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Alan: easy decision to stay

11 September 2013

Captain's in-depth interview published recently

Alan Bennett retuned with a bang by helping the Dons to victory at York on Saturday and Wimbledon’s captain revealed in a recent interview that his early career with hometown club Cork City inspired his leadership skills.

This in-depth interview with the Irishman featured in the Scunthorpe United match day programme, but he was sidelined with a hamstring injury at the time and now Alan is back fighting fit we decided to reproduce this article for those supporters who may have missed it.

Alan Bennett was offered a new contract before Neal Ardley had even started his summer squad overhaul, but Wimbledon’s captain said he had no hesitation in committing to Wimbledon for season 2013/14. And he sees huge potential for success at AFC Wimbledon.

There was no doubting Alan’s contribution to the cause of the Dons’ survival after he joined Wimbledon in February. And as soon as safety was assured, Neal Ardley made it a priority to secure the central defender’s signature on a permanent deal. It had been a far from welcome first relegation battle for a seasoned professional who had previously enjoyed promotion with Brentford and Wycombe Wanderers, but Alan had seen enough positive signs from Wimbledon’s management team that they could rebuild the club.

“After my first couple of games for Wimbledon in February - defeats at Port Vale and Chesterfield - I thought to myself that it was going to be really tough for us to get out of this situation,” said Bennett. “There were so many bad habits I could see, and that was particularly noticeable for me after coming from Cheltenham, where we’d been pushing for the play-offs. However, once the manager had put his plans in place with his signings in January, we soon got up and running. We started to get results and once we were safe it was always going to be an easy decision for me to stay. When the manager said that he wanted to keep me, I never gave leaving a second thought. There was never any uncertainty about that, and I just wanted to get it done as soon as possible.

“Wimbledon is a sleeping giant in my eyes. The club’s fan base, and the plans that the manager, ‘Coxy’ and ‘Bass’ have put in place, all suggest that there is a lot of potential here. Of course, I want to be a part of that. I’m proud that I helped the club to stay in the Football League. Now it’s up to this group of players to take us forward and hopefully move the club onto the next level.”

Being Wimbledon’s captain is a great source of pride for Bennett. The centre-back made his name with Cork City after making a switch from Gaelic Football, and he says that the principles of hard work and dedication to the cause at his hometown club were crucial in his development.

“It is a massive honour for me to be captain of Wimbledon,” Bennett added. “It doesn’t change the way I go about my job much, and I was skipper a few times when Mat Mitchel-King was out of the team. It’s a real privilege for me. When I was coming through the youth ranks at Cork, Damien Delaney, who’s now Crystal Palace, was in the same age group as me, and he was captain. I learned a lot from him and the senior professionals at Cork - the way that they conducted themselves and how they went about their work. A lot of the players were semi-professional, and they’d be coming in for training after a full day’s work. Watching their determination on the training pitch after arriving in their suits or overalls showed me that hard work is first and foremost.

“I think that there are a lot of similarities between Cork City and Wimbledon. They are both fans-owned clubs and the supporters have the same affinity and passion. My mother came over for the Fleetwood match with my auntie and uncle. She was kicking every ball and ran onto the pitch afterwards with all the other fans!”

His success in football started with hometown club Cork as he helped them to League of Ireland title success in 2005 and into a Champions League qualifying match against Red Star Belgrade. Though that ended in defeat, Bennett’s progress had caught the eye of scouts in England, and Reading, then in the Premier League, moved in for him. Though that switch never worked out, his form during a loan spell at Southampton convinced Brentford to sign him. He helped the Bees to the League 2 title as captain, and a subsequent move to Wycombe resulted in another promotion. Bennett came tantalisingly close to doing it again with his last club, Cheltenham Town, but they were beaten in the play-off final by Crewe Alexandra in 2012.

With so much experience of pushing for promotion, what does Alan believe is the key to Wimbledon’s quest to put last season behind them and look for a higher place finish in 2013/14?

“Home form is 100 per cent the key,” said the centre-back, who won two full Republic of Ireland international caps in 2007. “We want to turn Kingsmeadow into a fortress. It’s up to us to motivate the fans and for them to get behind us when we are going through low moments. Though you have to be consistent away from home and pick up points, it is vital that we win regularly at home.

“The fans here are incredible: even though the Exeter game was a massive disappointment and I had to come off, I could hear them still singing from the dressing room. Framps and I were coming into the ground before the last game, and a supporter told us that they will always be behind us no matter what. And ever since I arrived here that’s always been the case. We all have to try and make this a tough place for the teams that come here.”

Now 31 years old, Alan is keeping his options open for his life after playing by studying for a degree in sports journalism, and he has started his coaching badges. However, he still believes he has plenty to offer for a few years yet.

“I have started doing my level two coaching, but there is a long way to go on that one,” he added. “I’m keeping my options open so that there are a few things that I could do. I know that it will happen at some point, and I need to be ready for it, but it petrifies me talking about not playing!”

However, it is likely to be some time yet before Alan has to retire from playing, and hopefully by then he will have another promotion on his impressive CV.

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