Kyle Bennett: I was Paul Cook's first recruit in a special era - and Portsmouth gave me best times of my career
Now Kyle Bennett is banking on a Pompey reunion to reignite a career which has stalled significantly since those south-coast highlights.
League Two Grimsby is the setting which offers the 30-year-old the fresh start he so desperately requires.
Former club Bristol Rovers refused to take Bennett off furlough and declined to hand over a squad number, instead reallocating his prized 23 shirt during exile.
As a consequence, the winger hasn’t trained with a club since March – before lockdown.
This week Grimsby intervened, a loan switch initiated through ex-Blues team-mate Ben Davies, now assistant manager at Blundell Park.
Also on the Mariners’ books is Danny Rose, a fellow Pompey League Two title winner who remains a close friend of Bennett, with the pair now team-mates at a third club together.
While Gareth Evans’ recent Pompey exit signalled the severing of ties with that memorable period, the player whose May 2015 signing kicked it off is seeking to rekindle his career.
He told The News: ‘When I saw about Gaz Evans leaving, do you know what, I felt the same as the fans.
‘That generation has gone now. It’s sad.
‘In the summer of 2015, people probably might not have been massively overwhelmed by Paul Cook’s signings, they probably hadn’t heard of too many of us.
‘But you can now look back and understand how unbelievable that window was. The standard of players he brought in was incredible.
‘I was the first to arrive. I will always remember Cookie telling me how I was going to be the important first new signing – “You’re signing now, you are not leaving this office until you have signed!”.
‘I was like: “Listen Paul, it’s a big move, a big change. It’s not like 10 minutes down the road”. But I joined.
‘He reassured me that getting the first one over the line would mean the dominoes would start falling, people would begin to join me at Fratton Park.
‘Anyway, I signed, as did Kal Naismith not long after. Then there was literally nothing for ages.
‘I was thinking “What have I done here? What have I done? It’s a great club, but he hasn’t signed anyone”. He promised he was signing all these players, he promised me Gary Roberts was coming. But there was nothing.
‘Then, more than two weeks after Naisy joined, the dominoes started falling.
‘I walked into the building on the first day of pre-season and thought “Yes, we’ve got a great chance here”.
‘Initially I didn’t really want to go down to League Two, there was interest from Barnsley among five or six League One clubs.
‘But my agent said: “Listen, just go down to Pompey and see what you think”. He had a point, it’s a massive club and people only ever have good things to say about it.
‘I went down, met Cookie in his office at the training ground and when he started speaking, that was it.
‘Honestly, no word of a lie, when he starts speaking he sells everything to you. Even though I wanted to stay in League One, I thought “I’m coming”.
‘At the time, I said I didn’t know, using a bit of negotiation skills! I told them I was going to think about it, but already knew in my head. I was going home to pack my bags.
‘After training for a few days, we went to Vale do Lobo, in the Algarve, for a team-building trip. The first couple of nights the boys were out having drinks, getting to know each other, having a laugh and joke. You knew then.
‘You always get to know someone better when you’ve had a drink, they open up a bit more. You saw the type of lads at the club, you could sense something special was happening.’
Bennett arrived on a free transfer from Doncaster in May 2015 as new boss Cook overhauled a Blues playing squad which had finished 16th in League Two the previous season.
His entrance signalled a procession of quality recruits into Fratton Park that summer, soon to be joined by Naismith, Enda Stevens, Gary Roberts, Christian Burgess, Michael Doyle, Gareth Evans, Matt Clarke and Ben Davies.
Others, such as Adam McGurk and Adam Barton, didn’t quite come off, yet the bulk of those 14 fresh faces would etch their names in modern Pompey folklore.
All have now departed. Most recently, Burgess joined Belgian club Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in July, while Evans last month struck a mutually-agreed exit to link up with former club Bradford.
It was depicted as the end of an era. And it truly was.
Bennett added: ‘As a player you are living in the moment, so can’t see it, even though you do appreciate it at the time.
‘Then you look back and think “Wow, we actually had something special”.
‘You pick out little parts, such as everyone attending the Christmas do, players having Sunday lunch together, looking after each others’ kids, sharing a coffee and a chat after training.
‘It was the best time of my career. At Pompey I had some good times on the pitch and some bad times on the pitch, but they were the best moments of my career, for sure.
‘I’ve never really experienced the level of friendship off the pitch that I had at Pompey. I’m still in touch with Doyler, Enda, Robbo, Rosie, Ben Davies and Burge.
‘Every club is different, but the higher up you go, the more individual players become – even at League One and League Two clubs you see that. Not at Pompey, though.
‘It was a nice group of lads, there wasn't really anyone in the squad who was disliked or didn’t get on with another player. You’d be sitting in the dressing room and every single one would be having banter together. We had that togetherness and trust in each other.
‘I mentioned Portugal, well the following summer we went to Dublin. Cookie worked us unbelievably hard in pre-season, but had the balance down to a T.
‘A lot of managers have a no drinking policy on pre-season tours, which I understand. But you’re in a different country, you want to go out and see stuff, have a beer, go to a little wine bar, whatever it might be.
‘Cookie’s approach was nobody comes out of the hotel without drinking. We had our work days, but afterwards it was a case of going out to get smashed. The boys had something to look forward to, so you don’t mind working hard. He had that balance.
‘Think of how many new faces were in that squad that first summer, there were a lot of people to get to know. That all began over a beer and nights out in Portugal.
‘In the summer of 2017, after promotion, Cookie was certain he was sorting a new deal, while mine was on the table.
‘I wanted to sign it, but I also wanted to be 100 per cent sure that he was staying – and he was sure he was staying.
’I don’t know the ins and outs of what went wrong. When I signed, I was under the impression that he was staying too. He had gone to Wigan 15 days later.
‘I was devastated. He’s my favourite manager.’
Bennett himself departed in January 2018 for Bristol Rovers, although there had also been interest from Cook’s Wigan months earlier.
After 117 appearances and 13 goals, the left-sided winger sought a fresh challenge after being overlooked by new boss Kenny Jackett.
Initially, life with the Gas began promisingly, scoring three times in 17 appearances during the remainder of the 2017-18 campaign.
However, he was soon dispatched to Swindon on loan, while last term was handed just 12 League One outings.
Frozen out, told he didn’t have a future and not allocated a squad number, he this week arrived at Grimsby for the duration of the season.
And there are some familiar Fratton Park faces around Blundell Park.
He said: ‘Yes, I’m with Rosie again!
‘We’re very good friends, he’s a top lad who’s had his troubles with injuries and remains a great player.
‘I love playing with him. He knows when I shout for the ball he has to give it to me!
‘Ben Davies is also there as assistant manager. Ian Holloway asked him to ring me to find out my situation and whether I would come. Then the manager rang himself last week.
‘It’s the chance for me to get some games. The manager is amazing, he’s had success in his career, and it’s a fresh start for me. I need this.
‘I’m there for the rest of the season, my contract is up until the end of it, so we’ll see.
‘Hopefully I can make more great memories like I had at Pompey.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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