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Exclusive: Reto Ziegler – Tottenham years, Harry Kane and Switzerland’s World Cup chances

The Boot Room caught up with FC Dallas defender Reto Ziegler.

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Reto Ziegler
Photo: Getty Images

For most young footballers, the Premier League is the pinnacle of club football.

The lure of some of the world’s top teams, top stadiums and top players is enough to turn almost anyone’s head, and many have – and many more will – try to crack one of Europe’s hardest leagues.

At 18 years of age, Reto Ziegler left his native Switzerland behind for the big lights of London.

The youngster had worked his way through the Grasshopper youth system, breaking into the first-team at just 16 before going on to make over 40 appearances, and all of a sudden he was big news.

It was Tottenham – and the then-Tottenham sporting director Frank Arneson – who pushed hard to bring him to White Hart Lane, managing to steal him away from Grasshoppers prematurely.

During the 2004-05 season – and under the guidance of both Jacques Santini and his replacement manager Martin Jol – Ziegler instantly thrived, making a name for himself as an exciting left-midfielder and cementing his place in the Spurs first-team with 31 appearances in all competitions.

(Photo by Paul Barker/Getty Images)

His exciting attacking play endeared him to the fans, and his youthful energy was infectious.

It was during this period that he earned his first call-up to the Switzerland national squad – just reward for a sparkling season – and he made his international bow against France in March 2005.

Whilst the 32-year-old’s career hasn’t quite managed to maintain this upward trajectory – over 17 years, Ziegler has played his football across seven countries and featured for sides such as Sampdoria, Fenerbahce, Lokomotiv Moscow and native FC Sion – Spurs remains firmly in his heart.

Speaking exclusively to The Boot Room about his career, Ziegler said:

“Of course, I am still a fan of Tottenham. I was a fan of Tottenham before I joined and I am still.

“There has been a lot of big changes there so I don’t have any team-mates anymore who play with Spurs. But I always follow them.”

When Ziegler arrived at Spurs, it’s fair to say things were a little different to what they are now.

In his first season at White Hart Lane, the Lilywhites fell short of their European objectives and limped to a ninth-place finish, being knocked out in the quarters of both the FA and League Cup.

(Photo by Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images)

For a squad that contained fresh, young English talent in the likes of Paul Robinson, Michael Brown, Michael Carrick, Ledley King and Jermain Defoe, as well as the experienced heads of Frederic Kanoute and Pedro Mendes, it was a hugely disappointing return considering pre-season potential.

However, fast forward little over a decade and Tottenham are in another world.

Whilst the feeling of disappointment experienced by the 2004-05 side will no doubt currently be lingering around the white side of north London following their FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester United last weekend – their eighth semi-final loss in a row – progress has been huge.

Unless a dramatic late-season collapse ensues from this point forward, Mauricio Pochettino’s side look poised to finish in the top-four for the third season in a row, securing Champions League action.

The fact that the Argentine masterminded his side to top Group H – the so-called Group of Death during this year’s edition – tells its own tale, and Spurs have every reason for encouragement moving on.

During Ziegler’s brief stint at Tottenham, he could have only dreamt of dicing with the European giants of Real Madrid and Juventus, and he reflected on how far Tottenham have come in 13 years.

 “I know it is a fantastic team that they have, and they are playing Champions League. When I was there our goal was to play in Europe so I am pleased for Daniel Levy and the owners.”

(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

The FC Dallas centre-back also admitted that he is a long-term admirer of current Spurs boss Pochettino, lauding him for the impact that he’s had since arriving from Southampton in 2014.

“Of course [I would want to play under his management]. He is one of the top managers in England but also the world. Of course, why not?

“I hope Tottenham keep him because I know there is a lot of interest for him.”

Ziegler’s time in England, whilst short, extended further than just White Hart Lane though.

During his second year in the Premier League, he was loaned out to Wigan mid-season, where he made five starts and five substitute appearances as the Latics finished tenth – their best ever return.

He also came on for the final 18 minutes of the 2006 League Cup final defeat to Manchester United, an experience that the 32-year-old still remembers fondly to this day.

“That was really good. I was on loan from Tottenham. I was at Hamburg in Germany but they did not let me play as much as I wished so Tottenham sent me to Wigan and it was fantastic.

“Paul Jewell was the coach, we passed Arsenal in the cup and went to the final against Manchester (United) and also in the league we had a few nice games. It was a nice experience for me.”

