Saturday was the fifth anniversary of David Bentley's England debut, against Israel. Five years on and one can only assume in Rostov, on the banks of the Don river that runs down to the Azov Sea, where the temperatures have not yet taken their winter plunge, the memory of that night in 2007 will feel pretty distant for Bentley.
He signed on loan at FC Rostov on Thursday, the late closing of the Russian transfer window having given him one last road out of Tottenham Hotspur. Spurs had been asking around £9m for a player who has not played for them since November 2010 or a loan fee for those wishing to loan him. Bentley had stayed in touch with Spurs' former Croatian goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa, now at Rostov, and when the chance presented itself Spurs allowed him to go.
It is a pity that Bentley, and what remains of his once-promising career, often invites derision. The image he sometimes projected was of a young man who was rather too pleased with himself, although in person he was likeable. It did not help that Steve McClaren billed him as the new David Beckham – they played in the same position and share the same initials. Bentley ended up winning fewer England caps than David Thomas (who won his while at Queen's Park Rangers in the mid-1970s, look him up).
There are legitimate reasons to criticise him, not least a series of speeding fines and a drink-driving ban after he wrote off his Porsche. He pulled out of the England Under-21 European Championship squad in May 2007 citing exhaustion, a damaging move for his career which, with hindsight, he would not have made. All young players make mistakes. It just seems that Bentley's have cost him more than most.
There is no pleasure to be taken, however, in seeing a young footballer's career fade away. If he is prepared to go to Russia, a country which the average English footballer and his agent will regard with trepidation bordering upon outright fear (even in spite of the wages on offer there), then no one can say that he is not serious about trying to get back on track.
It should also be noted that Bentley had terrible trouble with injury, most notably at West Ham, where he was sent on loan last season but had to return prematurely. His attempts to rehabilitate himself on loan have been dogged by progressively worse luck. He had hoped for a reprieve at Spurs under Andre Villas-Boas but it never came. One can only imagine what effect the last few years must have had on his confidence.
Rostov may not turn out to be the solution but it is a damn sight better than the alternative, which is giving up and seeing out the last year of his contract at Spurs in the gym and the canteen of the training ground. Yes, professional footballers do not face the same jeopardy as the average wage-earner but going to Russia demonstrates that Bentley has aspiration beyond picking up his salary.
What does Bentley's story tell us? That, for all the expectation, and in spite of the bad luck, he was not quite good enough to hold down a place for England. There is no great shame in that, although he would doubtless point to the injury problems of the last two years and the fact that he was inherited at Spurs by Harry Redknapp, a manager who never rated him, much less gave him a run in his favoured right-side position.
This was, nevertheless, a man who scored a hat-trick against Manchester United for Blackburn in 2006. At times his judgement was terrible. Having edged his way into contention under Redknapp at the end of the 2009-2010 season, when Spurs qualified for the Champions League, he was one of a group who dumped a vat of icy water on their manager while he was giving a live television interview. Redknapp was not impressed.
Bentley was one of those English players of whom a great deal was expected, perhaps too much. He had come through the academy at Arsenal, at a time when the club's senior team was playing some of the most sophisticated football in the Premier League. He might only have played nine games for Arsenal but the increasing scarcity of English players means that opportunities come fast for those who show even a glimmer of promise.
It has happened again with Jordan Henderson, who has found the transition to life at Liverpool difficult. Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair will either sink or swim at Manchester City. Ditto Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Nick Powell at Manchester United. In his first season at Arsenal, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been one of the few to establish his credentials to the extent that there is little doubt he will make it as an international and a player at an elite-level club. But, currently, he is one of the few.
Others, such as Ryan Bertrand and Tom Cleverley, have been fast-tracked with England but not their parent clubs. Bertrand had loan spells at five different clubs before he finally got a chance at breaking into the Chelsea team last season. Cleverley, who had two loan spells, has played just 13 Premier League games for United but could win his third England cap tomorrow. Yet neither of them, at 23, could be said to be young in football terms. Ashley Cole had played 92 games in the league alone for Arsenal by his 23rd birthday.
The last four years for Bentley are a tough lesson for any English footballer. He has described himself as an "absolute idiot" over his drink-driving conviction but his loss of form is more difficult to explain. In August 2008, he was still considered good enough to be selected by Fabio Capello for England; by the end of the 2010-2011 season he could not get into a Birmingham City team who were relegated from the Premier League that May.
It is obvious why young English footballers, given the chance, want to push on and try to prove themselves at the biggest clubs. That will never change. But in a league in which only 93 of the 272 players who played in the opening weekend were eligible to play for England, Bentley's case shows the level of expectation on the few who have achieved the bare minimum, and not all of them can cope with it.Reuse content