David Bentley and Joey Barton: Pioneering a new age in English football?

False Nine editor James Dutton explores the recent history of English footballers in Europe, the reluctance of present England internationals to move into the unknown and more lessons that can be learned from the Spanish…

David Bentley’s re-location to Russia was heralded by many in the media as the last desperate action of a failed footballer to kickstart his career. Continue reading

David Bentley: The First Englishman to Play in the Russian Premier League

False Nine editor Andrew Belt surveys the troubled career of David Bentley and takes a look at his new home, FC Rostov

David Bentley was destined to go into English football’s history books. The star player at Blackburn Rovers, after being heavily linked with Manchester United, decided to follow manager Mark Hughes out of Ewood Park and was snapped up by Tottenham Hotspur for an initial fee of £15 million on 31 July 2008.

At roughly the same time, David Beckham was staggering towards the end of his England career, leaving the gap open for a new name to make the right-wing position their own for the Three Lions. Bentley’s marauding runs on the right of midfield and pinpoint crossing ability had many influential commentators on the sport calling an end to the search for Goldenballs’ successor and, with the new Spurs recruit about to turn 24, big things were expected from a player routinely compared with the ageing LA Galaxy celebrity-cum-footballer.

Bentley’s style of football was very much similar to that of Beckham’s own brand of effective long-distance passing, and a seamless transition appeared to be in the offing as the touted heir to the ex-captain’s throne looked set to blend into the England setup. Only a few months before Bentley’s big-money move, the Rovers player had replaced Beckham at half-time in a 2-0 friendly win for England over the United States; a symbolic handing over of the baton perhaps?

An assist in England’s next friendly against Trinidad & Tobago, again after coming off the bench, followed and more minutes as a substitute in a draw against the Czech Republic secured Bentley some competitive momentum as an international player. However, the straightforward transition from Beckham to Bentley encountered difficulties with the emergence of Theo Walcott and a further challenge from an inconsistent Shaun Wright-Phillips as the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup got underway.

Fabio Capello, taking over from the hapless Steve McClaren, took on a more fearless approach to arresting England’s Euro wobble and thrust Walcott into the action from the off, with the Arsenal youngster making an immediate impression on the international scene; most notably scoring a hat-trick away to Croatia. Capello relied on the professionalism of Beckham to enter the fray as a replacement for Walcott, should he be needed, and even Wright-Phillips edged his way up the pecking order. Bentley didn’t make another England squad for the remainder of 2008.

The first half of the year had included Bentley’s first start for the national side in a friendly versus Switzerland but, following his switch back down to North London, his stock fell and he had a mixed season for his new employers. An undoubted highlight was a 43-yard volleyed strike against the club who had given Bentley his first taste of first-team football in a 4-4 draw at the Emirates Stadium but, all too often, Tottenham’s £15 million investment looked a poor one and another young rival, Aaron Lennon, was trusted with the right-wing berth as the season drew to a close.

Bentley’s second season at White Hart Lane confirmed that he was the second-choice right midfielder, with Lennon preferred, and he ended up warming the bench for most of the campaign. Younger, speedier wingers had displaced him for both his club and his country, and, suddenly, Bentley was in the position of having to prove himself again and justify the praise so readily handed out to him whilst excelling at Blackburn.

However, the setback proved highly-damaging to Bentley’s career development and a disappointing loan spell at Birmingham City the following season preceded an injury-hit 2011/12 at West Ham United, while still contracted to Spurs. Six months out of the game is costly for a player who’s failed to convince any of his club managers of his worth since 2008, yet alone be considered for a national playing role that had seemed almost within his grasp in the aftermath of England’s dismal effort to reach Euro 2008.

At 28, Bentley has finally entered himself into English football’s history books… by becoming the first Englishman to join a Russian Premier League side. With Zenit St Petersburg and Anzhi Makachkala loudly waving their chequebooks in the air, Rubin Kazan consistently offering European football at the Tsentralnyi Stadion and the Moscow clubs always an attractive proposition, it was always inevitable that an English player would follow the riches available in Russia but, Bentley’s destination was most unexpected. Without any warning, it was announced last Thursday (September 6) that David Bentley would play, on loan, for FC Rostov until January.

