HE might be auctioning two of his older shirts, but Cork City defender Alan Bennett can’t wait to put the Rebel Army jersey on and get back on the field when the SSE Airtricity League of Ireland resumes at the end of the month.
To raise funds for Scoliosis Ireland’s Straight2Swim programme — run in conjunction with the Mardyke — Bennett has donated the City shirts he wore in the FAI Cup final wins of 2016 and 2017.
“I have two cousins, Ella and Charlie, on the programme and they love it,” he says.
For Bennett and the rest of the City squad, this is the start of the second full week since the return to training and he is delighted to be back after what was the longest lay-off of his two-decade career.
“I’ve never had an injury that’s kept me out for over six months, touch wood,” he says.
“The off-season break is about six weeks in England and then in Ireland you have part of November, December and a bit January, but two months max.
“It’s strange, but sure these things happen.
“Usually, when you break for a long period, you work back a few weeks from the return date and start doing a few bits yourself. With this, the date kept moving so you were thinking, ‘I’d better stay at it.’
“There was an initial date and then that got pushed back and then back further. You’re at home doing nothing, so it’s important just to get out for your own mental health was massive.
“As they opened up the area that you could go, I just started cycling more and more and then did a good bit of running, I just mixed up the training, really.
“Ball-work was the most difficult part, I couldn’t really do anything, to be honest. I tried doing a bit at the start by bringing a ball with me, but I was just on my own. It just mainly became about running and fitness.”
As beneficial as that was, it was still a completely different kind of fitness that is needed on the football pitch.
“The twisting and turning is something that you can’t replicate, no matter how much you practise it.
“If I set out an agility drill that I’m doing myself, when I’m running towards a cone, I know in my own head that I’m going to be going left or right next.
“When I’m on a pitch and the ball spins left, I have to change direction based on that. There’s no way you can replicate that instant decision to turn and then turn. These next few weeks will all be about getting that sharpness back.”
Was the time off easier for someone like Bennett, who has so much experience, to process than a younger player?
“In a way, it definitely gave me a snapshot of what life would be like without football,” the 38-year-old says.
“I’d never, ever had that and you miss the group and the lads, you miss the social side of it. Was I able to handle it better than others? It depends on what way you look at it.
“For me, because I’m probably in my last season I was desperate for the restart when there was a lot of talk about whether it would and whether it wouldn’t.
“When you’re a younger lad, you think you’ve loads of time and I was probably more desperate.”
And City, who resume against Bohemians at Turner’s Cross on July 31, will be desperate to pick up points. Bennett certainly doesn’t feel that the opening couple of games will be a chance to find their feet.
“I don’t think we can give ourselves that luxury,” he says.
“We know we’re heading into a 13-game mini-tournament, really, where you have to be competitive from the very first game and you can’t afford that period of developing a team.
“I feel for clubs, in a sense. They would have put together a plan at the start of the season, but now that’s all totally changed.
“I’m only speaking from for myself, but I’d have recruited differently for a 13-game tournament than I would have for a 40-game season. We really have to hit the ground running.”
He’s even more keenly aware of that need as he combines playing with being part of Neale Fenn’s coaching staff.
“It’s a real eye-opener as to what goes on. When I stood into the role slightly under John Cotter, the season was ticking and it was in that normal season-mode.
“Being in the room now with Fenny from day one is a real eye-opener regarding recruitment and logistics, just all of the things that you wouldn’t think about as a player at all. It’s a tough job and I don’t envy him.”
On top of all that, he is currently undertaking placement at St Aloysius’ College in Carrigtwohill as part of his Master’s degree in education at UCC. Playing, coaching, and teaching business and English is a heavy load but he’s managing it.
“I asked the principal to work around a football timetable and asked Fenny to give me a little bit of leeway sometimes,” he says.
“It was a bit of juggling, but that’s the life of a footballer, you have to transition out of it at some point and I wanted to be as prepared as possible to do that.
“It’s similar to coaching. You have to motivate the kids and create a spark. I enjoyed it, I like dealing with people.
“We’ve all had good teachers and bad teachers and I want to be a good teacher and learn that trade.”
· To bid on Alan Bennett’s FAI Cup final shirts, visit: https://www.ebay.ie/usr/corkcityfc_store