Joe Bennett has been on the books of six clubs since breaking into professional football, but he has found his home in the Welsh capital with Cardiff City.
The 28-year-old left-back played a key role in the Bluebirds’ surprise promotion and he is now relishing the opportunity of proving himself in the Premier League.
Earlier this month, Cardiff extended Bennett’s contract until the summer of 2021 as a reward for his contribution.
During the 2017/18 season, he made 41 appearances for the club and Neil Warnock has made sure that his left-back remained in Wales for their second ever season in the Premier League.
In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, the 28-year-old spoke about his delight at receiving a new contract.
“It’s been really good ever since I’ve come to Cardiff. I’ve really enjoyed it. I think it was nice to get everything sorted out before the season and I was really happy to sign, as all the fans have been good to me.
“We had a really good last season. It all got sorted out really quickly. We’d only been speaking for a couple of weeks and then I signed. I’m really happy to have signed and now I can concentrate on having a good season“
Few people expected Cardiff to achieve promotion and their doubters remained until the very last kick of the season.
Although they had been in the top two places for the majority of the campaign, Championship rivals Fulham were hot on their tails and were regarded as the team that neutrals wanted to see take the second automatic promotion spot.
However, the Bluebirds clung on to second position and won a promotion that was very well-earned over the course of the campaign.
They may not have been the most exciting team to watch, but they reached the 90-point mark and won 27 matches. Their work rate, organisation and team spirit made them a difficult team to beat.
“Nobody expected us to go up, definitely not in the top two anyway. Our aim based on the previous season was probably to get into the play-offs. Anything other than that was a bonus really. We were in the top three or four for most of the season.
“It ended up being a really good season and one that not many people expected. I think we can be really proud of what we achieved and hopefully we can do the same this season as well.”
The Championship is often lauded as one of the most competitive leagues in the world and Cardiff’s promotion will give hope to a lot of the teams in the division that they can reach the Premier League.
Their success was based on the managerial abilities of Neil Warnock, who achieved yet another promotion in a storied career.
The Cardiff team lacked star names, but they were built into a formidable unit that was greater than the sum of its parts.
The system allowed players to perform and Bennett is a great example of that. He finished the season as one of the best full-backs in the second tier, both in a defensive and attacking role.
The 28-year-old contributed a goal and four assists in the attacking half, while he regularly caused problems when he was given license to roam forward.
He was quick to praise the manager behind his and Cardiff’s excellent season.
“He knows what types of players that he wants and he keeps a lot of the things the same throughout the season. To be fair, it works as he’s had eight promotions, which is a record.
“He’s just a really good manager and he gets the players going. You wouldn’t expect a player to play like they do, but he gets the best out of his players and I think that is what makes him so good.”
The praise of Warnock’s man-management skills won’t come as a surprise, but it is interesting when Bennett goes into more depth about his own development under the veteran manager.
Throughout his career, the left-back has performed well for the likes of Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, but he has taken another step at Cardiff.
“I came to a club as a left wing-back. I was a more attacking option when I first joined. Ever since he has come in, we have played a lot of games as a flat back four. He’s just improved my game.
“Defensively, I know what he wants me to do. There are times when he doesn’t want any risks at the back. That definitely improved my game and I think last season was one of my best seasons as a footballer. A lot of that is down to him and the team as well.”
Cardiff didn’t play free-flowing attacking football for the majority of the season; therefore, Bennett was required to play a more disciplined role. Warnock provided him with the knowledge required to thrive in the system, as shown by his average of 3.2 ball recoveries and 3.4 clearances per game. He was regularly making key defensive contributions, while maintaining an attacking threat.
Although the team impressed and showed consistency throughout the campaign, the promotion wasn’t as comfortable as they would have hoped. Fulham surged up the Championship table during the second half of the season and had a chance of gazumping Cardiff on the final day. The Welsh side only needed to win, but they were held at home by Reading.
Luckily for the Bluebirds, Fulham were unable to get the victory that they needed to finish in second position. They were beaten comfortably by Birmingham City. The final day could have gone better for Neil Warnock’s team, but they got what they wanted. Bennett admitted that he had an idea that results were going their way, despite their own struggles.
