A walk over Trent Bridge from the city centre is dominated by the picturesque vision of the City Ground sitting snugly by the banks of the Trent. Few divert their eyes right, which is a shame since the beautiful Wilford Suspension Bridge, reminiscent of the Brooklyn Bridge in design, strides majestically across the water. Traverse one way over the bridge and you will find yourself in leafy West Bridgford: a highly desirable postcode boasting Trent Bridge cricket ground, coffee bars and boutique bars. Go the other way though and you enter The Meadows: for some, a place synonymous with crime and deprivation.
As a boy, Julian Bennett must have strode over the Trent from The Meadows, bound for the City Ground’s Centre of Excellence, with a head full of hopes and dreams: to play for the first team, to know the feeling of wearing the red shirt with the tree emblazoned on his left chest, to lead the team out and perhaps ultimately, to score a decisive goal. It would take time and a few disappointments along the way but he would one day know how all of this would feel.
Bennett is one of a number of Nottingham-born players who would go on to play for Forest: Viv Anderson, Steve Hodge, Steve Chettle, Darren Huckerby, Jermaine Jenas, Wes Morgan, David McGoldrick and Lewis McGugan. In varying degrees, all have found a place in the hearts of Forest fans – local players are deservedly afforded that extra patience and support that might be denied outsider journeymen. But on 3rd May 2008, Julian Bennett slammed in a goal that would not only epitomise his playing style but also set rescue Nottingham Forest from the ignominy of being the first European Cup winners to fall below their domestic top two tiers and restore some pride in the club.
It was a long and arduous journey in reaching this moment though. Bennett left the Forest Centre of Excellence at 14 in 1996 only to pitch up at Walsall eight years later. It was at the Bescot Stadium that his career gathered pace, making 51 appearances for the Saddlers between 2004 and 2006. In the space of two days in January 2006, Walsall lost two players who would go on to develop their careers: Matty Fryatt left the Bescot Stadium on 9th January to play for Leicester City and a day later, Julian Bennett booked a train ticket to Nottingham. It was an easy decision for him to return home: "Lots of other teams, including ones in the Championship, were showing interest in me, but this is my home-town club and it's a dream come true".
There was no lingering resentment towards the club for how it ended in Nottingham eight years ago – just pride in staying true to his path and his upbringing. "I had played for Forest up until I was 14. It did not work out," Bennett told the Nottingham Evening Post. "I could easily have gone out there to do bad things, but I knew I didn't want to disappoint my parents. My dad drummed into me that I needed to finish school. I was into computers. I wanted to get a job in that and I got nine A to Cs (GCSEs)."
He was under no illusions about playing for the once champions of Europe under a certain Mr Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. But champions of Europe, Nottingham Forest were no longer. Indeed, the club was struggling to come to terms with being a relatively big fish in the uber Darwinian slugfest that is League One. But he was fully aware of what was required of him and the club: "In the Cloughie days the club was at the top of English football, and myself and the fans, we want to be back up there competing with the best teams in the world" he told The Guardian. But there was the little case of getting out of the third tier of English football to contend with first.
It all came down to a teeth grindingly exciting afternoon of the final day of the season on a scorching day in May, 2008. After the trauma suffered at the hands of Yeovil Town in the play-offs a year earlier, Forest had to beat the Glovers and hope that Cheltenham Town could pull a result out of the hat against fellow promotion chasers Doncaster Rovers down at Whaddon Road.
Tension gripped the City Ground. The situation required someone to stand up and be counted, to lead from the front, to metaphorically grab their crotch and bellow, 'This is our time. Let's not mess it up.' In the 12th minute, Bennett did exactly this.
As Kris Commons hoists a ball up to Grant Holt in the hope he will hold it up on his copper-barrelled chest, Bennett makes his way upfield, loitering with intent on the left side. Holt is thwarted in his efforts and the ball is cleared to the Yeovil right back area. Terrell Forbes looks like he should deal with this and set Yeovil off on a counter attack. He doesn't get the chance though as while Forbes is looking for an outlet, a juggernaut comes thundering into him from nowhere, leaving him prone on the ground. There's no question of a free kick though - the ball is indisputably won by the Forest left back. Play goes on as the ball canons into Nathan Tyson but he can't hold the ball up and the defender nicks it away from him, sending it back in the direction of Bennett.
