Alan Bennett sits in The Shed in Turner’s Cross, somewhat reluctant to reflect too much on a career that still could have its best story to come.

But the thoughts of where he fell in love with the game are not ones he wants to ignore.

“I used to be over there,” he points, looking towards the St Anne’s End.

“It was all grass bank at the time. It was grass all the way up. We went everywhere. I went to places like Ballinhassig which is outside of Cork in the countryside where they would play reserve games. It was live football.

“I read recently that we have to tell kids that football isn’t a TV show. It’s an actual live event. It’s full on, it’s emotional, it’s everything involved. This is where I learned to love football.”

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At 35, Bennett has lived a life that every young football supporter would want. To play for your local team, represent your country, compete in different tiers of English football, and then return looking to top off where it all first started; hundreds of players would bite your hand off for such a career. 

“Winning the 2005 league title here – that was a really good day. We brought the trophy into The Shed. They were some great moments. I was only thinking about it the other day. I was trying to compare the last minute winner from the Cup final in November to that day in 2005.

“I think the night in 2005 was bit more special. Everybody that you cared about was there. All our friends and families were on that pitch in front of me, they were all there. To be able to share that occasion with everybody made it all the more magical.

“Damian Richardson was probably the coolest man in the place that night. We were building towards it in the years previous to that, and I think that’s similar to where we are now. We had finished third and second and built our way up. It makes me smile just thinking about it. Everything came together. Damian finished off what Pat Dolan started. I’m seeing a lot of similarities with the squad this year and the way it’s moving.

“Hopefully it will have the same conclusion. We need more nights like that. Across my career I can only talk about maybe three or four nights like that. That’s what you really want. Looking towards what’s left in my career, I want as many nights like that as possible.”

In early 2007, Bennett’s form was so good that England came knocking. Reading, riding high in the Premier League, wanted his services and paid a reported £250,000 to secure them. As can be the way in Irish football, the great moments are often preceded by the bizarre.

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“It all happened quite quickly. I was young and a bit naive too in some senses. I remember going out to Bishopstown and Damian was the manager at the time. He asked me to take his two dogs for a walk out the back of the pitch there. One of the dogs took off and I lost him. I don’t know where he went.

“I was in the bushes looking for the dog and he came out and was about to tell me that the move had gone through and Reading had paid the money. But he was raging because the dog was missing. We spent about half an hour looking for the dog and we eventually found him. He told me when I found the dog that I had been sold. It could have gone smoother, but I packed my bags and I was gone the next morning.

“It was a whirlwind. Reading were at the absolute peak of their powers. They just finished outside of the European places that season. It was a huge learning curve for me and it made me [as a person] a little bit. It made me grow up really quickly.”

It may have started off as a shaggy dog tale, but there was no fairy tale. Shane Long and Kevin Doyle were fortunate enough to go on to big things at the club, but it was harder for Bennett with such strong competition in defence. The timing didn’t help as he arrived in the middle of the English season without a full pre-season, while when Doyle made his move, he had played the previous weeks in Ireland. Soon Bennett would see how difficult it was going to be.

“I think the biggest difference is you can afford to make mistakes at Turner’s Cross or away to Finn Harps or whatever. There is criticism on you but there’s not that much spotlight. But when you go to England, if you make a mistake, there is two or three players ready to go into your position where you have left off. That was probably the hardest thing for me.”

Premier League football didn’t work out for Bennett, but while there was frustration at not breaking into the side for a first-team appearance, international recognition was about to follow and lead to a significant loan move. The maligned US tour under Steve Staunton in 2007 has generated many stories, Bennett’s is one of the more positive. But he will forever to be connected to a college player still discussed to this day.

“It’s definitely one of the proudest moments of my career. I felt I was picked on merit and gave two good performances in a team that had future Irish internationals of up to 50, 60 caps. There was the likes of Daryl Murphy, Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt, and established players too like Kevin Kilbane. I felt I did well.

“It’s great that it’s remembered as the Joe Lapira tour! That comes up every year. When I went back to Reading after the trip, I was loaned out to Southampton. I arrived down on the Thursday and the league was starting on the Saturday. I was settling in and one of the lads said ‘there is an Irish international coming in on trial tomorrow’. I was wondering who it was and the next day in walked Joe Lapira. He had one training session with the first-team and the manager left it at that!”

