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I Knew I’d Play For The Gaffer Again, It’s Like Coming Home

AS FREUDIAN slips go, it’s a mild one, but when Paul Benson says: “I’m back here now”, it is understandable that the on-loan Swindon striker can confuse Skrill Premier big guns Luton Town for League Two minnows Dagenham & Redbridge.

The 33-year-old has been reunited this week with John Still and Terry Harris, the manager and assistant who handed him his chance in professional football at Victoria Road nine years ago. Only now it’s at Kenilworth Road, but he’s already feeling at home.

Still has borrowed his protégé on a season-long arrangement as the League One Robins look to trim their wage bill by offloading their biggest earners.

But he discovered Benson in the Essex Intermediate League, playing for White Ensign, and often reminds The NLP how he lured him away from the park for full-time Conference football on just £125-a-week.

Paul Benson BI

Benson celebrates netting for his parent club Swindon Town

Benson, who has since gone onto play for Charlton Athletic and Portsmouth, laughs: “He’s gone a bit low on the wages. It was £175 he gave me, but I was earning probably double that in London working in accountancy.

“Professional football was what I always wanted to do, so I wasn’t going to let money get in the way. I was living at home with my parents, so I thought ‘Why not?’ It’s turned out all right for me.”

The relationship the pair have is perhaps best underlined by Benson’s roll-of-the-eyes response to the opening to my next question: ‘He (Still) once told me about working with you on the training ground until they had to turn the floodlights on because you only scored one goal in 26 appearances in your first season…’

“He always says that to me,” says Benson. “He goes, ‘You only got one goal in that first season’. And I say ‘Well, look at the stats gaffer, you only started me in ten games and in half of them you dragged me off after 60 minutes anyway!’

“He’s right in that there was a lot of work that needed to be done with me, though. I was very raw and I hadn’t really played any type of high level football when they took me.

“John and Terry put a lot of time into me and I’ve always been grateful for it. I spent a lot of time at Dagenham and when chances came around to move, I didn’t just jump at the first one because I thought I owed a bit to them for developing me the way they did.

“I stayed with them until we got to League One, and then I felt the time was right to move on when Charlton came in. I do owe them a lot and I’m back here now, but hopefully they won’t keep me on the training pitch for as long as they used to!”

Settling in

When I point out that he’s not back at Dagenham, he says: “It is like being back home, but obviously at a different club. I always thought I would end up back with John and Terry, but always assumed it would be Dagenham.

“I only joined on Monday and I feel settled already. I know a few of the boys, like Solomon Taiwo and Scotty Griffiths from Dagenham, and I played with Jonathan Smith at Swindon.

“The hardest part in joining a new club is settling in and getting to know everyone, but it gives you a head start if you already know the manager, the backroom staff and some of your team-mates.”

Luton fans will hope that skipping the settling-in period will produce similar results to the 28-goal haul Benson managed to win the Golden Boot and Conference title in 2006-07.

“Charlie McDonald was one goal behind me and we played his Ebbsfleet in the last game of the season,” recalls Benson, who made his debut in the fine 2-0 win at Kidderminster yesterday.

“I gave away a penalty and if Charlie had scored, we’d have ended up joint top scorers. Thankfully Tony Roberts saved it and whenever I see Robbo, he always tells me he won me the Golden Boot!

“I’m not going to start sticking targets on it, but it would be nice to get some goals and replicate that season by getting Luton promoted.

Ingredient

BELIEF: John Still is trying to instil a work ethic at Luton

BELIEF: John Still is trying to instil a work ethic at Luton

“That championship year has given me my fondest football memories. No-one really expected us to do what we did, even when we went top of the league after Christmas.  We didn’t really have any individuals. We had a lot of good team players and I think that’s the vital ingredient of winning any league, not just the Conference.

“I haven’t been at Luton for very long so I can’t judge what we’ve got here, but I know Stilly and I know what sort of teams he builds.

“I think Luton teams in the Conference so far have had a lot of very good individuals, but maybe they’ve lacked on the team side of it. That’s what the gaffer’s going to try and bring in for his reign here.”

I’ve interviewed the ebullient Benson regularly over the past decade, and he still speaks with such enthusiasm about the future that it’s hard to believe he’s 33.

“I know Stu,” he laughs, “I can’t believe it either!

“Look, I came into pro football at 24, so I missed eight years prior to joining Dagenham. I want to add that on to the end of my career.

“I’m not really showing any signs of wear and tear and I’ve learned how to look after myself better away from the pitch.

“I’m looking at playing at least another five years at this standard. I still feel really good, so hopefully there’ll be a few more years and a few more goals left in me.”

Now that is not so difficult to believe!

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