Any game between Wolves and Aston Villa is always going to get the juices flowing for Tom Bennett.
Villa, the club which gave him a start in football after moving down as an apprentice from Scotland, tackling Wolves, the club which gave him his first senior experience after then making the move across the Midlands.
Bennett boasts happy memories from both, as well as from several Midlands derbies from a career which spanned almost 500 first team appearances.
Among his very first senior games were the highly charged two legs of the League Cup tie when Wolves and Villa locked horns in late 1989, at the time a rare meeting between the two whose rivalry has certainly intensified in more recent years.
He also featured in the first Molineux clash between Wolves and West Bromwich Albion for six years later that same season, when Steve Bull added to his earlier winner at The Hawthorns by doing exactly the same back on home soil. Happy days!
In a subsequent spell with Walsall he also notched a late winner of his own against Albion as both sides were battling to avoid relegation from the second tier, a header which not only secured the Saddlers three points but a Man of the Match award on local radio from Wolves fans even though their team had beaten Barnsley that same afternoon.
But perhaps one standout derby day memory for the now 51-year-old was when his versatility soared to new heights during the Wolves/Albion tussle at Molineux in April, 1991.
Having already operated at right back for Wolves, centre back and centre midfield, that was the day Bennett stepped up to add another position to his portfolio – goalkeeper!
“Yes I definitely remember that one,” Bennett recalls, and not just because that was a lively afternoon which included a supporter invading the pitch to present Albion captain Graham Roberts with a carrot.
“Big Mick Stowell had to come off – I think he came out for the ball and ended up snapping his ankle – and in those days you didn’t have a keeper on the bench.
“Back then, with so few subs, it was a waste to have a keeper on the bench, and keepers never get injured do they?
“But anyway, Stowelley had to come off and we hadn’t really planned on who as going in goal so I just said that I would do it.
“I was having a stinker at right back, so why not go in goal?
“I remember the gaffer came on to try and warm me up and was pinging balls at me in the pouring rain and I was dropping every single one of them.
“It was a case of ‘what the hell have I done this for’?!
“But then I got into it, and I had grabbed Stowelley’s gloves, and they were like glue.
“The ball just stuck to them, so I just got myself into the positions which I thought goalkeepers should, and just tried to catch the ball when it came.
“I did let one in, I went down like a sack of potatoes although it was a decent hit to be fair.
“But I went in a few minutes into the second half when it was 1-1, and we finished up drawing 2-2, so I don’t think it was too bad!”
Bennett’s versatility has also become a positive in later life, not just in a ‘second career’ as a Sales Manager working with some major corporations, but also taking to the very different stage to that of a football pitch when fronting up a band! More on that later.
Modern life is all far cry from the time his career began, at Villa Park, when, having been a regular visitor to train during school holidays from the age of 14, Bennett secured an apprenticeship at 16 which saw him uproot from his home in Bo’ness in Scotland.
“If you think back it wasn’t long after Villa had won the European Cup, and at Bodymoor Heath at that time all the first team and young players were together,” Bennett recalls.
“So we had close contact with the likes of Peter Withe and Dennis Mortimer, and then all the top younger lads coming through like Gary Shaw, Andy Gray and Mark Walters.
“From a young player’s perspective it was a really exciting place to be, and I always wanted to sign and do my apprenticeship there.
“The strange thing is that now I have sons who are 19 and 17, and when I look back I think, ‘would I let my 16-year-old son leave home and take a huge step into the unknown’?
“My answer is that it would be a hell of a step to take, as a parent.
“I had lost my father when I was 12, and so for my mum to let her oldest son head down to England at 16, was a huge commitment.
“I will be eternally grateful to my mother for letting me take that chance, and for what ended up giving me such a good grounding in football.”
After two years as an apprentice, Bennett landed his first professional contract with Villa, although from there he didn’t quite complete the full season before being released.
In those days there was only first team and reserve football, and as Graham Taylor checked in at Villa Park, signing new blood and transforming the squad, those left on the fringes found themselves playing for the second string and blocking the path of the younger hopefuls.
Bennett, a midfielder throughout his formative years, was moved to right back to pick up a taste of reserve team football, a switch which would help later in his career, but not so much his chances of staying at Villa.
“Being released, as any young player will tell you, is a pretty stark reality check,” he admits.
“Football was all I knew, and all of a sudden I no longer had a club.”
Bennett hadn’t made it at Villa, not even managing to come close to a first team appearance, but he had clearly done something right in making a positive impression just a few miles across the Midlands.
Because barely 24 hours after his release, Wolves came calling, even if their identity wasn’t completely clear at first.
