Paul Benson on the boss, his chance, the Daggers, Swindon and success
He’s reunited with the manager that gave him his most treasured memories in football – and now he wants to do it all over again with the Hatters.
New signing Paul Benson, who joined the Town on a season-long loan deal on Monday, was plucked from the obscurity of the Essex Olympian League by John Still and Terry Harris in 2005.
It’s a moment in time both player and manager remember well. Benson admits he didn’t have a particularly good game the night he was watched. Still doesn’t quite recall the level of the striker’s performance. But then again the then 23-year-old had been scoring literally hundreds of goals for White Ensign at the time.
A deal was done and Benson was given his full-time chance at Dagenham & Redbridge. “It’s something I’m ever grateful of,” he told Hatters Player, in his first interview as a Town man.
Despite one league goal in his first season, Still refused to panic. The following campaign, 2006/07, the frontman scored 28 goals. The Daggers won the Conference title. In 2009/10 he scored 22 goals and one of them came at Wembley. Still’s boys were Play-Off winners and, against all the odds, in League 1.
Since those delirious days with the Daggers the now 33-year-old went onto experience transfers to Charlton Athletic and Swindon Town where the goals continued. So did success: a League 2 championship winners’ medal obtained only the season before last under Paolo Di Canio is still fresh in the striker’s mind.
But, it’s the triumphs with Dagenham & Redbridge that pulls on Benson’s heart strings. As does working with Still. “The gaffer knows me better than any other manager I’ve ever worked under,” he says. “I know what he needs, he knows what I want. We trust each other. Let’s hope it works as well as it did with the Dagenham.”
The Hatters can thank the Robins’ reluctance to give him a run in the side for his arrival in Bedfordshire. “Last season was the toughest I’ve had in the game,” explains Benson. He actually started last season well under Di Canio, scoring three goals – but the Italian then had other ideas. Out of the team, a short loan spell at financially troubled Portsmouth came and went after two goals in seven games. That stint on the south coast was followed by another temporary move, this time to Cheltenham for the final five months of a campaign.
“It wasn’t just tough physically, but mentally, too,” continues Benson. “I started the season in good form at Swindon and then, for whatever reason, Paolo switched it around, brought in new players and I was in and out.
“In October I went to Portsmouth. I enjoyed it but it was tough there with the problems they had, and then I went to Cheltenham and we lost in the Play-Off semi-finals to Northampton.”
Benson now hopes that one season living like a nomadic, journeyman footballer existence is a thing of the past. “I don’t like moving around; I’ve got a young family who I like to base myself around. Now I’ve got a great chance to settle and be settled.”
He’ll have that opportunity to get his feet firmly fixed on Bedfordshire soil now with the Hatters, but if his manager is expecting the same kind of player that left Victoria Road in 2010 then perhaps he should think again.
“I think I’m a better player now than I was when I left Dagenham,” says the striker who scored 74 league goals in just shy of 160 games for the Essex outfit. “I’ve matured a lot, I feel as athletic as I ever have done and my game has come on a bit more since I last played under John.
“He’s getting a different player that left him. I’ve worked on different parts of my game. Aspects that I felt I needed to improve to make the step-up to the higher level I was playing at. I think I’ve improved at certain things and I’m a better all-round player now.”
That’ll be music to the ears of the manager and Town fans alike, but perhaps not to those Skrill Premier defenders who will be all too aware of his predatory instincts in front of goal. 0.38 goals per league game ratio, 114 goals in senior football – or well over 200 if you throw in those goals for White Ensign. Benson’s good with numbers – it was football over a career in accountancy that the goal-getter chose when Still and Harris came calling with a contract that wet night at Dedham Sports.
While Benson acknowledges how tough the division he now finds himself in is – as well as how dramatically it has changed since he last tasted Conference action – the striker admits his decision to drop down two divisions was a difficult one to make.
However, especially with Still at the helm, he wants to be a part of something special at Kenilworth Road.
“I’m not go to lie, having the gaffer here is a massive pull. He’s given me some the best memories in the game.
“Funnily enough I thought about coming to Luton about two-and-a-half years ago before I went to Swindon, but at the time I thought that move was best for me. Fortunately I went onto enjoy success there. But when the chance came up to come to Luton again, and with the gaffer there, there was only one place where I wanted to go.
“Dropping down two divisions definitely crossed my mind, though. I thought to myself I could have a couple more years in the Football League. I’ve still got the ability to do that but sometimes you’ve got to think about the longer term and what you want for the benefit of your career.
“Maybe I could play in League 1 or 2 but I knew that once John gets things going at Luton it could really take off, and I didn’t want to miss out on something like that. I didn’t want to be the player that looks at Luton in League 1 or 2 in a few years’ time and think to myself ‘I could have been there’. I wanted to thing longer term, and Luton can get to League 1 in that time – but obviously it’s going to take a lot of hard work before that materialises.
“Luckily I know first-hand at what John can do. He’s got the ability to do it. I’ve experienced the way he does things, and it’s been successful. I was delighted to be a part of that at Dagenham and I’m delighted to be part of a team of his again.
“Coming back to work with John isn’t about thanking him for giving me that first chance in the game. It’s about looking forward to being involved, getting up and running and helping, of course, that the season ends in success.”
To watch the full interview with Paul, check out Hatters Player.