Let’s begin with a fairy tale. In a kingdom not so far away, there once was a young footballer with the natural talent to make it to the very top. The kingdom itself was, at the time, one of the most successful in all the lands, stacked full of some of the finest warriors there has ever been. The ruler of the kingdom was renowned for the development of youngsters, having a particular penchant for turning rough gems into polished diamonds. He even had a mentor, known as ‘The Non-Flying Dutchman’, who had been crowned the Prince Charming by his adoring followers, and from whom he was expected to take over one day. Then as the years passed, he pissed it away until he ended up on loan in Russia facing a relegation battle. Not quite how that was supposed to end then.
The fairy tale is, of course, the story of David Bentley’s career. With the transfer window having come and gone, and Bentley remaining as an unwanted member at White Hart Lane, the news broke last week of his loan move to Russia. But this was not to one of the top Russian sides such as Zenit St Petersburg, CSKA Moscow or the uber-rich Anzhi Makhachkala that would be competing for the title and in Europe. Instead, the team for which the former England international has joined is FC Rostov.
Unless you have a particular fondness for the Russian Premier League it’s unlikely you will have heard of Rostov, and a quick look into their history reveals why. A cup final loss in 2003 to Spartak Moscow and a second tier championship in 2008 are the highlights of their history. Last year they survived relegation via a play-off and find themselves in a similar predicament this year. In the 16 team division they are currently lying in 13th, with just one win to their name after seven games. And in case you were wondering, they have not been recently taken over by a rich tycoon planning to transform the club. In fact the truth is quite the opposite, with the club facing financial difficulties recently.
It’s been quite a fall from grace for the former prodigy. His career began so brightly, joining the senior squad at Arsenal for the first time in 2003 and making his debut in an FA Cup win over Oxford United. His first goal was an audacious lob against Middlesbrough in January 2004, which earned him comparisons with Dennis Bergkamp, and although these types of comparisons are handed out far too readily it was clear that there was a lot of ability in Bentley’s boots. And remember, this was an Arsenal side on their way to becoming the invincibles, so to be involved with the squad at such an early age was a huge accomplishment.
However, that potential was never realised. The following season was spent on loan at Norwich, after which he handed in a transfer request at Arsenal citing a desire for regular first team football. Initially he joined Blackburn Rovers on loan before the deal was made permanent in January and it was during his spell in Lancashire that Bentley produced his best form as senior professional. He was named fans Player of the Year at the end of his first season and enjoyed similar successes the following year, helping Rovers to sixth and seventh placed finishes respectively. It was at the end of his second season that he asked to move to a bigger club, with Tottenham prising him away for an initial £15m fee.
His finest moment in a Spurs shirt came with his first goal for the club, in the form of a 40 yard volley against Arsenal in a 4-4 draw at the Emirates. However, it was all downhill from there on as the wide man failed to establish a regular spot in the team under Harry Redknapp, eventually being farmed out to Birmingham and West Ham on loan. With his recent move to Rostov, Bentley has undoubtedly reached the lowest point in his career.
It’s always difficult to know what goes on behind closed doors, so subsequently we can’t judge whether this is a result of personal demons or simply being unable to handle riches and fame at such an early age. It is probably a mixture of the two in reality, since there are plenty of others who have dealt with the stardom without seeing their career collapse around them. He admitted to having a gambling addiction in 2005, reaching a peak of around 100 bets per day, but claimed to have overcome this shortly after. However, there is the real possibility of an underlying problem being at the root of this. Whether his case is one of deeper psychological issues or simply a lack of desire and motivation to succeed as a professional athlete is unknown. We may find out further down the line and we may not, but what is certain is that substantial potential has not been realised.
Younger footballers are being educated more and more on the traps that life as a professional footballer brings. It won’t save them all but the hope is that it will at least help the few who are most vulnerable. Chances are that lecturing a group of young footballers about staying away from gambling and nightclubs will fall on deaf ears, but show them the case study of Bentley and some may just realise it’s not worth the risk.