“I was in digs at Villa in Gravelly Hill with a little Irish lady called Peggy Barrett, a really lovely lady,” recalls Bennett.
“She was probably in her mid-Seventies at the time and I was probably the last player who was going to lodge with her.
“All of a sudden the phone went and she burst up the stairs saying that it was someone asking for me.
“It was Wolves chief scout Ron Jukes, although I’m not sure he said who he was, and remember I was still very young at the time.
“He told me not to worry, said I didn’t even have to trial, that he thought Villa had made a mistake and that he wanted to sign me straightaway.
“After a few minutes I had to ask who it was, and when Ron introduced himself and said the club was Wolves, I had no hesitation.
“In my head I didn’t want to go back to Scotland, I would have felt like a failure after being released, and so I signed for Wolves within a couple of days, and just tried to make my way.
“As it turned out, I came in at just the right time, as Wolves were going through a rebuilding process.
“They had just won the Fourth Division, Steve Bull and Andy Mutch were helping continue that revival, and I came in to join the journey.
“I will forever be grateful to Aston Villa for giving me that start in football and then it was Wolves where my career really began to take off.
“And I will always appreciate that chance and opportunity.”
Bennett’s Wolves debut, infact his professional debut, came as a 19-year-old substitute in a 3-0 win against Southend in November, 1988.
Wolves scorers that day were Downing, Streete and Bull. Insert your own punchline!
For Bennett it was a major step forward, even if it was only followed by one further substitute’s outing that season – a 6-0 win against Preston including a four-goal salvo from Bull.
Not a bad couple of cameos to introduce himself!
“I had been on the bench about 12 times before coming on against Southend, and I remember getting a really good reception because I think the crowd knew how long I had been waiting to get on!” he recalls.
“I came on at right back, and there were a few nerves, but it was just about getting through it and not making a mistake.”
It was the following 1988/89 campaign, with Wolves back in the equivalent of the Championship, that Bennett made his sustained breakthrough chalking up 34 senior appearances, despite his still tender years.
That was the season of those Villa and Albion derbies, the first leg in front of almost 30,000 at Villa Park coming just four days after he had made his full debut in an away win at Ipswich.
“To go back and play against Villa in front of a big crowd, not long after leaving, was a big memory.
“I was proper ******* it if I’m honest!
“Coming so soon after my debut as well, it was a huge night, but I feel I did o-k, I didn’t get dragged off or anything!
“I remember the game really well and really enjoyed it, and we put in a decent performance to lose 2-1 in that first leg against a team who were well established at the top level.”
Wolves drew the return 1-1, Bull getting knocked out in scoring the goal, but there were many more highlights for Bennett to follow, and not just going between the sticks during a Black Country derby!
Take for example being part of Wolves teams of the late Eighties and early Nineties who are still fondly remembered despite not being able to make that last step to the top flight, a superb goal at Charlton, another in a 6-2 home win against Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, and being named Wolves’ Player of the Year for 1991/92.
“That season was one of my best, and a time when I probably felt at my fittest and a real part of the team, contributing week-in, week-out,” Bennett recalls.
“I wasn’t just hanging onto my place, I was very much part of the midfield alongside the likes of Paul Cook, and felt that every time I was playing I was offering something.
“I had progressed from being a young lad and maybe a bit part player to making the team better and stronger, and that Newcastle game was certainly one of my highlights.”
Bennett’s worth to the team was not just in his performances, but also that versatility which saw him operate regularly in three different positions during his Molineux career.
How he first got moved across from right back to the centre was quite a story!
“I had started out at Wolves as a right back, until playing in Paul Birch’s testimonial at Villa Park,” Bennett explains.
“I was on the bench, and Shane Westley was up against big Cyrille Regis, and they had a clash and Shane had to come off injured.
“I was brought on at centre back, a position I had never played in my life, let alone against Cyrille Regis in front of almost 20,000 people.
“I remember a long ball was played forward, and I was getting ready to go up for the challenge with Big Cyrille when I realised it was travelling over his head.
“So I just dropped off, took it down on my chest, and played it off.
“All of a sudden I thought ‘this isn’t too bad’, it was a different dimension to playing at full back or midfield, and you could see everything in front of you.
“I wasn’t the tallest, but I could read the game, and I ended up playing half of that season at Wolves at centre back before moving into midfield when someone else got injured.”
Like so many players Bennett also had his own injury problems to contend with at Wolves, but that doesn’t take away from the largely happy memories of a total of 133 appearances spanning six years.
And anyone reading the story of Bennett coolly chesting the ball down then laying it off will quickly remember that calmness and control in possession, a player who always tried to play football and do things in the right way.
