The Necessary Failure of David Bentley

Former footballer David Bentley has moved to Russian club FC Rostov on loan. He was 28.

Some have mourned a wasted talent, others have been splashing each other playfully in the fountain of schadenfreude, where football fans congregate to mock the unfortunate. Bentley’s career has finally derailed completely, having teetered on the brink throughout his disastrous spell with Tottenham. This is not to suggest that the Russian Premier League is merely some decrepit backwater. Zenit’s £64m joint purchase of Hulk and Alex Witsel speak of a league that is plainly upwardly mobile, even if it is thanks to petro-chemical lucre. But is this really where anyone had expected Bentley to be when Spurs signed him for £15m in 2008?

There was a time when it was simply assumed that David Bentley would be destined for great things. When Steve McLaren bought his workshopped teeth and publicity-friendly dossier to the vacant England post, he vowed to usher in a new era of youth, the type of thrusting manifesto so often suggested but seldom implemented. As such, David Beckham was jettisoned to make space for fresh talent. A nervous tabloid press wrung its hands nervously as it looked for an alternative superstar entity, and one man looked sure to be the natural heir.

Bentley had been busy winning rave reviews for Blackburn Rovers, and had much in common with Beckham, even down to the matching initials, which ‘Bents’ would unwisely have stitched into his boots in a fate-tempting effort to ape his idol. The similarities didn’t stop there: the cheekbones, the hipster haircuts, the Cockney heritage, the lack of pace, the right hand-side of midfield. McLaren would add further weight to these claims when he gave Bentley his full England debut. Perhaps seeking vindication of his scrapping of Beckham he would say: “I can see that [comparison]. His right foot is pretty similar to David’s. He’s got a great touch, great feel on the ball, and he can deliver that pass.”  He would go on to win seven caps for his country.

The TV channel ESPN Classic shows repeats of ‘classic’ England games, which are preceded by a brief video montage of England stars knocking the ball around in their England kit, being all English for the England team. Amongst shots of the likes of mainstays such as John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard was our man Bentley, no doubt selected as the stand-out young prospect that would surely go on to greater things. Today, his presence in this clip is a mere curio, a stark reminder of a time when people operating video cameras genuinely had cause to believe that footage of Bentley in an England kit wouldn’t prove to be a colossal waste of time and resources.

His ascension to superstardom was made official when he was anointed as a columnist for The Sun, which usually reserves its pages for such renowned men of letters as Terry Venables and Ian Wright. That Bentley was proffered such a mouthpiece seemed like a contrived effort to raise his profile to anywhere as close to Beckham’s as possible, the better to augment his celebrity. It’s perfectly feasible that the gilded profiteers riding the Beckham gravy train were actively seeking to fill the void that his imminent demise looked set to create, and so set about fast-tracking Bentley’s way to fame.  Bentley, it seemed, had made it.

Of course now, he is largely remembered for two things. There was the stupendous lob for Spurs against Arsenal, a goal of the season contender, which spoke of his promise and confidence. There was also the moment when a jubilant Spurs dressing room celebrated Champions League qualification, reaching its zenith when Bentley’s cup – full to the brim with both banter and energy drink – runneth over, and was duly dumped over Harry Redknapp’s head. These two contrasting moments sum up perhaps not just Bentley’s time at White Hart Lane, but indeed his whole career: moments of genuine promise interspersed with the bone-headed boorishness of the LAD. It now seems reasonable to suggest that he was no more than a prettier Jimmy Bullard, and perhaps nothing more.

Why has his career ended up this way? The general consensus seems to be that it’s down to a lack of focus and effort, but Bentley has other theories: “He never said anything to my face about it – he didn’t really ever say much to me at all – but I knew I was always up against it after that.” It’s interesting to note his Wikipedia page too, which is most likely edited by someone close to him, and mentions how he “is often talked about as a should-be midfielder, but [he] he is often used out of position as a winger despite lacking the pace of some of his Premier League counter-parts.” The problem with pace is clearly an issue for him, as he alluded to shortly after joining Birmingham on loan in 2011: “They don’t deserve me to come here and think I’m this creative player who doesn’t have to run much. I’m going to have to graft.”

