Three goals in five League Two starts isn’t bad by anyone’s standards, but it would be particularly impressive if it was a central defender, and that’s exactly how it’s been for Rhys Bennett since his arrival on a short-term deal midway through last month.
The 29-year-old, who was a free agent prior to his move to Cumbria, was thrust into the fold almost immediately as Rod McDonald picked up a troublesome groin injury, and he’s taken to life at Brunton Park like a duck to water with seven appearances in all competitions now under his belt.
Speaking after bagging the winner against Bradford at Valley Parade on Saturday, he said: “It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been enjoyable.
“Results like this are big and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve spent a lot of dark days in the gym by myself over the past few months, or doing yoga, to make sure I was in a position where even though I don’t feel fit, I can at least do something.
“I still don’t feel 100% fit, but I’m just happy to help the team and I’m really enjoying my football at the moment. I knew when I came that it was going to be difficult to get into the team because the lads were playing so well.
“Unfortunately for Rod he picked up an injury, but when he did that I just thought ‘here we go’. I’m really pleased with the clean sheet today and I’m also really grateful for a full week between the games so I can rest my body. It’s been a long three or four weeks!”
Looking back at his immediate call-up to the starting eleven just under a month ago, we wondered if he’d felt ready to play at that point.
“A standard pre-season is six weeks, but I hadn’t played football for eight months, then I had a week of training with the lads,” he explained. “I tried to keep myself as fit as possible, but I know myself I wasn’t completely ready to play when Rod got injured.
“I’m not sure you’re ever totally ready, but thankfully we put on a good performance in my first league game and it’s been a weird two weeks since then!
“It was a frustrating summer. I thought I had something incredible sorted but it didn’t end up working, and I’ve had to put myself back together mentally – right, ok, it didn’t happen, so now you have to go out and earn it, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
“As a team we seem to be making things happen as well. I don’t think it was our greatest performance here, we were a lot better performance wise against Salford, but you’re never really going to perform incredibly well for 46 games.
“That’s why it’s important that when you don’t, you can pick up results along the way, so for that reason the three points is massive.”
If you’re going to come to a new club when the season is already motoring along, bagging a few goals will never do any harm, and three in five games has had the fans calling for a new deal to be offered – at least until the end of this campaign.
“The deliveries have been great,” he said. “Spending a while out of the game has given me a real chance to look at how people score goals. I am 6”3 or 6”4, so I should be scoring goals from set pieces.
“I’ve watched the people who do that consistently, the likes of Nemanja Vidic and Aden Flint, and I’ve looked at how they actually score goals. They’re obviously big men, but they’re constantly moving around the box, so that’s what I’ve tried to do.
“Jon Mellish has got 12 goals so I’ve got a few to go before I’m like him! The manager speaks a lot about moving around in the box, so I’m just trying to do that as much as I can. It’s weird when you move, how you actually find yourself. A lot of goals are just through movement.
“As a defender your bread and butter is keeping clean sheets. You’ll always be tested away from home, and if you can come to places like this and pick up clean sheets you’ll always give yourself a chance of doing something good. To get the clean sheet, wherever you’re playing away, is a great achievement.”
But what about that contract – does he want to stay beyond the January window?
“I’m enjoying my football here,” he confirmed. “You can see I’m playing with a smile on my face.
“It’s weird, for the first time in my career – and I know the lads will batter me for this – I have a manager that really believes in me. I’d run through a brick wall for him.
“I can’t really speak too much on it because everyone batters me. You know how much the manager likes me and the feeling is mutual. I would really run through a brick wall for him.
“It’s nice that we as a team are rewarding him. Looking from the outside, it’s one of those people you really want success for, because he’s a good person.
“It’s weird because during my career, because of my laid-back personality, managers tend to take the tough love approach with me. That works to a point, but right now I have a manager who actually praises me all of the time, and I just want to repay him for that.
“Some managers seem to have favourites, and I’m not even going to lie, we do have that sort of relationship. At times I’m hoping he won’t say something nice to me or about me because the boys just batter me for it, and they think I’m teacher’s pet, but sometimes you’ve just got to own up and admit that the manager has a lot of love for me, and I have a lot of love for him. It is what it is.
“It’s incredible going out on the pitch because knowing he has that faith in you gives you that extra 10-15% and you want to help him. It’s almost a case of showing people that he was right to have that faith in me.
“With the contract, I know the manger wants me here to the end of the season. And I’m really enjoying playing for him. That’s all I can say really.”
And, as already mentioned, the fans have also already adopted the big centre back as one of their own.
“I haven’t got a bad word to say about anyone at this football club,” he said. “Honestly, it’s been incredible, the way I’ve been welcomed by fans, players staff, all you guys have been incredible.
“I just hope I can pay you back. I can obviously understand why the fans are getting excited about what we might achieve. Even before I signed, I was looking at it from the outside and you could see that the boys were doing well.
“I think it’s important that inside the dressing room we take it step by step. There are a lot of teams who will be wanting promotion this year with bigger budgets than us. Some people would consider us the underdogs, so we’re just trying to stay under the radar and take it game by game.”
This week, of course, brings a welcome break from the run of Saturday-Tuesday fixtures which eventually begins to take its toll.
“I can’t speak for the boys but for me I’m so happy!” he joked. “Honestly, I’ve had so many ice baths, just eating right, sleeping and honestly, I’ve lived and breathed football, so it’s nice to just have a break and get some feeling back in my legs.”
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