunt, he was never a Spurs fan. Another point of interest: the line in his hair just above his forehead is no fashion statement - "everyone says that," he says - it's a scar from when he cracked his head on a radiator as a kid.
The hat-trick Bentley scored against Manchester United at Old Trafford in a 4-3 victory last February - it's the only one scored there by an opposing player in Premiership history - was when he really announced his arrival. He is certainly among the "list of 50 players" Steve McClaren has identified as England material and against Spain this month he looked the most likely graduate from the Under-21s for the senior team. After seeing Joey Barton move up, it is a leap Bentley says he is more than capable of making.
"It was good to play for the Under-21s, but I don't want to be a 21s player for too long. I want to push on and get in the full team," he says. "It's a good set-up. I have a lot of respect for the manager, Stuart Pearce, and the way he is managing, it was brilliant with England and I enjoyed playing for him. The 21s is, hopefully, a thing of my past and the full team is my future.
"I still have to keep knocking on the door and it will take a few months, maybe another year, of playing at the top level and maybe I will get my chance. If I keep playing to my level then, yeah, I will be disappointed every time I am not involved. I was very disappointed [not to make the senior team against Spain]. I was looking to be involved and next time then, hopefully, it will come.
"I have confidence in my own ability. When things weren't going that well I always believed in myself. Especially in modern day football you have to believe in yourself, because everyone else wants to knock you down. If you want to be a top player you have to be confident. Everyone is there to knock you down, that's just the way football is, so I am quietly confident. A lot of players who play at the highest level are. Maybe I have a little bit more than others but that comes naturally to me."
He has strong views too on the way England teams should play and he shared them with the fans he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with in his local pub and on holiday in Marbella last summer, as he watched England's World Cup finals adventure go sour. Bentley's argument is that England should play the English way, the fast, high-tempo, aggressive style that makes the Premiership such an attractive league to watch.
"I watched every game as a fan and I thought we were one of the best teams in it - on paper. We just need to go out there and give it them," he says. "Our players are quality. World-class players. Probably the best in the world, if you look through our team. We have to go out there and give it them. Everyone knows it. We have to go out there and play like a Premiership team, because when you look at Europe now all the best teams in it are probably English - because no European team can live with it. If we play like Premiership teams and show the quality and believe in ourselves, honestly, we will win everything because we have got the players.
"Sometimes we get in that mode where we want to pass it at the back, and play it, and we are not like that. We are not like the Spanish and the Brazilians. If we played our way, we'd batter teams, we'd run over them. When I played with the Under-21s [against Spain], we were like that for the first half, but in the second half [when England came back from 2-0 down] we said, 'We have to go out there and just get at them'."
It is a compelling argument coming from an ambitious young Englishman and, as an Arsenal graduate, he should know when it comes to the difference between the English way of playing football, and the way the rest of the world plays it. "I think [when] you play for England, they don't play you the right way," he says. "You go there and play differently. For the [Under-21s] first half, we get into this thing, 'We are not as technically gifted as other countries'. That's stupid. It's just we play in a different way, more intense."
Mark Hughes, the Blackburn manager, tends to deploy Bentley in a wide right position, although at Arsenal he played off the striker - the position he played on the day he scored three at United. Bentley likes it out on the right because, in his own words, "you're out of the rough and tumble" and there is more opportunity to be creative. And despite the departure from the England set-up of David Beckham, there is still a queue of players with their eye on the right-wing role. Aaron Lennon is the man who, when he is finally fit for an England friendly, looks to be McClaren's first choice.
"We are two different types. He is an out-and-out winger coming inside and maybe going on the outside again - we are totally different players," Bentley says. "He's a great player, you want someone like that in your team. I do play on the right but I can fill in anywhere. I'm comfortable anywhere on the pitch.
"That day against United I played as a striker so everyone immediately thinks you are a striker, a centre-forward, and then if you are not scoring every week people think you are not having good games. The day I signed for Blackburn was the day I knuckled down and thought about becoming a top-class Premiership player. That's what I have looked to do, especially this season."
When he first went to the Emirates on 23 December, Bentley played exceptionally well despite being on the wrong end of a 6-2 scoreline and an Arsenal performance that was virtuoso at times. Three years ago he scored his one and only Arsenal goal, a real beauty in the last minute of a 4-1 FA Cup fourth-round victory over Middlesbrough. Against Arsenal in December (he was suspended for the Premiership game at Ewood Park) he looked like he had something of the devil in him, something to prove perhaps?
"It's just because of the added Arsenal thing. People look at it and say, 'Oh he wants it today'," he says. "The Arsenal thing? It's gone now. At the Emirates I wanted to go out there and play well because they were a good team and when you are on that stage in a stadium like that you want to play well. It's a joy playing. But my Arsenal connection comes up. That's the way football is, it's a funny game like that."
David Bentley was speaking at the announcement of a £600,000 grant from Barclays and the Football Foundation for a new sports facility at Darwen Vale High School in Blackburn. Thanks to the unique funding package, part of the £30m Barclays Spaces for Sports initiative to create sustainable sports facilities across the UK, and a detailed application from Blackburn Rovers and Darwen Borough Council, the site will benefit from the creation of a new indoors sports hall. For further details on the Barclays scheme check out www.barclays.co.uk/spacesforsportsReuse content