Despite only making a handful of appearances for Wigan before being recalled back to his parent club in London, Ziegler reserved high praise for Jewell’s impact on his career as a young footballer.

“I have great memories. Paul Jewell was a fantastic coach for me.”

(Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Whilst his time in England was short and sweet, it symbolises a memorable period for Ziegler.

As well as earning his first major exposure as a professional, his impressive debut campaign at Tottenham caught the eye of the then-Switzerland national coach Jakob Kuhn.

At the age of just 19, he was awarded a spot in the Swiss squad for World Cup qualifiers against both France and Cyprus, being given his full debut in a battling 0-0 draw with the 1998 FIFA World Cup winners at the potentially daunting Stade de France – no mean feat for someone making their bow.

Since that day, Ziegler has represented his country 35 times over 13 years.

This is a period that has spanned inclusion in the previous two World Cup squads and, although he won’t be in Russia for his third tournament, he insisted that he’ll be keeping a keen eye on his country’s efforts as they face up to Brazil, Costa Rica and Serbia in a competitively-looking Group E.

Switzerland currently sit – somewhat surprisingly – 6th in the world rankings, ahead of giants like France, Argentina and Spain, and Ziegler reckons they could be the dark horse of the tournament.

I think they have a good chance. They play against Brazil, this will be the most important game. If we don’t lose that game, Switzerland will go through.”

A large part of Switzerland’s sustained success on an international level over the past few years has come directly from Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who became the 50th player to score a World Cup hat-trick when he achieved the feat against Honduras in 2014.

Whilst the former Bayern Munich talisman has struggled on a domestic front this season with his Stoke side facing relegation, his individual displays have often provided some rare moments of joy.

(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Ziegler believes that he could be the driving force in the summer.

“I am obviously a big fan of the way he plays and also he is my close friend.

“I know he is struggling with his team, so I wish they can stay in the Premier League and he can show what he can do on the field because he is, for me, the best Swiss player at the moment.

“He’s a guy who makes a difference. He’s the main player we have to create in Switzerland.”

It’s not just Shaqiri that has impressed Ziegler, either.

Whilst he was taking to the field alongside the likes of Defoe, Keane and Kanoute during his time at Tottenham, Spurs have the small matter of Harry Kane leading the line – and Ziegler admitted his admiration of the 24-year-old, believing that he could be the one to lead England’s summer charge.

“I am happy for England also because he’s a fantastic striker. He’s very effective in front of goal. Players like him you do not find everywhere so I am sure England will do really well at the World Cup thanks to him.”

Yet, whilst Ziegler will undoubtedly have a vested interest in how Switzerland get on when the FIFA World Cup gets underway in less than 50 days’ time, his priorities still firmly lie in domestic football.

There were rumours flying around in the Swiss media over the previous summer that Ziegler would potentially return to British shores at either Celtic or Leeds United, bringing his 16 years of experience from Europe to the dressing room, but he reiterated that these rumours were just that.

“You always hear of agents who call you but no, I never had something concrete on the table.

“Yes, I heard some names of teams but nothing really serious.”

Instead of sourcing a route back into the English game, Ziegler has a new challenge at hand.

The lure of Major League Soccer has grown exponentially over the past five years – with some of the world’s most decorated players already going over to see what the fuss is all about – and the Swiss international is the latest European to relocate over to America after signing for Texan side FC Dallas.

It’s fair to say, it is a case of so far, so good too.

After a shock two-legged defeat to Panama minnows Tauro FC in the CONCACAF Champions League signalled a disappointing start, both Ziegler and FC Dallas have responded in fine style to remain unbeaten in the Western Conference after six games, conceding just the three goals in 540 minutes.

(Photo by Christophe Simon/Getty Images)

Their defensive record – the best across the MLS – is testament to the partnership that Ziegler is growing alongside USA international Matt Hedges, providing solid foundations in the Dallas defence.

While the former Swiss international’s career may not have quite panned out in the way he wanted after the speed of his breakthrough at Tottenham, and in the Premier League, he’s more than content where he is now.

The signs are looking good for FC Dallas at present, and Ziegler will want to squeeze out all of that 15-year experience as his new side look to conquer the MLS for the very first time in their history.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @96PearsonW.

Exclusives

Exclusive: George Williams on his Fulham spell, Euro 2016 and two year ambition

We caught up with the former MK Dons and Fulham prospect, now plying his trade for Forest Green.

