From The Archive - The Curious Case Of David Bentley
This article was originally featured on the Penalty Magazine website
“I’ve given up football,” he revealed on live TV. “I’ve taken the decision to take my life in a different direction”.
Spoken to a room packed with journalists, you’d expect the man tearfully announcing the end of his career to be a footballer in the twilight of his 30s or a player whose game had been blighted through injuries.
In 2014 David Bentley was considered neither of these things. Aged just 29, the player once described by one time England manager Steve McClaren as the “new David Beckham” announced a press conference to describe his reasons for leaving the sport he’d been a part of since the age of 13. Once described as one of England’s brightest prospects, the winger bemoaned the use of social media as well and the levels of money that had entered the sport in recent year, announcing that the game had become “robotic, predictable and a bit too calculated”.
A player graced with undeniable talent Bentley’s rise to prominence was a somewhat seamless transition compared to the rejections faced by majority of players who join a large team at a young age. Aged 13 David Bentley, then a striker, moved from his local youth club Wormley Football Club to Arsenal. At 16 years old he was training with the senior club. In 2003, at the grand old age of 18, now plying his trade as a winger, he made his first senior appearance, coming on as a substitute for Kolo Toure in an FA Cup match against Oxford United.
Although blessed with obvious talent, the young player’s emergence came at an unfortunate time for his first team aspirations. In the midst of their ‘Invincibles’ run, minutes as a supporting member of a cast made up of Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira were limited and so he was sent to Premier League newcomers Norwich City.
The season at Norwich was largely a success and showed a player finding his feet in the league. Despite being injured for four months, he managed to play 26 league games for the Canaries and although the team were ultimately relegated, it was Bentley that caught the attention of the footballing world, providing 5 assists and 2 goals to his team’s campaign.
Although he had found himself on the pitch not everything was bright for Bentley during this period of his life. A young player with the talent and spending money of a Premier League player attracts vices, and during this time he was trapped by a gambling addiction that had begun as a youth player at Arsenal: “I was 14 when I first started going to a betting shop. I got carried away with it,” he would say in an interview later on in his career. “As I started earning more money I really started getting heavily into it. You just get addicted. I was on everything, the horses, the dogs, online with poker, betting on bingo, all sorts … I’d wake up in the morning and the first thing I thought was to have a bet.” He went on to say he would make 50-100 bets a day during the height of his addiction, with this coming to an end thanks to an intervention from his girlfriend in 2005 after ending the season with Norwich.
On his return to Arsenal in the summer of 2005, still just 20 years of age, Bentley decided to do what was best for his growth as a player, and handed in a transfer request. His time at Norwich had provided him with the regular Premier League football and he wasn’t content to warm the bench at Arsenal. Arsenal, however, did not want to lose him permanently, due to his potential as a future world class talent. A loan deal was struck with a Mark Hughes managed Blackburn Rovers and a time in the Premier League spotlight beckoned.
A team dogged by relegation battles in their previous two campaigns, Mark Hughes, in his first full season managing the club was eager to change that. With the addition of Bentley, Blackburn boasted an attacking line-up blessed with pace including Craig Bellamy and Morten Gamst Pedersen. After surviving the busy Christmas period, Blackburn were riding high in eighth, their highest position under Hughes. Blackburn’s speed based attack was working and Bentley had become a key component of this. Not wanting to lose their newfound success Hughes signed Bentley on a permanent deal for £1 million in January 2006. Although his loan spell highlighted a player blessed with pace and the ability to find a player with a pin point cross there was one thing he was lacking; goals. That was all about to change.
On February 1, 2006, Bentley became the first player in Premier League history to score a hat-trick against Manchester United as Blackburn earned a stunning 4-3 victory over the side. After the match, Hughes, in what, at the time, sounded like one of the greatest understatements of all time, declared “I think we have got a bargain in David Bentley.”
That season Blackburn finished sixth, only four points off a Champions League spot, and Bentley established himself as one of the country’s great young talents. Due to their success in their previous season Blackburn featured in the UEFA Cup, allowing Bentley to make his mark on the European stage, where he continued his penchant for scoring in big ways with scoring an outstanding volley against Austrian side FC Salzburg and also a last-minute winner against Polish side Wisła Kraków, as Blackburn made it to the last 32.
Attempting to build on the clubs recent success Blackburn strengthened by signing Champions League winning striker Benni McCarthy and at the time an unknown powerhouse defender by the name of Christopher Samba. Although McCarthy went on to score 18 league goals, coming second in the Golden Boot to an equally on fire Didier Drogba, Blackburn finished a disappointing 10th. With Blackburn’s success seemingly being a one season thing there was a feeling within the footballing media that it was time for Bentley to move on to a ‘bigger’ club. Although there was reported interest from Manchester United gathering pace, Bentley committed his future to Blackburn by signing a contract extension, highlighting a player wishing to be loyal to a club that made him a star.
The 2007-08 season, saw Bentley continue his consistency, registering 13 assists and scoring eight goals in the league as Blackburn finished seventh. His performances attracted the attention of then England manager Steve McClaren and was rewarded with a call-up to the England senior squad where he made his debut against Israel in September 2007. This came three months after controversially pulling out the European under-21 Championships due to “fatigue”. Bentley’s decision to pull out had stirred emotions, not least with under-21 manager Stuart Pearce who said “when your country comes calling, you put them first and yourself second”.