Regardless of these issues, Redknapp would deliver the most telling career appraisal (as well as an embarassing indictment of Bentley’s star worship) after the player had been arrested for drink-driving in August 2009: “He needs to lose that tag of ‘he’s another David Beckham.’ I’ll be honest, the lads call him Becks and I don’t think that helps him.”  Bentley would downplay these suggestions while at Birmingham: “There’s probably a misconception of me. People sometimes get this perception that I’m a big-time Charlie. But that is not the case.” This stab at humility would fall short when revealing his hopes for the transfer: “If I do the groundwork, do the running, I know my quality will come through.” His time at Birmingham, much like last season’s loan to West Ham, would both yield little in the way of quality – 20 games, 1 goal, 1 assist.

This is borne out by the fact that he now finds himself at FC Rostov, when some lower-scale Premiership clubs could surely benefit from his presence. It is plausible to read something into the fact that Mark Hughes wasn’t tempted to give him a chance at QPR, given that Bentley fulfils many of the criteria adopted by the club for several of their summer signings: discarded by his club, past his best, a former charge of Hughes. It’s possible that Bentley is happy to be free of the stigma which he feels he has unfairly accrued. Perhaps he should be applauded for trying to advance his footballing education as part of a different culture when so few English players do. But this transfer has far more in common with the paucity of options reflected by Joe Cole’s move to Lille, or Joey Barton’s to Marseille, than, say, David Beckham (that man again!) joining Real Madrid.

Bentley’s greatest contribution to the game could well be in his ultimate failure, a very modern, paradoxical triumph. In this lamentable age of the cosseted, self-absorbed tosser-footballer, it should be celebrated when someone who appeared to twin arrogance and laziness fails to make it to the top. There is no shortage of wasted talents in the game, and fans of every club in the world can add to the litany of crudely extinguished flames: Sonny PikeNii LampteyPaul LakeSebastien DeislerFreddy Adu.

There are always reasons why players fail to live up to their potential. When those reasons are clear to see, as they were in Bentley’s case, we should be thankful that this sort of malaise only struck someone such as him, rather than a Leo Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Andres Iniesta, as their failure would’ve been a genuine loss, rather than a justified squandering. New players will always remind us of old players. If Bentley had successfully carved a niche for himself as a preening footballing tribute act, that could have set a precedent nobody would wish to see repeated.

This article was originally published on Soccerlens.

Steve McClaren opens his mouth to speak…

Former Nottingham Forest manager Steve McClaren has spoken of his future plans in the wake of his ignominious departure from the club, stating that he doesn’t plan on being out of a job for very long. It is believed that he will seek a job in retail management in order to hone certain skills such as his man-management techniques, motivational aptitude, and his ability to order new stock.

Though McClaren may talk ambitiously of finding his way at one of the leading department stores (Marks & Spencer’s Bluewater store is known to be looking for a new Department Manager, but he may be reluctant to play second fiddle to the Store Manager), the only retailer to have expressed any interest at this early stage is ragbag, ragtag outfit TK Maxx. However, irate shoppers have already expressed reservations on Twitter, with one user stating that “McClaren has a proven track record of failure, and his visual merchandising skills would be an insult to the York City club shop”.

With such early opposition to his potential appointment, it is thought unlikely that a major player will be willing to risk alienating their followers. Although McClaren has worked under the best (he once appeared in a television documentary with the geometrically-coiffured Mary Portas, as he attempted to turn around the fortunes of a local charity shop), he also famously disappointed during a high-profile work experience stint at the now-defunct Woolworths, having failed to sell a single easter egg during the month of March.

Theo Walcott and the issue of blame

It seems that, in English football, the greatest crime is unfulfilled potential, something that this nation has rich history in.

Two of the greatest midfielders of their respective generations, the Pauls Gascoigne and Scholes, ultimately failed to deliver what was expected due to the respective perils of personal demons and disenchantment through mismanagement. English football’s modern history is littered with talents blighted by a litany of ‘if only’s: if only he’d stayed focussed, if only he’d joined a bigger club, if only he’d worked harder.

England supporters, starved as they are of success, refuse to see it happen again.

Enter Theo Walcott. His current prescribed role seems to be that of perennial under-achiever, a forever disengaged black sheep who continues to fail to deliver on his vast promise. It is bizarre that someone such as ‘lil T’eo, nothing if not a milquetoast, is such a polarising figure, with pundits such as Alan Hansen and Chris Waddle condemning him for his lack of intelligence. Such suggestions, which he struggles manfully to mask with his pace and derring-do, stymie his progress, as well as the notion that he is an elite player, a game-changer.

