Nearly a decade after completing his career-defining move to Tottenham Hotspur, a look back at the fascinating demise of the ‘next David Beckham’.
From chipping Mark Schwarzer with his weaker foot as a whipper snapper with Arsenal, to his outrageous 40-yard volley in the North London derby for Spurs, David Bentley could cause quite a stir. This young playmaker was also a fellow of firsts; the first player to score a hat-trick against Manchester United in the Premier League era, the first scorer at the new Wembley for England and the first English player to perform in the Russian Premier League (the less said about that, the better). Bentley packed a lot, followed by very little, into a fledgling career. Then he retired, aged 29. Nobody asked him to leave.
He looked the part, he acted the part, he sometimes played the part but, ultimately, he wanted no part. Why did David Bentley walk away from it all, with so much left to give?
Image via Sky Sports
Excelling at youth level for England in his favoured number ten role, Bentley made his Arsenal bow in January 2003, coming on as a late substitute in an FA Cup tie. Although he featured rarely, playing at all was an achievement in a side containing Vieira, Henry, and his mentor Bergkamp; all on the cusp of becoming Invincibles. A year later, the season that Arsenal created history, Bentley scored the aforementioned lob at Highbury, demonstrating his impressive technique and supreme self-confidence at such a tender age. After the game, the teenager jumped on a train home, propped his hood over his head, and listened in glee to surrounding Arsenal fans waxing lyrical about this new kid, not knowing their lad was sitting right beside them.
Clip via FATV
That was about as good as it got for Bentley at Arsenal. He watched on as his heroes went famously unbeaten and lifted the title, before joining newly-promoted Norwich City on a season-long loan in 2004/05. Although the Canaries were relegated on the last day of the season, after a humiliating 6-0 reverse to Fulham, Bentley stood out. Arsène Wenger took notice, but couldn’t guarantee the precocious young talent regular game time. Despite being wanted at Highbury, Bentley made a brave decision, and so he was off on loan again, this time to Blackburn Rovers.
Loving the life of a hotshot
The young forward quickly flourished at Ewood Park, sparkling under the tutelage of manager Mark Hughes, who made the arrangement permanent in January 2006 for a tidy one million pounds. His new signing immediately returned the favour, making the above sum look positively paltry the very next day with a history-making treble against Manchester United in a famous 4-3 triumph for Rovers. It was the official start of a wonderful two-and-a-half years for Bentley, whose stock continued to rise alongside his national team aspirations.
Clip via MGPBRFC
A stupendous free-kick for the England U-21s against their Italian counterparts signalled the dawn of the new Wembley and coincided with comparisons to his namesake, Mr. Beckham; something which Bentley reportedly adored. While their footballing similarities were obvious – Bentley was arguably more naturally talented, Beckham far more consistent, determined and accomplished – they were soon to have something else in common; the joy of being (temporarily) hated by England fans.
Citing fatigue after a long season, Bentley rang England U-21 manager Stuart Pearce to opt out of the upcoming 2007 European Championships. Despite his honesty, Bentley’s decision did not go down well with Pearce, who soon made his feelings known to the national press. By the time Bentley did make his senior England debut against Israel, one of just seven caps, the announcement of his name was met with a chorus of boos around Wembley. For a kid who dreamt of playing for England since watching Gazza at Italia ’90, this once-in-a-lifetime moment proved to be thoroughly underwhelming.
Image via thefa.com
The seeds of doubt about the ruthless nature of professional football had just been planted in Bentley’s head. They were soon to grow, rapidly.
Nevertheless, his fine form for Blackburn continued the next season and, despite the club’s best efforts, Bentley left for pastures new to White Hart Lane on July 31, 2008, with fifteen million pounds going in the opposite direction. He didn’t know it yet, but he had just bid farewell to the last time he was truly happy in football.
Two points from eight games… in comes Harry
Tottenham boss Juande Ramos had big plans for his new man. The only problem was, he wouldn’t be around much longer to see them through. A disastrous start to the new season meant that Spurs had to wait until their ninth game – Harry Redknapp’s first in charge – for victory. The ex-Portsmouth boss had an instant impact on the side in his first few matches in charge, with Bentley enjoying his standout career moment during this period. The frankly ridiculous touch-and-volley finish which embarrassed Arsenal ‘keeper Manuel Almunia fitted in nicely with a wonderfully chaotic North London derby that ended in a 4-4 draw.
After the match, Bentley illustrated the fan inside when speaking to Sky Sports’ Geoff Shreeves. His wasn’t the typical reaction of an elite-level footballer to what had just occurred out on the pitch. This guy was clearly different, for better or for worse.
Clip via PandyTheYid
In truth, Bentley could have ended his Spurs career right there. What followed was long absences out of the team through a mixture of niggling injuries and the presence of the in-form Aaron Lennon, who now had first dibs on the right wing position. A breather to see the Kings of Leon at Wembley in December saw Bentley wake up to witness his image printed in the national press after someone snapped him crowd-surfing among the revellers. Innocent as that may have been, it did his relationship with Redknapp no favours, as Bentley was fined for his actions.
