When defender Rhys Bennett put pen-to-paper on a short-term deal back in November there is simply no way he could have predicted just how much of a positive impact it would have on the squad, the club and, most importantly, for himself.
With that deal due to run out after this weekend’s Leyton Orient game, manager Chris Beech made it something of a mission to get the popular centre back tied down until at least the end of the season, even resorting to urging the fans to contact the player directly on social media following the Walsall away win last Saturday.
Bennett, who has bagged three goals in his 13 appearances so far, inevitably caught the eye of other suitors, making a decision to stay anything but cut and dried.
But staying put is exactly what he’s doing, and we caught up with him this afternoon to talk to him about his extended stay in Cumbria.
“It’s been a great few weeks, it’s been a great couple of months,” he said. “Although it’s only January and it doesn’t bother us too much being top of the league, I’m enjoying my football.
“I’ve been shown love by the fans, players and staff – where else can I go?”
A very good point well made, but surely the documented interest from other clubs meant he had to stop and think for a while?
“I wanted to stay just for the opportunity to see something out,” he explained. “I’ve had one promotion in my career so far and it would be special to get promoted with this club, this group of lads and this manager.
“It’s been a hard decision to make, I’m not going to lie. Obviously I want to play as high as possible, so when the opportunity came to play higher, you kind of want to see what is there.
“But the thing that swayed me is the love that I’ve been shown at this club, and the opportunity to be one of the main players in a promotion push. I think that is what swayed my decision.
“I came in two months ago and wanted to come and get some games in. I think it’s been incredible since then and I can’t not stay to the end of the season.”
Having been through that summer period without a club, we felt there was no way he could ever have imagined this particular move going this well.
“I’ve been putting Gifs out and stuff like that, but I honestly can’t believe how well it’s gone,” he admitted. “I knew the manager was doing well and we have some great players here but I can’t have imagined it would go like this.
“The player of the month nomination today, it’s weird, things just kept dropping to me. I have set a personal target, I want to reach it and I want to get some more clean sheets as well so that I can help the team.
“If I’m honest, I don’t really care about individual awards. I want us to be recognised as a team every single month from now until the end of the season, that’ll mean we’ve done something.”
Post-match last Saturday brought confirmation that an agreement still had not been reached, and an appeal from gaffer Chris Beech for fans to lend a helping hand with a social media campaign.
“Going back to what the manager said – he said you’re not going to get many opportunities at places where you have that feeling of being wanted like this,” he commented. “I want to embrace it and pay everybody back for it.
“With his appeal to the fans ... I didn’t think he was going to do that! I had a meeting with him on Thursday and he said – I’ll take you down Warwick Road, I’ll knock on people’s doors, so people can see how much it means if they knew what the situation was.
“When he then said that on Saturday, I think I’ve read every single message. I couldn’t respond until today, but it’s played a major part in my decision and I want to say thank you to everyone.
“I got about 20 mentions in half a minute as soon as he said it and all I can say is I’m incredibly grateful for the support the fans have shown me. I hope we can get the fans back in before the end of the season.
“I don’t think I’ve had anything like this before. It’s weird, I’ve only been here two months, I did not expect anything like this in the slightest. It’s humbling, if I’m honest.”
So does this level of personal support received give a boost to the confidence?
“It’s good, because in football you have to be resilient and fight against the status quo, coming to a new club, making sure the manager thinks you’re a good player, but it’s been quite natural for me here,” he said. “I’ve just come in and tried to work hard. I have a manager that loves me, he’s seen me play before and that helps.
“The thing I’ve really enjoyed is just being able to play football every week. I know there’s no fans there at the moment but I’m feeling the love from them all the same. I just want to play every single week, or twice a week if I can – football’s my life and it’s what I want to do.
“We’re all just enjoying playing our football. There are a lot of teams with higher budgets than us, I know that myself, but we’re just enjoying our football and seeing what happens.
“To be honest, the lads are another huge factor in why I’ve stayed. We’re such a close dressing room. I knew I only had a two-month contract and initially I was asking myself, do I really get involved because I don’t know what’s going to happen.
“But I feel a massive part of it, the camaraderie, the way we are with each other, you can see it on the pitch and it only bodes well for the future. In fact, over the last couple of weeks, the majority of people asking if I was staying or not were the players and I take that as a massive compliment.”
And he revealed that advice on what to do at this important stage of his career was available from his father, who had some wise words to share.
“It’s weird, I had this conversation with my dad, when we were speaking about what to do,” he told us. “He said, ‘Look, where do you feel happiest?’
“I’ve always liked the manager, I have a good relationship with him. Dad said, ‘Maybe the reason why you’re doing so well at the moment is because you’re happy’.
“Whereas I’ve been at other clubs where maybe you’re not the manager’s favourite, playing well but you know that any bad performance and you’re out of the team, that’s always in the back of your mind, whereas now, I wouldn’t want to play bad but it’s only because I don’t want to let him down.
“When you play like that and give up that self-preservation and think about something bigger, I think that’s when you give your best performances.
“As a group, we’re all trying to do what we do together. I think that what separates the people who can get promoted from this league from those who don’t is consistency.
“We’ve shown at times this season we can beat the best teams in this league. We just need to be a bit more consistent. No-one’s running away with this league, so why can’t it be us?”
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