Bentley defended his decision, citing: “I’ve never come off a 60-game season and then gone straight into another one, I was alien to it. It wasn’t a rash decision, I asked senior players at England ‘what do you feel like come October or November?’ They said you hit a brick wall.” Although the decision seemed sensible, with the player wishing to prolong his club career which would in turn allow the player to become a better prospect for his country the media leapt onto the story. They turned the story into a tale of the misguided modern footballer with no passion for the game and in turn Bentley became a scapegoat. The media attack appeared to work with Bentley being booed by large sections of the crowd, a first for an England player making his debut.
Although he had pledged his future to Blackburn, things were changing at the club. The team’s manager Mark Hughes, a mentor to young Bentley, left the club at the end of the season to take charge of a newly-rich Manchester City. This seemed to be enough to convince Bentley that it was now his time to make the move to a more successful side. The successful side in question was a Juande Ramos managed Tottenham Hotspur, who paid £15 million for Bentley, signing him on a six-year contract.
Forever seen as the Premier League’s bridesmaids, always getting close to the Champions League but just missing out Bentley was signed by Spurs to be the player who would take them on to the next level. Although the team had great potential, having secured the signings of Giovani Dos Santos and Luka Modric, from Barcelona and Dinamo Zagreb respectively, things did not get off to the greatest of starts. Tottenham begun the season languishing at the bottom of the table, earning just two points from their opening eight games, and although manager Juande Ramos had won the League Cup the previous season was deemed the culprit for the team’s plight and was swiftly removed. Harry Redknapp was named his successor and it took until the second game for Bentley to show his worth to his new boss.
The Premier League is home to a number of different derby matches and depending on the players in question Tottenham versus Arsenal can be one of the fieriest. For Bentley, a player who was essentially deemed not good enough for a starting place for the Gunners, this game had an added incentive. This motivated Bentley to go out and steal the headlines. With the score at 0-0 Bentley received a headed pass from Tom Huddlestone, took it with his chest and volleyed it from 40 yards over the head of Arsenal goalkeeper Manuel Almunia and into the net.
The game finished 4-4 and is widely remembered as one of the league’s finest games. It appeared to be start of a great partnership between club and player. Every manager have their favourites and unfortunately for Bentley, he wasn’t one of Redknapp’s who preferred to use Aaron Lennon on the right-wing. For the first time in his career he fell into footballing obscurity, being cast aside from the England set up as well as Spurs.
Early 2010 appeared to highlight a potential renaissance for Bentley under Redknapp as he made a run of 15 straight league starts. Once you’ve got into the gaffer’s good books, it’s probably best you keep your nose clean. Unfortunately no one decided to give this little nugget of advice to the player. After finally securing Champions League football, a joyous Redknapp was giving an interview for Sky Sports, when three players decided to initiate the first ever ice bucket challenge on their manager.
Although in the above clip Redknapp seems to take the soaking quite well, behind the scenes he was left fuming at being embarrassed on live television and out of the three players holding the bucket, it was Bentley that caught the brunt of his anger, becoming a perennial outcast at the North London club.
After a mostly uneventful time on loan at Birmingham, he dropped down a league to the Championship to play for another London club in West Ham. A 6 month injury derailed any chance of becoming a major player for the side, playing just 5 games for the Hammers. After healing at his parent club and even being included in the 25 man squad it appeared as if he had turned a corner in his career and was ready to play for Spurs again under a new manager, Andre Villas-Boas. That is until they received a loan offer from an unlikely club and the dramatic decline of David Bentley had reached its lowest point, joining little known Russian side FC Rostov. With little media attention surrounding the player, this could have been his opportunity to build up his reputation. Unfortunately becoming the first Englishman to play in the Russian Premier League was the only notable thing to occur during his Siberian adventure and after 7 games he once again returned to North London.
Just four years earlier he was a £15 million signing, a long-term England international and the missing piece Tottenham needed. At just 28 he had seen his career diminish to being a bit-part player for a mid-table Russian side. He still had one more chance though, returning
His return to the Lancashire club only ended up highlighting his decline. Remembered for his past successes, he faced a little pressure from fans as they urged him to find the form that had once propelled them to European nights. Unfortunately he could not replicate anything resembling his past excellence and in the end he only made 5 appearances. With Blackburn having no reason to make the loan move permanent it was time for Tottenham to weigh up the financial sense of keeping a footballer who wasn’t being played but still being paid £50,000 a week. The Tottenham brain trust, headed by Daniel Levy decided it was time to let him go.
Although being linked to clubs both in England and around Europe Bentley remained without a club for a year. Having only played 42 games in his last four seasons and reportedly asking for high wages it seemed no team wanted to gamble on a player with undeniable talent. That is when he made an appearance on Sky Sports to announce his retirement from a game that started so brightly for him but had ended up casting him to the side. “I’ve given up football. It’s over a year since I played my last game and I’ve taken the decision to take my life in a different direction. I felt like it was time to call it a day.”
So far he has not gone back on his word, moving on to focus on a number of business ventures. He is co-owner of a restaurant in Marbella which he bought as a player. He also made an appearance on Irish television, taking part in a job-swap documentary which saw him play Gaelic football, scoring 3 points on his debut. This was the closest he’s been to football since his retirement.
Over the years we’ve seen lesser players choose to prolong their careers and enhance their bank balance playing in America, Australia, China and in recent years India. Bentley was different – deciding to end his career on his own terms. Taking a look back at his career highlights a player that had all the potential but made a few wrong decisions. Perhaps if he’d stayed at Blackburn a season longer he’d still be playing; but this is something we will never know. His story is a cautionary tale for any budding footballer and highlights that although the Premier League lifestyle is the most sought after, it can also be the most brutal.