BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Mason Bennett couldn’t wait to get into the thick of the action with Millwall – and completely understands why some of the club’s supporters were getting impatient to see him in action.
The 23-year-old signed on loan from Derby County at the end of the January window but he was not in the squad for their next four Championship fixtures.
Bennett finally entered the fray as a 64th-minute substitute at Wigan on Saturday, adding a bit of punch to what had been a limp attacking display at the DW Stadium
“I was delighted to get out on the pitch,” he said. “I knew it had been a couple of weeks since I signed and the fans are probably thinking ‘where is he?’
“I 100 per cent understand where they are coming from. You want a new signing to go in there straight away – and it was my intention to do that – but I got a little knock for the U23s. I was scheduled to play 45 minutes and the first minute, the first tackle, I jarred the ankle I’d had an operation on. I got through it but the next day it was very sore and the day after that it was really sore.
“Within three days it was back to normal, so the gaffer and I both felt it was best not to rush or force it and make things worse.”
Bennett has played just 69 minutes of first-team football since the end of August before Wednesday’s start against Birmingham City.
Both he and Rams team-mate Tom Lawrence pleaded guilty to a drink-driving offence at a court hearing in October, being ordered to do 80 hours of community service. The duo had already been fined six weeks’ wages by Derby.
Asked about a lack of game time, Bennett replied: “They [Derby] were going in a different direction. I spoke to the manager [Phillipe Cocu] and he said I wasn’t part of his plans.
“I knew where I was at with Derby, I knew it was going to be a tough season for me to get in and around that team.
“I’m definitely out of my comfort zone here. I could’ve stayed at Derby for the remainder of my contract and done nothing – but that’s not my mentality. That’s not the kind of career I want to be known for.
“As soon as Alex [Pearce, club captain at Millwall] told me there was an opportunity to come down I wanted to grab it with both hands.
“My agent and the gaffer [Gary Rowett] worked hard to get it over the line.”
Bennett isn’t the first player to struggle to live up to his early hyping. He is Derby’s youngest first-team player – at 15 years and 99 days old – and also their youngest goalscorer.
The fact he was still at school made then boss Nigel Clough decide not to pick him for a midweek fixture at Reading in 2011. Bennett was being linked with both Manchester clubs and Liverpool.
“Nigel Clough was there until I was 16-and-a-half and then he got the sack,” recalls the attacker. “I’m a young lad coming through and [Steve] McClaren came in. It was difficult because we got into the routine of changing manager every six months and a lot of money being spent on players.
“Every manager has a different idea. I loved it under Nigel Clough. He was great for me and I still keep in touch, even now.
“I was trying to find a way to get involved and be a first-team regular but I was playing the odd game. When it’s only the odd game I was getting niggles and muscle tears everywhere. It was difficult.
“When you’ve come through a club and been there for 12 years everyone sees you as an academy player – even when you’re 22 or 23. Here it’s a fresh start. I’m a senior player – here to play first-team football. I needed this move. After last season I was ready for a change.”
Bennett featured 33 times for Derby last season under Frank Lampard and started the play-off final second leg – Leeds stunned 4-2 at Elland Road – as well as the loss to Aston Villa at Wembley.
Bennett said: “Lampard was great for me and saw what I brought to the team. It was a great season. There are a lot of players at Derby – a lot of quality ones, especially in the forward areas.
“When you’re playing teams like Leeds and they are going to have a lot of the ball, when you win it back you need someone who can barge people around, be strong and hold it.
“I don’t think we had that in the first leg and ended up on the back foot for quite a bit of it.
“The second leg he [Lampard] tried to spin it – me and Tom went up front and it worked a treat.
“Hopefully I will, but I don’t think I’ll play in a better game in my life. The atmosphere, the emotion around the game and the possibility of getting to Wembley – Spygate and Leeds celebrating at our gaff like they’d won it already and they were only 1-0 up – all of that was playing in the back of our heads. We had so much motivation and desire to go out and beat them.
“A few of their lads who weren’t even in the squad were going on the pitch and over to the fans cheering like they’d won it. It’s only one leg.
“After the way we played against Leeds at Elland Road in the second leg, I think the gaffer thought he’d stick with that team for the final.
“I’ve grown up at Derby and it was a great gesture to start in the final. Unfortunately we didn’t get up, but I’ll forever be grateful.”
That Leeds match is proof the improbable happens in the Championship.
And it explains why Bennett won’t be writing off Millwall’s play-off prospects until it is mathematically impossible.
“There are still 33 points up for grabs – you can’t say it’s over,” he said. “We’ll go right to the last minute of the last game.”
Photos by Keith Gillard
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