Max Cohen

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George Williams
Photo: Getty Images

From playing alongside Dele Alli to making the semi-finals of UEFA Euro 2016, George Williams has experienced an immense amount in his footballing career at just 22 years old.

However, the glaring omission from the former Fulham player’s resume is the presence of consistent first team football; the most senior appearances Williams has ever made in a season to date were his 20 matches in 2014/15.

This summer, the Welsh international marked the latest chapter in his whirlwind journey by moving to Forest Green Rovers of League Two in a bid to find stability, play regular football, and possibly even return to the international scene.

Williams sat down for an exclusive interview with The Boot Room in the stands of The New Lawn, reflecting on his time at Fulham, recalling his Welsh exploits, and describing his initial impressions of Forest Green.

The Sky Bet League Two club’s most distinctive feature may be its emphasis on environmental causes, and Williams admits he wasn’t too knowledgeable about that aspect beforehand— but insists the vegan food is quite alright.

“Obviously the thing that sticks out is the whole vegan football club. I didn’t know too much about what being a vegan meant and the reasons behind it, but to be fair the food’s been great.”

Before experiencing the culinary delights on display at Forest Green, Williams started his career in the MK Dons academy. He came through the youth ranks with Dele Alli, and has fond memories of his early days in Milton Keynes.

“We had a great team and we had a manager at U-14 level through that wanted to play good football. It was good to play with young players at that level, as we all wanted to be the best and that made for a good competitive environment.”

“The moment [Dele Alli] joined you could tell he had something different, he was an incredibly talented young footballer. You knew from that moment he was going to go on to play at the highest level, and he’s doing that now.”

(Photo by Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)

In 2012, Williams moved from MK Dons to Premier League side Fulham. But in his six years by the banks of the Thames, the midfielder made just 17 senior appearances for the club. Nevertheless, he only has good things to say about his time in SW6.

“I can only take positives away from it. I joined the club as a 16-year-old and I got to play for the first team at Craven Cottage.”

Williams recalls a successful spell during Fulham’s 2014/15 campaign, when he was playing regularly and the Whites were on the brink of making a play-off charge. Unfortunately, a combination of injury and change in manager the following season derailed his good form.

“Kit Symons was the manager, and I remember a time if we had won a game we were going to move into just outside the playoffs… I was injured, there was a change of manager, he brought in his own players and I came back from injury trying to get back into the team— it was hard.”

Yet, despite an injury-filled spell that featured four loan spells, the highlight of Williams’ career—his international success with Wales— came when he was on the books at Fulham. The attacking midfielder made his debut against Holland in 2014 and was part of the squad that made the “amazing” run to the Euro semifinals two years later.

“It’s memories that I’ll have for the rest of my life. It was 60 days away in France, and it was an incredible experience to get to the semifinal.. by the end of it we were thinking ‘Hold on we could go all the way here.’ It wasn’t to be, but semifinalists at the Euros was an incredible achievement and I’m very thankful to be a part of it.”

When asked who has had the biggest influence on his career, Williams doesn’t hesitate before crediting Chris Coleman with a major role in his development. The former Wales manager placed his trust in the youngster, Williams said, giving him priceless opportunities to further his ability.

(Photo by Paul Ellis/Getty Images)

However, his last appearance for the nation came in March 2016, and with new manager Ryan Giggs at the helm, Williams has been frozen out of the Welsh set-up. He said his move to Forest Green is a bid to change that, and Williams remains confident he can put himself back in the Wales conversation by playing regular football.

“I don’t see why [I can’t get back in the Wales set-up]. I don’t see why if I get playing here and playing good football, being on the pitch and doing well, I don’t see why not. That’s ideally what I aim to do, I aim to get back into that Wales squad and hopefully I can do that.”

Williams has enjoyed a transitory career path to date, and when asked where he sees himself in two years time he ponders his answer.

“Either playing for Forest Green Rovers and getting promoted with them…,” he starts to answer before pausing for a moment.

Just playing football really, that’s all I want to be doing. Playing football at the highest level I can, and hopefully that could be with Forest Green Rovers, and if not, wherever. I just want to be playing football.”

The desire to simply play football is a sentiment that can be understood for a player who has never had a full season of senior football under his belt.

And at the weekend, Williams made his Forest Green debut away at Grimsby Town, starting on the left wing as the club notched a 4-1 win.