Unbelievably, Bennett is up and on his feet again. He collects the ball but he is comfortably outside the penalty area and more importantly, he is moving towards goal from the left and being predominantly left-footed, there seems little risk of Bennett being able to create an angle for a pile-driver of a shot.
No matter though. The boy from The Meadows adjusts his body after skipping around the floored Forbes and smacks the ball with the outside of his left boot, beyond the despairing arm of Steve Mildenhall. It is the perfect combination of craft, dexterity, skill and sheer brute force determination. It is exactly the type of goal a certain Stuart Pearce would have scored from a similar spot on a similar occasion. Compliments in and around the Nottingham area don't come much bigger than this.
Robin Fray nails the commentary: "Julian Bennett - Forest's Player of the Year, the lad born just down the road in The Meadows, wins a thumping tackle and then thumps the ball into the net and gives first blood to Forest on what could turn out to be promotion day."
It did indeed turn out to be promotion day as the dice at rolled at Whaddon Raod went in favour of Forest and a remarkable series of events conspired to allow the club automatic promotion to The Championship, gatecrashing second spot in the table at exactly the right time, despite barely troubling the top two places throughout the entire season. Forest ran out 3-2 winners, thanks to goals from another Nottingham lad, Lewis McGugan and nearby Mansfield born Kris Commons. Furthermore, Bennett played a key part in the promotion effort, helping his side to 24 clean sheets – a league record – and making the PFA’s League One team of the year. Not quite champions of Europe but back on the road to recovery, thanks in large part to the boy from The Meadows.
The late Nigel Doughty was all too aware of the hurt of the previous three years: "This has been my club since I was five or six and I have felt embarrassed that we have dropped into the third tier. I will still be a bit embarrassed until we are back in the Premier League because this is a Premier League club. We should be established at that level and pushing on to achieve things from there." Everything was in place and all was set for a new era of respectability in The Championship for the club.
But football has the habit of tweaking your nose and flicking your forehead just when you think you’ve got everything in its rightful place. The team endured a torrid start under Colin Calderwood, reaching an absolute nadir on Boxing Day 2008, culminating in a 4-2 defeat to Doncaster Rovers at the City Ground, costing Calderwood his job. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Bennett damaged his cruciate and cartilage ligaments in this game, ruling him out for the rest of the season. The club did rally under the guidance of Billy Davies and not only avoided relegation but went on to establish themselves as a team to be reckoned with under the fiery Scot’s leadership, regularly gate-crashing the play-offs. Bennett himself never quite recovered though.
Loan spells at Crystal Palace and Shrewsbury Town and transfers to Sheffield Wednesday and Southend United followed his spell at Forest but over four years, the Nottingham born lad made a measly total of 38 appearances. Eventually, Bennett was all played out and a series of Tweets confirmed his retirement.
1- Since August 6th 2013 I have been battling injury I finally accept I have lost this tackle.— Julian Bennett (@B13NNT) June 28, 2015
2- Tonight I announce publicly my retirement from professional football with sadness mixed with immense pride.— Julian Bennett (@B13NNT) June 28, 2015
3- From the bottom of my heart I thank my family, friends, staff, fans and all the good people I have met.— Julian Bennett (@B13NNT) June 28, 2015
4- Lastly to Nottingham Forest for making a kid from the Meadows dream come true. Jules— Julian Bennett (@B13NNT) June 28, 2015
Football, like life, doesn't always reward the good guys. Having to retire due to injury robs a footballer of his trade and for Bennett, this was a cruel and prolonged affair. But then again, scoring such an important goal in the history of your boyhood club is surely the stuff of which dreams are made and the boy from The Meadows can retire safe in the knowledge that he played a huge role in dragging the club back from the wilderness.
For that season and that moment, Julian Bennett is indeed a true History Boy.
*In The Top One wishes Julian all the very best as he embarks upon a coaching career