It’s not often you see players in League Two linked with a move three steps up the footballing pyramid to the Premier League.
But following an impressive breakthrough year, which produced 19 shutouts, Southend United goalkeeper Dan Bentley started to attract scouts from the top flight.
Twelve months on and the 21-year-old has become hotter property after an even better year between the sticks for the Shrimpers.
His highly confident and heroic display in the penalty shootout play-off final, which secured the Essex side promotion to the third tier, has only increased his reputation of being one of England’s best young keepers.
But even prior to his showing at Wembley, the Basildon-born stopper produced performance after performance in the regular league season, keeping 20 clean sheets in a campaign which saw him break Mervyn Caswton’s 24-year-old club record of 10 consecutive home shutouts with 12 in a row between October and April.
On top of that, Bentley, who has been compared to current Three Lions stopper Joe Hart, was named in the PFA League Two Team of the Year and swept up at United’s end of season awards, being named Players’ Player, Supporters’ Player and Community Player of the Year.
Dan Tyler spoke to Southend’s man of the moment about his incredible season, that play-off shootout, his career goals, and why he may not have even been a goalkeeper if it wasn’t for an ultimatum by Arsenal.
Let’s start with the play-off final. How are your emotions now a couple of weeks on?
“I don’t think it’s really fully hit home yet; it hasn’t really sunk in. Every time I see a picture, read an article, get a congratulations message or look at my medal it’s just a reminder that it actually happened. It all seems like a bit of a dream. I’m actually ecstatic and proud, not just from myself, but for the club as well.”
It was an incredible day for yourself, saving two penalties after scoring an own goal it was almost fairytale like.
“It was a pretty outrageous goal I conceded. Especially in a League 2 play-off final at Wembley, in front of the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of. To conceded that was very disappointing – not because I thought it was a mistake – but because we went behind. It was important for me to keep my focus, confidence and mind on the game. To go from that to Joe Pigott scoring with 15 seconds to go and then saving two penalties to get promoted was emotionally like going from the lowest point to elation.”
After that unfortunate goal, and with time running out, did you always believe you could turn it around?
“I knew we’d get a chance; a moment in the game for us because, even though we were losing, it looked like we had more energy and belief. Time was obviously running out but we were still in the game and had the legs, which really showed in the end. I think that relates back to the Morecambe game on the final day because from missing out on automatic promotion, to being 1-0 down in the second-leg against Stevenage and then to come from behind to win again in the final shows how much character, passion and desire the club has.”
Talk us through the penalties. You put on a show yourself. Have you always been like that when it comes to penalties?
“It’s all gamesmanship. I’m a really professional lad and I’m not the kind of person to say anything derogatory to any other player so it was all mind games. Penalty shootouts are a huge gamble so to gain a slight advantage as a goalkeeper you have to win the psychological battle. You need to make the penalties slightly in your favour because ultimately all the odds are with a professional footballer who’s got a free shot from 12 yards. I try to go out there with as much confidence and personality as possible. If I get in the opposition’s head and make a difference then fantastic but if not, I can only try my best to do that.”
You were so confident. Do you expect yourself to save penalties because most goalkeepers say it’s luck?
“Yes. People have said to me that it’s a no pressure situation for a goalkeeper because we’re not expected to save them. But given my good track record with penalties in my career to date I felt that there was pressure, from myself and others around me, to save them. I’m a perfectionist and set my standards extremely high, so for me going in to that shootout I did expect myself to save penalties and was slightly disappointed that I didn’t keep out a couple more I got close to.”
You’ve been compared to Joe Hart. That’s obviously great to hear but which stoppers do you look up to?
“To have my name mentioned in the same vein as Joe is obviously a real honour and very, very flattering. He’s a goalkeeper that is having a fantastic career and is at the pinnacle of what he does. Like most people there are goalkeepers I admire and enjoy watching. David De Gea, Hugo Lloris, Hart and Kasper Schmeichel are just a few that I have a lot of admiration for. People have said why don’t I say Neuer. But I don’t think I’m anything like him because he’s more of a sweeper and is very alternative in his style. I still look up to Iker Casillas because he’s had a dazzling career. I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for him.”