Apart from the club’s penchant for changing their name (Selmashtroy to Selmash to Traktor to Torpedo to Rostelmash before eventually arriving at Rostov), Rostov’s history has been largely uninspiring and Russia’s Southern Federal District football team only just retained their Premier League status last season, after beating First Division side, FC Shinnik Yaroslavl, over the course of two-legs in the Relegation Play-Offs. There has been nothing to suggest that the Rostov-on-Don side will not struggle likewise this season, and after seven games played, Rostov occupy the same position of 13th they achieved last season to prompt an unwanted extension to the regular season.

It’s a brave move from Bentley to travel eastwards to aid the cause of the unfashionable club and he would do well to speak to the first couple of British footballers who were lured to Russia’s top division. Garry O’Connor is not a household name, by any stretch of the imagination, but arrived to great fanfare in Russia when he signed for Lokomotiv Moscow in 2006, in a £1.6 million, five-year deal to become the first British player in the Russian Premier League. Both parties were left disappointed by what they got out of the deal (O’Connor’s difficulty getting Sky TV working in his Russian home paints a vivid picture of the personal aspects of Garry’s frustration with the country in Marc Bennetts’ excellent Football Dynamo) and the Scottish international left after just over a year. He’s now back in Russia plying his trade with Tom Tomsk of the Russian Football National League Championship.

Irish winger Aiden McGeady became the second British footballer to play in the Russian Premier League when he left Celtic for Spartak Moscow in a £9.5 million deal – a record sum paid for a Scottish export – in 2010. McGeady has adapted well to the division and the European competitions the club has subsequently played in since his arrival, and would be able to advise Bentley as to how to succeed in Russian football and the country itself.

Bentley joins up with ex-Spurs teammate, the Croatian No.1 Stipe Pletikosa and follows on from ex-Liverpool striker, Florent Sinama-Pongolle’s move to Rostov that was confirmed only a couple of days before the Brit’s signature.

The man in charge of Bentley’s new team is Miodrag Božović, a well-travelled journeyman as a footballer and a coach who’s earned plaudits in Russian football over the past few years after starting out in his native Montonegro. Nicknamed ‘The Count’ for his slick, well-groomed appearance, 44-year old Božović led Amkar Perm to the Europa League for the first time in the club’s history and had FC Moscow challenging for European qualification before the collapse of the club due to financial pressure.

Spells at Dinamo Moscow and a return to Amkar Perm followed before Božović quit the Perm club to take over the project at Rostov-on-Don this Summer. FC Rostov receive funding from the local authority with Sergei Gorban, the Vice-Governor of the Rostov region, the President of the football team and Deputy Governor of the Rostov region, Viktor Goncharov, the chairman of the outfit. Both took over in 2011 and Goncharov was quoted as saying that he plans for two-thirds of the Rostov team to be comprised of local talent, in the region’s Komsomolskaia Pravda online newspaper, shortly after taking up his new-found role with the club.

Quite how the signings of Bentley, admittedly on a short-term loan, and Sinama-Pongolle, not to mention the 13 other Summer signings including an American, a Czech and a Cameroonian, fit in to this desired Athletic Bilbao-esque model it is not known but clearly the club are not resting on their laurels and are confident enough to pursue players with pedigrees from further afield.

The Rostov club website described Bentley as a “famous midfielder” and noted that the player may resume his career with the club come the end of the loan, while a ‘Rostelmash’ fansite released an article entitled “Bentley will regret his choice of club this Summer” before the ex-England player had even kicked a ball! The move ensured Bentley has made British headlines once again and it may well prompt managers to keep abreast of the football scene in the Russian Premier League a little more closely.

Rostov-on-Don lies close to the Ukraine border and, while the best Ukrainian footballers will be in London tonight taking on the English national team, Bentley will be preparing for his home Rostov debut versus Dinamo Moscow this Sunday. Beckham went on to enjoy an Indian Summer with the national team and, even now, is revered by the British public as evidenced by his well-received cameo role in the 2012 Olympic Games.

Bentley mistimed the baton change with the former Three Lions skipper, with gambling problems and controversy surrounding his withdrawal from the England U-21 squad for the 2007 European Championships calling into question his discipline and professionalism, but if he can make a difference in the rapidly-improving top-tier of Russian football then he may just save himself from a permanent residence in the footballing equivalent of his newly-adopted country’s Siberian wilderness.

Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrey_belt

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