Strike ace and Gosport Borough legend Justin Bennett calls time on goal-laden playing career having achieved footballing first to make ending even more memorable

He's the south coast scoring sensation who has called time on a goal-laden playing career littered with personal and club glories.

By Lewis Mason
Tuesday, 3rd May 2022, 1:25 pm

Fittingly, Gosport Borough legend Justin Bennett brought the curtain down on his days as a player with a first - ending as a title-winner with Wessex Division One champions Bemerton Heath Harlequins after some 20 years of terrorising defences without tasting league success.

His two goals on the final day against Andover Town took his 2021/22 seasonal tally to 51 in league and cup action. As a result, he became the first Wessex second tier striker to reach a half-century of goals in a season since Ian Davies for Whitchurch in 2008/09. All 50 of Davies’ goals came in the league.

More recently, Ryan Pennery had struck 48 goals in all competitions for Baffins Milton Rovers in 2016/17. Of those, 39 came in Wessex Division 1 games. Of Bennett’s 51 goals this season, 40 came in the league.

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All-time Gosport Borough record goalscorer Justin Bennett featured for the club in their FA Trophy final defeat to Cambridge at Wembley in 2014 Picture: Paul Jacobs (14847-1718)

Incredibly, Bennett, 39, finished up with a stunning 667 goals to his name across playing spells with Andover, Eastleigh, Gosport, Salisbury, Oxford City, AFC Totton and Bemerton.

But of all the clubs he turned out for, Gosport will always hold a special place for the strike ace - while the supporters of the Privett Park club are sure to never forget him.

Standing as Boro's all-time leading record scorer, the chartered financial planner by day banged in an sensational 263 goals across a seven-year period between 2007-16 - coinciding with the most successful years in the club's history.

Alongside the four league golden boot awards he collected at Southern League and National League South level while with Gosport, he was also part of a team who won successive promotions via the play-offs to reach the sixth-tier in 2013.

Justin Bennett is hoisted into the air by his Gosport Borough team-mates after breaking the club's scoring record in 2014 Picture: Adam Rivers

Added to that, he was part of the Boro team who faced EFL Colchester in an FA Cup first-round proper tie at Privett Park in 2014 - where he scored twice in a 6-3 defeat - and the small matter of an FA Trophy final appearance at Wembley against Cambridge in the same year.

Yet, if he’d had his way, Bennett might have never turned out for Boro, the club he initially joined on loan, at all.

Bennett told The News: ‘Interestingly, I didn’t want to go to Gosport because I played against them in my days at Andover and I was just like, ‘I don’t want to go to that club.’

‘I was actually pushing to go to Thatcham because I knew a couple of people there. Eastleigh (where he was playing at the time) pretty much said ‘no’ to that, they said everything with Gosport had been agreed, so I just thought it’s a couple of months and it’d be fine.

Justin Bennett netted 51 times for Bemerton Heath Harlequins in his final campaign as a player as the club were crowned Wessex League Division One champions Picture: Tony Smith

‘Within a couple of weeks it was obvious I was going to love it there so we made the deal permanent (a few weeks after loan arrival).’

Then, having finished as the Southern League Division One South & West leading scorer in both the 2007-08 and 2009-10 campaigns - bagging 28 and 32 goals respectively - Bennett was contemplating a move away from Privett Park with the club failing to contest for promotion.

But he remains thankful to Alex Pike - his manager at Gosport across his nine years at the club - for persuading him to remain, given the success which was to arrive over such a short period of time.

Bennett continued: ‘They (Gosport) were in the Southern League (Division One South & West) at the time, we’d spent a few seasons there, then I’d won a few golden boots and was seeing other local sides have a bit of success. It was the whole thing of ‘were Gosport going to get anywhere?’

‘I remember Alex Pike coming to Salisbury where I was living, sitting me down, asking me to give him a chance and let him put a team together which was going to do something.

‘I believed him, I trusted him, I can only thank him for doing that. I’d have missed out on two promotions, an appearance in the first round of the FA Cup and a Wembley appearance (if he’d have left Gosport).

‘I’d have missed out on all of those things and for players who’ve played at the levels I have, to have one of those things you’d bite someone’s arm off - to have all of them is mad.’

There is also the small matter of Bennett standing as the only individual in Gosport's history to score more than 200 goals - he netted 263 times for the club in all. Another statistic which provides a great source of pride for the prolific hitman.

‘When I left, I was proud of it (Gosport all-time leading scorer), it’s not until you’re a few years on - I look at it now and I feel like that’s probably going to be tough to beat.

‘I look at it, I was there for nine years, scoring goals at quite a good rate over that period. It’s going to take someone to keep at that rate and probably stay longer than nine years, which not many players do nowadays. I’m really proud of it and, selfishly, I’d like to see the record stand for a long time.’

Scarily, Bennett's final career scoring total of 667 could quite easily have been even greater but for missing two whole seasons having ruptured both his right and left ACLs.

The first of his two serious knee injuries arrived on the back of a prolific spell with Andover - where he struck 200 goals over a four-year period - before he was signed by current Hawks boss Paul Doswell at Eastleigh prior to the 2006-07 campaign.

Then, after getting a move back to National League South level with Oxford City ahead of the 2017-18 season - after netting 40 goals for hometown club Salisbury the previous season, forming a lethal partnership with current Hawks striker Tommy Wright - he ruptured his ACL in the final game of pre-season.

Still, a final total of 667 goals, which includes more than 200 strikes at both Andover and Gosport, along with 127 goals in his career swansong with Bemerton, is certainly quite an achievement.

But there is another aspect which Bennett has reflected fondly on since he confirmed his retirement on social media.

‘I look back on my career - I’m proud - but looking at the comments from my Facebook post (announcing retirement), one of things I’m proudest of is people referring to me as a nice guy,' said Bennett.

‘If I had a good football career and people liked me, that’s something I can be proud of in the future. I have made lifelong friends, I’ve come across amazing people - perhaps I’m not still in touch with - who I’ll always remember. Not many people get that opportunity, so football has given me that.’