Looking back at the season, you’ve broken club records and were in the PFA Team of the Year…it couldn’t have gone any better, could it?
“It was fantastic. But in every interview I do I just have to heap praise on my team-mates because without them I wouldn’t have gained these awards. To be mentioned individually is a real honour and a huge achievement. They’re all little milestones and things I’ll look back on with pride at the end of my career. But, like I say, I wouldn’t have been able to do that without the help of my team-mates and people around me.”
Your performances have seen you linked with a number of clubs. But with promotion achieved are you just thinking about league One with Southend?
“Sure, but sometimes it’s difficult to know what the future’s going to hold. Getting promoted with Southend is fantastic because getting to League One is a small step in what I want to achieve in my career – to play at the highest level. I don’t see a certain path for my career to develop. I just think it’s about taking opportunities when they’re the right opportunities to take. Moves in football are ultimately about taking risks because you don’t know when plans are going to backfire. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved with Southend and we’ll just have to see what the future holds.”
Do you have to take those risks when they come because as a goalkeeper you can quickly go from hero to zero?
“You only have to look at Joe Hart’s career to see a great example of this. He won the title, Golden Glove and was in the PFA Team of the Year, before a couple of mistakes in some high-profile games put everyone on his back. Even now, some are undecided on him, despite having a very good season. But he’s always remained defiant, believed and had confidence in himself. Casillas is another great example. He’s the most decorated goalkeeper of all time but people are now criticising him and basically trying to end his career due to of his age. It’s a real shame because everyone in life makes mistakes and he deserves more respect.”
The chairman and manager are very ambitious so do you think the club can surprise a few next term?
“Certainly. As you say, we have very ambitious people at the helm of the club, and the players and staff are equally as ambitious. From what I’m aware of, they’re aiming for back-to-back promotions next season and the players have bought into that. We firstly have to go and make an impact in the league and hopefully we’ll then find ourselves towards the top come the end of the campaign. It’s a very romantic idea but it’s one that we believe is achievable.”
Talking of the manager, he’s certainly a character but what is he like to play for?
“He’s been absolutely fantastic with me, I can’t fault him one bit. He gave me my chance and I owe an awful lot to him for that. He’s certainly a character, a fantastic man manager and gets involved with training as much as he can. He and the coaching staff think they can still run the show but they haven’t quite got it anymore.”
Going back, were you always a goalkeeper or one of those that played outfield?
“I was an outfield player and used to play pretty much anywhere when I was about 10. But our goalkeeper went on holiday for a week and I offered to go in goal. I think it was a mixture of me wanting to go in goal and the manager wanting me to go in goal. I did well and got scouted by Arsenal, where I met goalkeeping coach Alex Welsh. He gave me an ultimatum telling me ‘if you want to be here you need to become a goalkeeper’. Because I had a real respect for him and enjoyed his sessions I made that decision and I haven’t looked back since.”
You’ve been linked with an England Under-21 call-up. Is that an aim of yours?
“Certainly. Anyone with big ambition, certainly at a young age, would be lying if they said they didn’t want to play for their country. For me, representing your country is the ultimate honour and is something I’d love to do. If I get called up then fantastic, but if not I’ll keep aiming for that.”
Who has played the biggest part in your career to date?
“There’s obviously been a few that have had a great impact on me but the most important is my family. From the knowledge my dad has given me, to my mum running me around all over the place to get me to training and games – without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’d also like to mention Terry Mason, who’s been absolutely fantastic with me at Southend, helping me develop as both a player and a person. Alex Welsh is one of many others I also owe a lot to.”
Favourite Meal? Lasagne
Favourite Movie? The Wolf Of Wall Street – great movie.
Favourite Holiday Destination? Dubai
What do you do on your day off? I actually manage my dad’s Sunday League team. I love the game so much that you can’t keep me away from it.
De Gea or Courtois – At the moment De Gea. Though what Courtois has achieved already is amazing.