In the pursuit of this open criticism by fans and pundits alike, it seems bizarre that no-one has been looking to blame anyone, especially when you consider that it can be excellent fun. It would be churlish, perhaps unpleasant to simply hold one person responsible for such a crime against football (the worst crime there is!), but it seems that one man has a lot to answer for, but continues to evade reprimand, like a fleet-footed cat-burglar. That man is one Sven-Goran Eriksson.

How odd that a man responsible for thrusting Walcott upon a ridiculously oversized pedestal would somehow escape censure, given that he has been treated with such ignominy by English football fans himself (Eriksson, of course, was once chided for his failure to take England beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament, a level they have yet to reach since the Swede’s departure five years ago). English fans have perhaps wilted in their hostility against the man who failed to get the most out of England’s cloyingly-named golden generation, in the light of Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello failing harder and faster than Eriksson ever really did. Perhaps it is this forced reassessment that has allowed him to escape scot-free for Crimes Against Walcott.

Picking Walcott was the last desperate throw of the dice for a condemned man. His left-field inclusion represented a courage and audacity that had been conspicuous by its absence throughout the rest of Eriksson’s tenure as England manager, a courage that was lacking when it was most required (such as in his compromising accommodation of both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, and in failing to make Paul Scholes the creative fulcrum, as opposed to David Beckham). Eriksson put all of his chips on Walcott’s head – itself only just old enough to legally gamble – and unwittingly broadened the parameters of his career expectations forevermore.

To hell with the consequences!”, Eriksson almost certainly would’ve said to himself, alone, into his bathroom mirror, before sheepishly questioning his sanity whilst flossing. He wouldn’t need to answer to the repercussions. He wouldn’t be expected to worry for Walcott’s future development. As it would transpire, an English public clamouring for the fresh impetus that Walcott’s inclusion promised, would remain wondering, as an out-of-his-depth Walcott didn’t play a minute of football in Germany.

If he hadn’t been picked, his career trajectory may well have followed a similar path to that of Gareth Bale. He, too, was signed by a top London club from Southampton as a seventeen-year-old, based on similar qualities, most notably skill, pace, but above all potential. Bale did not suffer from the same burden of expectation (which would have just as much to do with Bale being Welsh and not English, of course), and was allowed to develop whilst maintaining a safe distance from the unforgiving glare of the spotlight. When Bale endured a run of 24 Premier League games without winning for Tottenham, it was treated as a joke, an amusing curio and nothing more. By this time Bale was aged 20, and was struggling to displace Benoit Assou-Ekotto as left-back. We all know what happened next.

For Walcott, his fast-track to the full England side saddled him with the millstone of being the next Wayne Rooney or Michael Owen, the precocious youth capable of sparking fresh life into the fading golden generation. Since then, he hasn’t been afforded the same patience that Bale was. I was recently reminded of Walcott’s first Arsenal goal, which came in the 2007 Carling Cup final against Chelsea. Watching the highlights of the game, in the aftermath of that opening goal, the commentary damned him with faint praise, speaking of how he was “turning things around at last” and “finally delivering on his potential”. Then aged 18, it was only his 28th game in Arsenal colours. When did this become an age to prove one’s calibre?

Perhaps it’s the fault of his prodigial predecessors for raising the bar too high – Rooney, Owen, Scholes, Gascoigne. The expectations were too high because, when fans want success and get none, they try and manufacture their own trophies. They wanted a player to frighten the world. Walcott is still only running around with a bedsheet over his head, flailing wildly to remove it to show the bared teeth beneath.

It seems that Walcott has been around forever, but he is still only 22. His career thus far has hardly been a failure, and yet it seems as though it is, as if we’re nearing the point where backs are turned on him and we look to the next great white hope, which was Walcott’s first prescribed role when Eriksson gambled on his future in 2006.

Maybe Walcott’s greatest contribution to England’s cause will be to deflect attention from the next crop of youngsters, so that they can prosper in relative peace. In the meantime, he will continue to shout boo, hoping that one day it will be enough to make people flinch.