“I loved my time at Wolves, and think I fell lucky in the time I was at the club,” he explains.
“Off the back of the club going down through the divisions, there wasn’t a great deal of money about, but Graham Turner had come in and the revival had begun.
“I think they saw me as someone with potential who wouldn’t cost them too much and who wouldn’t let them down.
“For me, it was then about wanting to progress as a player and that definitely happened for me at Wolves.
“That era with such a great team and Steve Bull banging in the goals was fantastic to be a part of, and was a time when Wolves were getting back to the very least of where they should be as a football club.
“There was no one in the dressing room who was ‘Billy Big Time’, no one driving a flash car, just a really good group of honest players who wanted to succeed.
“We all got on really well, and many of the lads from that dressing room at Wolves became lifelong friends.”
It was in the summer of 1995 that Bennett departed Wolves, although he may have feared it could have been a year earlier after Taylor – the boss who had shown him the door at Villa – arrived at Molineux.
On his very first day, Taylor turned down a corridor near the dressing rooms before setting sight on a familiar face.
“Ah, Tom Bennett,” he said. “You were the first person I thought of when I got this job!”
“Shall I ask for my P45 now boss?” was Bennett’s reply.
All very tongue in cheek of course and Taylor gave Bennett a fair crack of the whip just as you would expect from a manager of his credentials.
That he did leave just over a year later was more linked to a desire for more football, and it wasn’t a decision he took lightly.
“I had played under Graham, and I was offered a new contract, but I knew it was going to be a squad player’s contract, and they were spending big money on bringing in new players from elsewhere,” Bennett explains.
“I knew I would play the odd game, but not as much as maybe I wanted or needed to so I could continue to progress my career.
“In hindsight, maybe I should have signed the deal which would have taken me on to maybe nine years at Wolves and you never know how things might have changed.
“But I just wanted to play, and so it felt like the time was right to move on.”
Bennett had also been sold a vision from Dave Jones, later to lead Wolves to the Premier League but at that time starting his own managerial journey with Stockport County in the equivalent of League One.
If it was initially dropping down a division, it was to prove a wise decision.
After a season of consolidation, Bennett was an integral part of County’s class of 1996/97 which posted the most successful season in the club’s history.
A second placed league finish to secure promotion to the Championship equivalent, knocking out three Premier League teams enroute to the semi-finals of the League Cup, where they lost 2-1 over two legs against Middlesbrough, and reaching the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Stockport played 67 games, of which Bennett featured in 64 of them.
“We were just phenomenal that season in terms of winning games of football,” he recalls.
“We were playing Premier League sides, against great players, and not only holding our own but sneaking the wins.
“We lost the first leg against Middlesbrough at Edgeley Park 2-0 – Ravanelli scored both – but then we went to their place and won 1-0 which I’m not sure many people were expecting.
“I had some great memories there, and it was just like Wolves with no heirs and graces among the players, no one thinking they were better than anyone else, and just a really good team spirit.”
It was also just like Wolves in terms of the personnel, with so many Molineux connections past and present within the County set-up during Bennett’s time.
As well as Jones the manager, he also lined up in the same team at different times as Jones (Paul) the keeper, not to mention Eric Nixon, Sean Connelly, Tony Dinning, Gordon Cowans, Chris Marsden, Kevin Cooper, and Cook and Mutch.
There was more success for Bennett to follow post-Stockport, as he returned to the Midlands to spend two-and-a-half years with Walsall.
Another 99 appearances were added to his tally, on top of the 146 at Stockport, while Bennett was also a regular captain with the Saddlers, including under Ray Graydon for the epic play-off final success of 2001, the win over Reading at the Millennium Stadium which took the team back to the Championship.
“Being captain for a couple of years with Walsall was really nice, and that play-off final and promotion is obviously another great memory,” he says.
There was another Wolves connection with Walsall in striker Don Goodman and it is another, former coach and caretaker boss Bobby Downes, whose call many years ago has ensured Bennett – who finished his career with two seasons at then newly promoted Boston and shorter stints with Kidderminster Harriers and Hamilton Academical – is still involved in football today.
“Bobby was the Academy manager at Blackburn not long after I had finished and he asked me to pop along as they hadn’t gone many ex-pros involved and they wanted more of that experience and knowledge base,” says Bennett.
“I had done my coaching badges but never really wanted to go into it full time – football can be a fickle and transient business and having gone through it as a player, I was looking for something more permanent.
“If you go into coaching or management, you are either very, very good and stay in jobs for a long time or you are scrapping around for a couple of years before moving on.