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Southampton was an enjoyable experience for the defender, playing 10 games, and then at Brentford he won a League 2 title.

Almost 200 appearances were clocked up across the Football League – a time he cherished every day rather than fearing about it coming to an end. Cork was always in the back of his mind.

“I had about six clubs in the nine seasons I was in England. A lot of them were loan moves. It can be difficult. It’s hard to try to maintain a family base or some sort of stability in your life. I think I just embraced it. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it for 10 or 15 years. I knew I was always going to come home because every time I spoke at a club, I always said I would come home and finish my career in Cork.

“I lived in some beautiful places in England like Cheltenham, Wimbledon, I met some lovely people. I had some good FA Cup games, won a league with Brentford. I just got on board with it and went with it.

“I probably played my peak at Brentford but I never really felt at home there. I felt most appreciated and loved and Cheltenham and Wimbledon. Cheltenham has such an Irish connection. Every March I was the man around town. It was brilliant. Wimbledon was club I really connected to in that it had been ripped up and torn apart. I was able to buy into it.”

Bennett had left Turner’s Cross just after a glorious time for his hometown team. While he was away, it was full-on crisis. Their very existence was threatened – a mere hours away from folding at one point – and by the time he returned in 2015 they had come full circle. Now it was time to create more of those Shed memories.

In his first season, one was nearly made. The FAI Cup final with Dundalk saw Bennett win the man-of-the-match award, but he is unsure where that memento lies now. Dundalk emerged victorious in extra-time. However, the signs were good in getting stronger each season.

Last November, City got their revenge in the most dramatic fashion, winning the Cup in the 120th minute thanks to Sean Maguire’s deflected strike.

“When I left Cork were challenging and run professionally. Everything was moving towards being right on and off-the-pitch at the club. So when I came back I felt like it was getting back to it. I know what happened in between, but to me it felt like it was back where it was. That’s where this club should be. It should be having European nights every year. It should be up at the top of the league.

“The club is obsessed with winning trophies. It comes down from the manager. As a group of players we are the exact same. We work towards it every day, we talk about it every day. I felt I had a better game in the 2015 Cup final, I got man-of-the-match as you say, but I don’t know where it is. It’s at home somewhere.

“The final in 2016 was my third final and after losing two already, I really wanted it. I’ll cherish the Cup final medal. The emotions came out in me, it was such a beautiful way to win the game of football.”  

To complete the dream return, one more medal is needed. City had long been the bridesmaid up until that late goal in the Aviva Stadium, and with further strengthening in this off-season, this represents their best chance of stopping a Dundalk side that has needed seven new signings in recent months after losing some of their stars.

It would be quite a story to come back and reach the pinnacle of Irish football 12 years on. But what can make the difference?  

“It would be nice to do it. It’s what we really want. We have the ability. It’s finding that level of consistency and ruthlessness in our game. You need a cold-blooded approach. You need to get over things quickly and approach every training session and match like that moment is the best you can do. You have to do that and see where it can take you.

“I’m so privileged and proud to be involved with this club. The people, the fans, people like Noelle Feeney (a legendary City volunteer that passed away this month). It's such a proud place. I'm a proud Cork man. It's great to play with your own club. I fully understand why people want to do that. It's such a great feeling.”

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Bennett will turn 36 in the final weeks of this season. Any question of retirement brings a grimace, and it’s not something he even wants to contemplate. It's actually not even something he feels he can do to himself. 

“I've been asked that question a few times during this off-season. I'm contracted to the end of the season. Years ago you'd have said you were coming out of contract but now it's going into retirement.

“I don't know. I don't know how to plan a retirement. I don't want to plan a retirement to be honest. I think [manager] John Caulfield will have to retire me. I think he'll have to sit down and tell me it's over. We'll see. I'll take it every day as it comes.

“We have some great new lads in this season who I am really looking forward to impressing and working with.

“I want to show them I'm a good player, they want to show me that they are a good player.

“I still have the fire. Once that's burning, I still want to play.”

It would be brave man to bet against a rebirth of those 2005 days, and when the story is done, there is no doubt Bennett will be back standing in the same place he first got that Cork City bug.

Alan Bennett was speaking to RTÉ Group Soccer Correspondent Tony O'Donoghue

Words by Rory Houston