At 22 years of age, George Williams appears primed to enjoy consistent football at Forest Green Rovers, granting the Welsh international a chance to finally fulfill his plentiful potential.

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Exclusive: Christian Doidge discusses new season, career highlights and transfer speculation

The Forest Green Rovers striker spoke to The Boot Room ahead of the 2018/19 campaign.

Jake Jackman

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Photo: Getty Images

Forest Green Rovers will be looking to push on in Sky Bet League Two after staying up last season and Christian Doidge will be central to those hopes.

He has been the undoubted star of the club’s recent success, with his goals not only firing them into the Football League but also helping to keep them there.

There has been speculation regarding his future, as reported by Sky Sports, but he is set to start the season at The New Lawn.

Last season was a period of transition at Forest Green as they re-hauled their playing squad after promotion. The club only stayed up by a single point, but there are several reasons for optimism ahead of the new campaign.

In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, Doidge spoke positively about the recruitment and the season ahead.

“I think the recruitment has been really good this season. We have brought in some bodies and a lot of experienced players, which is going to help us. I think that is what we struggled with last year.

“We’ve done quite good in pre-season, results wise and it’s one of those things now. You can’t wait for the season to start and play some competitive games. The mood in the camp is good and all the new lads have fit in really well.”

The club’s defence was an area of concern as they conceded 77 times during their debut season, which ranked behind only bottom-placed Chesterfield.

The signings of Robert Sanchez, James Montgomery and Lewis Thomas increase competition for the number one shirt, while Joseph Mills, Liam Shephard and Lloyd James will improve their defence.

Meanwhile, George Williams and Tahvon Campbell are exciting captures that will add even more quality to their attacking options. Forest Green have been very active in the transfer market once again and they will hope that a much more comfortable season is in store as a result.

Doidge will remain Forest Green’s focal point after proving himself during his first season in the Football League. The Welshman contributed 20 goals and five assists in 3655 minutes of football – a return he is looking to replicate this season.

“I was happy considering I had two months out with injury, which killed me at one point and I had a spell of eight without scoring which was hard.

“To get the tally that I got in the end, I was really happy with and that helped us stay in the division. Hopefully I can do that again next season.”

Despite his excellent form during Forest Green’s promotion season, there will have been doubts whether the Welshman could produce the same goal-scoring feats in League Two.

It was a huge step up for the striker, but he quickly silenced any doubters that he had. He believes that a high work rate and ability to forget about missed chances are key to being successful in the Football League.

“I think work rate is massive. At the level we are at, mistakes happen and as a striker, you have to be active in pushing people to make mistakes.

“Obviously, you have to take your chances, but don’t get disheartened if you don’t score, because at this level, you do get more chances. That’s when you have to put them away.”

The 25-year-old demonstrates his impressive mentality and it is no surprise that he taken to the division as quickly as he has. In addition to these qualities, the 25-year-old reads the game effectively and often finds himself in the right place at the right time.

The Forest Green forward is very much a poacher that comes alive in the box and that profile of player often does well in the lower divisions. Despite his success during the last two years, he wants to continue progressing as a player and doesn’t yet believe that he has made it.

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

“I won’t think that unless I go a lot higher. I still think that I have a lot to improve on and I’m pushing every day to become a better footballer.

“I’ve done extremely well to get where I am now considering the background that I’ve had, but that’s in the past now and I’m looking forward to the future. Hopefully I can keep doing what I’ve been doing the last two seasons.”

His career has been a slow burner, as he didn’t play in the Football League until last season. At the age of 25, he will be looking to progress up the divisions in future years, whether that be with Forest Green or another club.

There has been speculation linking him with Sunderland and Aberdeen, among other clubs, but the striker remains committed to Forest Green.

“My team-mates just wind me up about it if I’m honest. It’s all a bit of fun really. It’s nice to have speculation as you’ve probably done something quite good, but it doesn’t faze me at all.

“I’m 100% committed to the club. They pay my wages and I will remain professional throughout.”

There will be a desire to be loyal to Forest Green after they provided the platform for Doidge to launch his professional career. They took a chance on him in the National League and neither would have predicted the rapid rise that has followed.

Since arriving at The New Lawn, there have been plenty of bright moments for the striker, but the play-off final win at Wembley to earn a place in League Two remains his highlight.

“I’d say the promotion win at Wembley was probably the best and it will be hard to beat. It was such a hard season in the conference, going to all kinds of places.

“It was such an up and down season, really high at some points and then really low.

(Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

“To get promoted at Wembley after all the hard work we’d done all season was tremendous. Obviously to score a goal I’m not known for scoring outside the box, which was an extra bonus with having family and friends in the stands. That’s probably the best moment of my career.”

The goal-scoring exploits of Doidge were one of the driving forces behind the club’s promotion as he regularly netted late winners to maintain the team’s positive momentum. Last season, he passed the 50-goal mark and there have been plenty of memorable strikes.

“I’ve scored a lot of last minute winners, which were nice. I scored one when we were going for the title in the conference here, just down that end. It was a header, last ten seconds, last throw of the dice. That was one that I loved and the Wembley one.

“The goal I scored against Cheltenham with the fans behind the goal. It was just perfect timing as I ran onto the ball and straight into the fans which was nice. It would be out of a couple of those ones, but any goal really. I love scoring goals, even if it comes off my knee, I’m happy with it.”

Those that have followed Doidge since his move to Forest Green will attest that he doesn’t score a lot of eye-catching goals.

That said, he is a deadly goal-scorer and the consistency with which he puts the ball into the back of the net is remarkable and his comments underline his thirst to score goals. That is why he is attracting interest from bigger clubs.

Remarkably, Doidge is the only player included for the match day squad for the play-off final that remains in the first-team squad. There have been wholesale changes as they attempt to adjust to League Two level. It speaks volumes that the striker has remained impressive, despite the changing environment.

(Photo by Andrew Vaughan – CameraSport via Getty Images)

“Off the pitch, it has got a lot more professional I’d say. It’s a completely new team. I’m the last Wembley player on the books I think. I’ve had to meet a lot of new team-mates. All the coaching staff have stayed the same.

“It’s been tremendous for me to work with the coaching staff here. They have improved my game a lot. I know what I’m doing when I’m out there now.”

The addition of more talented and experienced players has helped bring out the best in Doidge. There are now players that can impart knowledge on the 25-year-old striker and Reuben Reid has been one of those.

“Reubs has been brilliant. He had a tough year with other stuff, but he has come out the other side now. He’s done tremendous.

“He is a really good lad, really professional and he is good for advice, any person that has been in the league for that long and higher must be a good player. He has helped me a lot and he’s helped me with the goals as well.”

The journeyman forward has been on the books of 14 different clubs as a professional footballer, but he remains a very good League Two player. His experience at higher levels is invaluable for a developing team like Forest Green and Doidge has clearly learnt a lot from him.

After joining the club, Reid helped to share the goal-scoring burden with six goals and four assists. As he and Doidge have now developed a relationship on the pitch, Forest Green will hope that it will lead to a much better campaign.

Another key attacking player during the run-in was Dayle Grubb. The 27-year-old played nearly 300 times for Weston-super-Mare and dominated at the level that they were playing at. It took him some time to earn a chance, but he grabbed it with both hands at Forest Green.

(Photo by James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

During the second-half of the season, he contributed five goals and three assists. Doidge believes that his team-mate is set for an even better campaign.

“Grubby has come in and it is like he has been a professional footballer his whole life. He’s a good lad as well. He’s come from Weston where he didn’t quite get the break, but he has come here and he’s fitted in perfectly.

“He’s come up with some important goals and I can see him getting a lot this year the way he has been in pre-season. He has really committed, and I’m impressed with him.”

Although there have been some exciting additions, it is likely that the trio of Doidge, Reid and Grubb will be the key men for Forest Green this season. There is a real chance that they could challenge higher up the league table if their defence concedes fewer at the back.

It is shaping up to be another exciting season for Forest Green and at the time of writing, they have done a superb job to keep hold of Doidge. There will always be interest in him as long as he is scoring goals and he will move on eventually, but they will want to keep him for at least one more year.

“I want to do well. I want to score goals. I’d love to play for Wales. That is my all-time ambition and I won’t stop until I eventually get it. Hopefully if I score goals to impress the manager, I will see what happens.”

That aim would have been deemed impossible just two years ago, but Doidge has taken to the Football League impressively. He is some way from an international call-up, but he will move closer to one if he continues to score goals and progresses up the leagues.

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Cardiff City

Exclusive: Cardiff City’s Joe Bennett discusses his new contract; promotion and new signings

The full-back spoke exclusively to The Boot Room as he looks ahead to the Bluebird’s top flight return.

Jake Jackman

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Joe Bennett
Photo: Getty Images

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.

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

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.

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