Image via Mirror.co.uk
Those seeds of doubt from earlier were beginning to spurt and, as we have subsequently discovered from post-retirement interviews (like this casual one, filmed in Mulligan’s Bar in Dublin), Bentley was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the lifestyle of a professional footballer. You wouldn’t have known it from the outside looking in, as he did well to hide this feeling to teammates and fans alike. How often do you hear that about people in similar circumstances?
However, there was one brief reprieve around the corner.
David helps the Spurs to their greatest triumph in years, but it’s a false dawn
The following season proved to be a humdinger for Tottenham, as they challenged for major European places. At the close of the campaign, Bentley finally enjoyed a healthy stint in the team at a crucial time following an injury to Lennon. He performed brilliantly and helped Spurs qualify for the Champions League, playing a significant role in their 1-0 win away to Manchester City, bringing them to the Promised Land of Europe’s major competition.
Then, after the match, he did this to his manager.
Clip via withapacketofsweets
Despite finding it visibly hilarious himself, it transpired that Redknapp was not best-pleased with Bentley’s actions, viewing them as disrespectful. He wasn’t the only player to take part, but hanging around at the scene of the crime in the immediate aftermath didn’t help. The England international had essentially extinguished the reignited fire in his belly with that bucket of water.
The fun comes to an end
By season’s end in 2010, Spurs had just qualified for the Champions League and Bentley would be contracted to the club for another three years. However, his top-flight days were over.
Uninspiring loan spells at Birmingham City and West Ham United followed, with a man-of-the-match display on his debut for the former against arch-rivals Aston Villa illustrating that his ability was still there. While this strike from distance against Coventry City acted as an isolated reminder of former days. Bentley would soon be disappearing from sight without a whimper, tossed into the wasted talent bin. His fall from grace was now on a par with his disdain for the modern game and what he saw as its unnecessary baggage.
He still had time to carve out another small section in the history books thanks to a bizarre spell in Russia with FC Rostov, before one last attempt to rekindle his mojo at old love Blackburn.
Over and out vs. Cardiff City
The 2013 return to Ewood Park proved to be poignant. The camaraderie that Bentley was centre of at Blackburn years before, had been replaced by a toxic environment under the ownership of the Venky’s.
Image via The Highbury Inn
His last professional match summed up the second part of his career. Bentley, completely disinterested, walked around the pitch for the first fifteen minutes of the second half of a 3-0 defeat to Cardiff City, before being taken out of his misery. As he made the lonely stroll off the pitch, he spotted his father, a former RAF pilot, in the crowd and began to well-up, knowing that this was going to be the last time he ever played football. He confirmed as much to his forlorn teammates on the bench. Finally, the secret was out and his resentment was freed.
Bentley’s startling demise was confirmed when he saw out the last year of his career, the 2013/14 season, as a free agent, having finally been released by Spurs. Despite receiving a number of offers to continue, Bentley didn’t want to know. He was finished and it was confirmed in the summer of 2014, during another emotional interview on Sky Sports. This time, the sentiment was far from elation. There wasn’t much outcry from the watching football world, either. Bentley had got his wish. He still loved the game, but he hated the job.
The legacy of a supremely talented man who left a lot behind
It’s difficult to sympathise with Bentley’s plight, at first glance. He was the millionaire footballer living the dream who threw it all away, sticking two fingers up to the countless hopefuls who tried their all but failed to make a career out of football. That’s one portrayal.
Then again, Bentley got lost along the way, considerably disillusioned with the profession. The happy-go-lucky blaggard, who thrived in the old boys’ club culture at Arsenal and Blackburn with Messrs Parlour and Savage, struggled to adapt to the more contained, disciplined and social media-led evolution of football in the mid-noughties. In hindsight, perhaps his greatest achievement was his decision to prematurely walk when the interest had vanished. With so much money at stake, the decision to quit was arguably brave in the extreme or even slightly reckless, depending on your outlook. However, it definitely wasn’t easy and that, at the very least, should be greatly admired. That took balls.
His actions posed the question; If you fell out of love with your supposed calling in life, what would you do? For David Bentley, the answer was straightforward.
Clip via BT Sport
Nowadays, family man Bentley cuts a contented figure, running his restaurant ventures (the promotional videos are worth a look) in the Mediterranean, where he resides. No doubt, he’ll have appreciated the balmy climate all the more after his short but memorable stint in the GAA with Crossmaglen Rangers (an experience he appeared to thoroughly enjoy), where he scored a decent two points in his one and only appearance.
It certainly hasn’t been dull since this guy dinked that ball over Schwarzer’s head all those years ago.
Image via Evening Standard
While the world still waits for the ‘next David Beckham’, we can only reflect on a one-time bullish Bentley responding to comparisons with Golden Balls at an England press conference, when he responded to a journalist asking about his international ambitions, “I really respect him (Beckham), but I’m here to take his place”. Oh, well.
A career which promised so much and delivered just enough to make you want more. A lot more.
Featured image via Goal.com