by Scott Wilson for The Northern Echo
It was a time that would not have been easy for anyone, let alone a young lad of 19. Banished to the reserves under Gordon Strachan little more than a year ago, and effectively barred from joining another club on loan, Joe Bennett must have feared for his Middlesbrough future as his manager told all and sundry that he did not believe he was good enough to make it at Championship level. How on earth did such an inexperienced player keep his wits about him as his world appeared to be falling apart? Easy. He simply recalled the last time he had been released by Middlesbrough and pledged to prove people wrong once again.
"When I was in the Under-15s, the people at the club told me they didn't really want me any more," said Bennett, who was born across the Pennines in Rochdale, but who moved to the small North Yorkshire village of Swainby when he was ten. I'd had a bit of a bad patch. I don't really know what happened to be honest - I just know my football wasn't going so well and I think there were a few people who thought I wouldn't make it. Stan Nixon (assistant academy manager, 9-16) had a word with me and my family and said he thought it would be better if I dropped out for a while. So I went back to playing Sunday league games in Northallerton.
"I'd been playing at left-back for Boro, but I went back to playing up front, where I'd played as a kid, and gradually my game came back to me. Ron Bone (head of academy recruitment) came to watch me a couple of times and must have thought I was playing well again, so after a year or so, they called me back to the Academy. I got a scholarship with the Under-16s but, to be honest, I think I just got in by the skin of my teeth."
Rejection is a regular occurrence within the Academy system. Football clubs, even ones with as successful a youth system as Middlesbrough, cannot keep everyone, but to the player, the fateful call into the office invariably comes as a surprise. Bennett's early story is not unusual. A stellar performer for his school side at Stokesley, he was recruited into Middlesbrough's Academy after just one game for the now disbanded Northallerton Corinthians. Admittedly, he scored four and the Corinthians' coach, Andy Ramsbotham, was also a Middlesbrough scout, but the swiftness of his elevation must still have been interpreted as confirmation of his ability.
So with that in mind, how does a young player then come to terms with the pain of a career effectively ending before it has begun? In truth, many don't. There are countless stories of youngsters turning their back on the game after a door was slammed in their face. Bennett, however, was different. Somewhere deep within him, there was a resolve that would be needed again four years later.
"It was tough," he said. "I thought my chance had gone, and I think my family thought that as well. It's difficult to be told you're not wanted any more, but it was something I wasn't going to let beat me. Part of me thought, â€˜Well it means I can go back to playing with my mates again'. But part of me also thought, â€˜I know I'm better than they think I am'. Looking back, maybe it toughened me up a bit because when I did eventually get back with Middlesbrough, I was determined to do everything I could to make sure the chance didn't pass me by again."
Back in the fold at Rockliffe Park, Bennett progressed quickly and made his senior debut at West Ham on the final day of the 2008-09 season under Gareth Southgate. A firm believer in Bennett's ability who repeatedly tipped the youngster for big things in the closing stages of his managerial reign, Southgate started the following season with the full-back in his side. "I owe Gareth a lot because he had faith in me when I was just a young lad and gave me chances when maybe some other managers wouldn't have," said Bennett. "I was young, but Gareth gave me a chance. I started six times at left-back, but then he left. And I think it's safe to say things went downhill from there."
The smile that cracks across Bennett's face says it all. Southgate's successor, Strachan, took an instant dislike to the defender's playing style. He would have sold him had someone bid £150,000, a price tag that looks utterly ridiculous just 12 months on. "I don't know what it was with him," said Bennett, who has respectfully refused to publicly criticise a figure who caused him such pain. "For whatever reason, he just didn't fancy me at all. It was hard and there were definitely times where I thought my future lay elsewhere. Thankfully, that wasn't to be."
Strachan left before Bennett did, and under the tutelage of Tony Mowbray, he has blossomed into the best left-back in the Championship and one of the most promising young defenders in the whole of the English game. Next month, he will receive the North-East Football Writers' Association award for Young Player of the Year. The last two winners of the award have been Adam Johnson and Andy Carroll, who now play at Manchester City and Liverpool respectively. Who is to say that Bennett will not follow their lead?
"I know people talk about me moving a lot," he said. "But it's honestly not something you can spend a lot of time thinking about. When I'm training or playing in a game, all I'm thinking about is doing whatever I can for Middlesbrough. People say that clubs are here watching me, but I just blank that out. All I have to worry about is playing well because I want Middlesbrough back in the Premier League."
Perhaps that is the only way they will keep him. If Boro are not playing in the Premier League next season, it is a safe bet Bennett will be. His ability as an attacking wing-back has been evident all season, while his level-headedness away from the field of play will surely stand him in good stead. Footballers, especially well-paid young ones, earn plenty of negative headlines. But Bennett, adept at communicating with his fans via Twitter and always disarmingly courteous and polite, is part of a generation who are quietly righting some wrongs.
"I don't do anything special, but I try to live my life right," he said. "I do go out, but you've just got to be sensible and have a balance. You've got to eat and drink well because you're a professional athlete, but you have to enjoy yourself and have a life away from football as well. There's no harm in going out once in a while as long as you're sensible about it. If you are going to go out and have a drink, you've got to do it at the right time and you have to do it in moderation.
"You can have a drink with your mates, you just can't be stupid about it and I wouldn't be. I see some of my mates going out on a night when I can't, but that's life. I don't feel as though I'm missing out on anything. If you want to be a professional footballer you can't go out drinking all the time, and the lads who are, I'm pretty sure they'd love to be in my shoes."
And Bennett, after all, should know. For a 12-month spell with Northallerton Town Juniors, he too was on the outside looking in.