“There is no real security, and you always need to be looking either over your shoulder or over the horizon.
“Even with Academies now, there is a lot of ‘admin’ involved and boxes to be ticked so it is a real six days a week job and quite a challenge.
“For me I am able to get the best of both worlds as I can come in, do my coaching and then go away again.
“I think it is probably 14 years since Bobby first asked me to start coaching, and for the last ten years I have been working with Blackburn Under-16s.
“It is really enjoyable, and the pressure is not so much on winning games of football, but making the players better as footballers and also as young men because sadly we know that a lot of them won’t make it as a career.
“I can also relate back to my time at Villa when I was in exactly the same situation as a young player, and I can remember that it is very much about finding your feet mentally at that age as well as the football side.
“Blackburn is a Category One Academy with a really good games programme against teams like Wolves, Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton.
“It is about seeing how many young players we can actually bring through, and I still get that sense of pride when I see someone I have worked with go on and succeed at the professional level.”
Bennett’s own professional level meanwhile, is now in a completely different industry.
As his playing career moved towards its conclusion, he had already started dipping his toes as a Sales Manager for a commercial office furniture manufacturer.
Despite initially having no qualifications, it was a job he quickly settled into and, staying with the same company – The Senator Group – he has made impressive progress and now handles the accounts for a series of major companies.
“After football it was time to go out and see what the real world had in store, and I really enjoy what I am doing now, and have been in it probably as long as I was playing football.
“It is on the sales side, and is all about relationship management, and the beauty is that a lot of people don’t even know that I used to be a footballer.
“For the ones that do it’s fine, and if they ask who you played for, and you say Wolves, their eyes light up a bit!
“If you played for Wolves you must have had a proper career is the general thought, and when I look back I probably did.
“Not as good as some that’s for sure, but better than others, and I will always be grateful for that.”
To finish, a different ‘career’ which Bennett quite possibly won’t be picking up again is one which emerged after he broke his leg during his time at Stockport and learned how to play the guitar.
The club’s then physio, Rodger Wylde, himself a former prolific striker in his own playing career, also took up the guitar and, before they knew it, a bassist and drummer were added and a band was formed.
Its name? In the true spirit of the gallows humour of football…’Fracture’!
“The guitar started because I needed something to do while I was recovering, but before I knew it Rodger was involved and we had started a band,” Bennett explains.
“In about six months I had gone from picking up a guitar to being in a band and playing in front of people for Children In Need!
“I wasn’t a great singer, I could pass I suppose, and we were half decent when we had enough time to do the rehearsals and perform properly.
“I reckon it was a bit of an ego trip for Rodger – and I went along for the ride – and over maybe ten years or so we did a few gigs and really enjoyed it.
“We haven’t done anything for a while, but then we were asked whether we would do something at Stockport in April.
“I don’t think it will happen as we are all so heavily involved with work and we would need to devote a lot of time to it.
“I think Rodger is still really keen but sadly I don’t think we will be making a comeback – I said to him ‘come on man you’re over 65 now, we’re not the Rolling Stones’!”
So the band won’t actually be getting back together!
Instead, Bennett’s hobby away from work and the coaching is mainly cycling, a pursuit which suits his injury-damaged knees, but still offers the sort of challenge requiring the motivation, and perspiration, to suit the competitive instincts of the former footballer.
Whilst not quite in the ballpark of former Wolves team-mate Geoff Thomas and his Tour De France exploits for the Cure Leukaemia charity, Bennett is part of a club which, every year, travels out to take on a stage of the famous race.
“What Geoff does is incredible both with the cycling challenges and the money he raises and I wish I had the time to join him on one of the stages when he next does the Tour,” says Bennett.
“Cycling is something which keeps me fit and motivated and getting a sweat on, and is also a hobby I can do with the family and my boys Dylan and Luke which is good.”
Finding time to fit in the cycling, on top of his coaching duties, is no mean feat for Bennett, who has certainly enjoyed two very successive and very separate careers, in and out of football.
His spell at Wolves where he matured from that young rookie upon signing to a key member of the team and ultimately Player of the Year is one of which he should feel rightly proud.
And those strong Molineux links, both at other clubs and in his enduring friendships, have certainly never left him.
But one thing we really should mention when thinking about Wolves connections, relates to that infamous cup tie of many years ago – repeated just six weeks ago – when ‘thousands’ of fans travelled to see the team go out of the FA Cup against an opposition of part-timers.
Because for all the Wolves memories and recollections which always raise a smile there is one from which the footballer, coach, musician and sales manager simply cannot escape.
Tom Bennett now lives in Chorley!