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Football: BIRMINGHAM CITY v MANCHESTER CITY: The virtues of the quiet man; John Benson is having a big impact at Blues, says Brian Halford.

Byline: Brian Halford

It is one of the most famous clips in the history of televised football. Think David Pleat and you think May 1983. The last day of the season at Manchester City.

There is Pleat, charging euphorically across the Maine Road pitch, little legs carrying him as fast as they can, arms flapping wildly as if trying to achieve take-off towards Luton Town's celebrating supporters on the opposite side of the ground. An intrinsically quiet character lost to exhilaration.

Luton had just beaten Manchester City in an archetypal winner-takes-all showdown. The Hatters won 1-0 to retain their place in the old First Division. City, who needed only to draw to be safe, were condemned to relegation.

For Pleat and the pocket of Luton fans present in Moss Side, joy knew no bounds; a joy immortalised by that famous piece of film.

But how did Manchester City's manager feel?

Manchester City's manager that day was John Benson. Now general manager of Birmingham City, Benson is relishing a return to the top-flight which he has visited only sporadically - and occasionally painfully - during 41 years in professional football.

Since his arrival at St Andrew's last December, along with manager Steve Bruce and coach Mark Bowen, Benson has settled smoothly into his role as the elder member of the 'three wise men' to whom Blues turned when the board lost patience with Trevor Francis.

Benson's influence on the club's rapid climb has been quiet and unobtrusive but substantial - just as Bruce knew it would be when he nominated him among his right-hand men.

Bruce is the main man and Bowen the much-vaunted coach. Benson clears the way for them. As much as possible, he unclutters and organises the frenzy of business which makes up the day-to-day running of a Premiership football club.

That is something he is eminently qualified to do having spent more than four decades, almost without interruption, in football since making his debut as a 19-year-old wing-half for Manchester City against West Bromwich Albion at Maine Road in 1962.

A diverse career, ranging from Torquay to Kuwait and the Fourth Division to the Premiership has followed. A career with more highs than lows - although that already-mentioned low of last-day devastation at Pleat's hands still brings a pained wince.

'I was assistant manager to John Bond but he left in the February so I was given the job on a caretaker basis,' Benson recalled. 'I didn't fancy the job one little bit because Manchester City is a massive club and - you've got to be honest with yourself - I felt I wasn't capable of doing it.

'I wasn't ready and the only reason Peter Swales gave me the job was financial. The club was in a bit of a mess at that stage. I was told I couldn't bring in any players - I must be the only caretaker manager ever to record a profit because I bought nobody and sold David Cross for pounds 50,000.

'Anyway it came down to the last day when it was Luton or us to go down. We only had to get a point but Luton won 1-0. It turned out to be David's day and good luck to him - actually later on he wrote me a really nice letter to commiserate.

'But, at the time, that sort of thing takes a hell of a lot of getting over. The worst thing was we then had to go on tour to America. Having just got relegated we no more wanted to go away together than go to the moon.'

Even if City had won that day, Benson was not interested in remaining manager. For much of his career, he has preferred either coaching roles or advisory ones like he now has at Blues.

He has never had a problem finding employers due to a CV brimming with experience of every level of English football.

By the age of 21, Benson had played in all four divisions with Manchester City and Torquay United. After 44 games for Manchester City, he moved south where the seeds of his interest in coaching were sown. First at Torquay, then Bournemouth did it become clear that Benson's career in football was likely to stretch far beyond his playing days.

'Soon after I joined Torquay from Manchester City, Frank O'Farrell took over as manager,' Benson recalls.

'That was a big turning point in my life. We got promoted from the Fourth Division and the following season they brought in John Bond from West Ham.

'John was a big inspiration to me. Back then there were no such thing as coaches but John talked to me all the time. I would have been a far better player if someone like John Bond had got hold of me when I was 21. I worked with him a lot over the years and he was the best coach I have worked with by a long way.

'Look at what he achieved at Bournemouth, for example. We were in the Fourth Division but seven of the team - Mel Machin, Dave Jones, Tony Powell, Ted MacDougall, Phil Boyer, Tony Scott and myself - went on to play First Division football. That was down to John.'

Having met as playing colleagues at Torquay, Bond and Benson went on to manage together at Bournemouth, Norwich City, Manchester City (whom they steered to the FA Cup final against Tottenham Hotspur in 1981) and Burnley.

While the career of the more flamboyant Bond was to wane abruptly - Blues' supporters recall his year in charge at St Andrew's in the late eighties with little pleasure - Benson's credibility continued to grow.

He continued his experiencegathering with a two-year stint in charge of Al Nasr in Kuwait, a career outpost which concentrated his mind on of the joys of home comforts.

'I didn't enjoy it out there,' he said. 'A friend of mine had passed my name to the president of Al Nasr and when he rang me I thought why not? It's something new.

'It was tough though. The players were amateurs and it was very different working with people who weren't pros. They didn't have to turn up at training if they didn't want to and sometimes only three would turn up. It was soul-destroying. Mentally, you had to be very strong especially because I didn't have my family out there. It was hard to fill up the days.'

Back in England, Benson was now convinced that front-line management was not for him. He assisted Mel Machin at Barnsley and John Deehan at Norwich.

Then in 1997 it was back up to the North-west where his football odyssey had begun. Deehan took him to Wigan where he was to enter, for the first time, the orbit of Steve Bruce.

Before Bruce was installed by Wigan owner Dave Whelan as manager, on a temporary basis in the spring of 2001, he and Benson knew each other only very vaguely. Bruce was to spend only seven weeks at the club but in that time developed a deep rapport with Benson.

'When I came to Birmingham with Steve I know some people said 'jobs for the boys,' said Benson. 'But that's not the case at all. Before we worked together at Wigan we had only bumped into each other a couple of times.

'In his short time at Wigan though I gained the utmost respect for him. He lifted the club in the space of 24 hours. It was dull and dour and the discipline was going but he turned it upside-down. He came in and straight away had people eating out of the palm of his hand.'

Benson clearly has heaps of respect for Bruce - and for all those who venture into the wellrewarded but volatile world of football management.

'You have got to be a special animal to be a manager,' he said. 'It is a very lonely job.

'It doesn't matter how many people you have got around you at the training ground, when things are going a bit pearshaped you go home and you are on your own.

'Away from all the coaches and assistants and helpers, there you are on your own and you carry the can.'

That is a burden that Benson is happy for others to shoulder from now on. But don't underestimate how much lighter he makes it for Messrs Bruce and Bowen.


Pitch sprint... David Pleat had his day at Maine Road in 1983; Been there, done that... Birmingham City's general manager John Benson has acquired vast experience in his 41 years of professional football; John Bond enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Benson
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 26, 2002
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