“I had an inkling just from the way the fans reacted to the first goal. Then they were singing that Fulham were losing, but it can all change very quickly in a game.
“We went out there and wanted to beat Reading, then let the other stuff take care of itself. If we won, we were going up. It worked out well. When they went 2-0 up, we could enjoy the day a little bit more as it wasn’t as tense as we thought it might be.”
The results meant that Cardiff achieved an unlikely promotion and a number of players would be entering the Premier League for their first time. Unlike several of his team-mates, Bennett does have top-flight experience. He featured in the division with both Middlesbrough and Aston Villa.
For the latter, he played over 30 times in the Premier League, but he failed to make a lasting impression. Since moving to Cardiff, he has improved considerably and he admits that he goes into the 2018/19 campaign with a point to prove.
“A little bit of a point to prove. Obviously, I didn’t play that many games and most of them were for Villa. I didn’t have the best of times at Villa, but I know that I developed as a player and I got better.
“I think that I’ve grown with age and definitely improved. I think we can go into the new season and nobody expects anything from the team. We can go into it with no pressure and enjoy it. I’m sure that we can surprise a few people.”
As signified by his new contract, the club are staying loyal to the left-back after his performances during the promotion-winning campaign. It could have been very different as Fulham showed an interest in him last summer. On that occasion, the 28-year-old demonstrated his loyalty, chosing to remain with the Bluebirds.
“I just wanted to show a bit of loyalty. I ended up speaking to my agent and I spoke to the manager as well. I told him that I wanted to stay and I thought that we were going in the right direction. We were winning a lot of games at the time. It was nice to stay and that loyalty has paid off as we got promoted.”
The summer has been a positive one for Cardiff. They have made a number of additions to strengthen the squad.
Neil Warnock hasn’t changed his strategy, containing to target hard working and talented players from the lower divisions to strengthen his squad, with Josh Murphy, Bobby Reid, Alex Smithies and Greg Cunningham all joining.
It could be seen as unambitious recruitment with Cardiff choosing to plan for the long-term and bring players in that will be prepared to stay if they are relegated. However, all four will be hungry to prove themselves in the top-flight and they will immediately fit in with the rest of the squad.
Bennett affirmed that the signings have been positively received by the squad.
“They have been really good signings. We played against them last season and they look good in training. I think the manager has gone down the young and hungry route, which is good. Players that have not played too much Premier League football before, but they did really well last season. They just want a chance and I’m sure that they will get that this season.”
The addition of Greg Cunningham is an interesting one as he will be providing competition to Bennett at left-back. While speaking to The Boot Room, the former Aston Villa full-back spoke positively about the signing and believes it will give him the impetus to step up his game.
“You are going to have that at every club, someone that wants to play in your spot. It is important to have that competition. It is healthy and it only improves you as a player.
“Greg can play in a couple of positions, so maybe we can play in the same team. I’m not too sure what the manager wants to do. It is only going to make be better and want to do better as well.”
The positive environment created this summer around the England team means that there will be an even greater desire for players to impress in the Premier League and break into that squad.
Bennett has previously played for the Under-21 team, but he admits the senior team is likely out of his reach with his focus being on Cardiff City.
“I don’t think that’s in my sights at the minute. The England team are doing really well at the minute and have a lot of young players, but I think that’s a little bit out of my reach at the minute. I’m concentrating on having a good season for Cardiff and the team is a young team.”
“There are a lot of young English players that want to show what they can do in the Premier League. Hopefully we can have a good season.”
Cardiff start the season as the favourites to get relegated, but the squad won’t be bothered by that. They weren’t fancied to do well in the Championship last season, yet they managed to get promoted and reach the Premier League above several teams with larger budgets.
Warnock has built a team in his image and they won’t be an easy team to play against, despite their perceived deficit in talent.
The players in the Bluebirds’ squad make up for that with their work rate and determination. Bennett is a great example of that.
He struggled to make an impact in the Premier League previously, but he learned from the experience and continued to develop in the Football League.
The 28-year-old will return as a much better player and with a point to prove. That bodes well for Cardiff City.