Bent fills Rooney's boots and fixes United in his sights

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The Independent Football

You can tell what kind of footballing life Marcus Bent has had by knowing two facts. One: five of his current or former clubs are in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Two: He is 26 years old.

You can tell what kind of footballing life Marcus Bent has had by knowing two facts. One: five of his current or former clubs are in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Two: He is 26 years old.

We try listing them. "Blackburn, Sheffield United, Brentford - all going off there, isn't it? - Everton, naturally. Leicester. No, Leicester are out." We both agree that Leicester are out until, driving towards Manchester, their tie with Charlton is previewed on the radio.

When you consider that Bent has also plied his trade at Ipswich, Crystal Palace and Port Vale, he might even outdo Tommy Docherty if he repeats his weary joke about having had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus.

When Bent came to Everton in June they had just avoided relegation and the club were convulsed by a power struggle between the chairman, Bill Kenwright, and his partner, Paul Gregg. Their greatest asset, Wayne Rooney, had indicated that his future lay away from Merseyside and Tomasz Radzinski had already departed for Fulham. All they had to show as a reinforcement was a much-travelled striker from Ipswich who cost £450,000.

When the players returned for the new season all the papers could print were tales of seething rows between Rooney and his manager, David Moyes, at the training ground at Bellefield.

Standing by the practice pitches on which Moyes has plotted so much unexpected success, Bent reflected on how something extraordinary was forged from deep despair.

"I knew what people were thinking. That they were letting go Wayne Rooney and they were replacing him with..." A First Division footballer? "Well, I wouldn't say that because I scored goals in the Premiership but, yeah, I know what you mean. The pressure was on from the start. We played our first game against Arsenal, got torn apart and in the dressing-room heads were on the floor but the manager reminded us of who we'd played and rallied us round."

The key was togetherness. Alan Stubbs, who has knitted Everton's defence together through some very hard times, thought that having Rooney in the side had made Everton predictable. They had to pass to the wonder child because there seemed so few other options.

In Rooney's only full season for Everton, which saw them almost relegated, he scored nine times. Bent, with less fanfare, has found the net on seven occasions. There will be extra stewarding outside Goodison for tonight's FA Cup tie with Manchester United, but Rooney will return to a club that have not shrunk by his leaving.

"You have to come in and share the load here; that's what James Beattie discovered very quickly," Bent reflected. "I have had some bursts of togetherness at some of the clubs I've been to, but you soon find that when individuals start doing well they hive off into little cliques. I can honestly say that hasn't happened at Everton.

"I have to say that when I arrived here there was so much stuff going on off the field I thought to myself, 'What have I let myself in for?' I had been to clubs and been let go, perhaps because of financial reasons, and I thought that this couldn't surely be happening again.

"I came here with intentions just to be more consistent, do more work than I have done, focus a bit more, and I think I've achieved that so far. I have never been in the top half of the Premiership before and in all my clubs I don't think I've been this far in the FA Cup.

"Everything has been a surprise, because in the summer I thought I was going to Portsmouth and when I first arrived I was shown round the training ground and, well, look at it. It's not the best, is it, although the pitches are very good."

Bellefield's main building does indeed resemble a sprawling, rather shabby council house from the 1950s. "But there's something very good about the place. I wanted some solidity in my career, I wanted to stay in one place for a while. The manager told me he'd tried to sign me when he was in charge of Preston. I knew about that, actually, but it gave me confidence because it meant he wasn't seeing me as a quick fix."

Fortunately for Everton, Bent is not consumed by self-doubt. "I have always been a very confident person. I got that from my parents. They weren't from a footballing background and they never pushed me into the sport. In fact, when I was a kid I wanted to be an athlete, 100-metre and 200m sprints, and it was only when I was about 13 or 14 that I started playing football.

"I got drafted into the school team at Shepherd's Bush, because I was fast I suppose. I began out on the right wing, loved it and then started playing centre-forward."

His pace and athleticism impressed Brentford, his first club. I asked him when and where he had been happiest.

"I enjoyed it at Blackburn. I'd done well, got the club up, but Graeme Souness came over and said they were signing Andy Cole and there was no place for me. It was horrible but I appreciated his honesty. He was straight. The worst was Port Vale; it was my first time away from home, away from London, and I hated it. It hurts to talk about it, actually."

With Beattie suspended and Duncan Ferguson injured, much responsibility for overcoming Manchester United will rest on Bent's slim shoulders.

Ferguson, who is unlikely to be offered another contract, has thrown himself into what seem to be his final days at Goodison with a passion some thought had long been extinguished.

"When I first came to the club, I saw Duncan and thought: 'Keep your head down, don't talk to him unless you're spoken to'," Bent said.

"But beneath it all, he's someone capable of great kindness if he trusts you. It's the same with Neil Warnock at Sheffield United. I loved the man but when I went there I was terrified because I'd heard how rude he could be. Underneath was a really warm heart. People only get a reputation when you don't know them."