A big striker who relied on physical presence rather than technical ability never lived up to his early promise. Steve Quick explains
Being hailed as Leicester City’s “next Emile Heskey” does not quite carry the same burden of expectation as those saddled with the tag of France’s “new Zidane”. Expectations were high nonetheless when 21-year-old Trevor Benjamin moved from Division Two Cambridge Utd to Premier League Leicester City in the summer of 2000.
So high in fact that Cambridge chairman Reg Smart was already licking his lips at the prospect of a future profit on top of the £1.5 million that Leicester had paid for the striker, a record transfer fee for a player from the third tier of the Football League. It was Smart who made the Heskey comparison, adding: “Leicester were the only Premier League club to make a bid and, as they are a selling club, we have a good chance of a big sell-on fee.”
Several First Division clubs tabled bids for the player who had scored 46 goals in 146 appearances since signing on as a trainee at the Abbey Stadium. However, the pound signs were clearly flashing in the eyes of the Cambridge chairman, with a move to Leicester proving to be the most lucrative for both player and club. Benjamin signed a five-year contract with the Foxes and was Peter Taylor’s fourth signing during a profligate 15 months for the club, during which the former England Under-21 manager spent £23m, including, most notoriously, a club record £5m for Ade Akinbiyi.
Initially Taylor could do no wrong, with Leicester leading the Premier League table for a brief period in October 2000. The same could not be said for Benjamin, however, who scored just one goal in 38 appearances during his first stint at the club. Fellow striker Akinbiyi fared little better, and had to wait until November 3 to score his first Leicester goal as Taylor resorted to bringing in 36-year-old Italian striker Roberto Mancini to boost his impotent strike force. Taylor said: “Mancini would be a great help to our front players like Ade Akinbiyi and Trevor Benjamin who, because they are similar in style, are not ideal as a partnership, although they are trying hard to make it work.”
Try as they might they could not turn things around and after a promising start Leicester lost nine of their last ten Premier League games. The hangover continued into the new campaign and Taylor was sacked two months into the 2001-02 season. Benjamin’s first-team opportunities were again limited under caretaker manager Dave Bassett and in December 2001 he began the first of seven loan spells while contracted to Leicester, with a temporary move to Crystal Palace. Manager Trevor Francis stated of the one-month loan: “Trevor gives us a different option. We need a player of his size and physical presence.”
Benjamin did return to make a positive contribution to Leicester’s 2002-03 promotion campaign, scoring nine goals and winning the first of two caps for Jamaica. He may be most fondly remembered by Foxes fans for netting the winner in a 2-1 win at Derby in 2004, scoring with his first touch after coming on as a substitute. Non-Leicester City fans may regard Benjamin’s only newsworthy contribution to be a round of handbags with team-mate Stan Collymore. A disagreement over a misplaced pass in a reserve team game against Charlton carried on into the dressing room at half-time. Collymore refused to come out for the second half and reported in his autobiography that the altercation sent “chairs and tables flying”. Benjamin has refused to divulge the details of the incident in interviews, stating that like his adversary he was “saving it for my book”.
Both left the club soon after and there was to be no substantial sell-on fee for Cambridge as Benjamin moved to Northampton Town for a nominal sum. His endeavour and work-rate may have earned him a place in the hearts of some Leicester fans if not any golden boot awards, and he left the club with an underwhelming 11 goals in 81 appearances over the course of five years. His departure kick-started an ignominious trawl down the Football League and below as Benjamin racked up 144 appearances for 16 different clubs in the next five years.
Club after club decided he was not quite what they were looking for, each manager perhaps believing that they could unlock the potential talent that allows the use of the obligatory “former Premier League striker” prefix when yet another move is reported in the local sports pages. After a trial at Bournemouth in September 2008, manager Jimmy Quinn decided against the offer of a full-time contract, instead dishing out this withering assessment: “He’s not what I’m looking for; he’s probably past his sell-by date. As good as he’s been in the past he’s probably dropped his standards a little bit.”
At the time of writing and at the age of just 30, Benjamin had been released by Blue Square South side Woking after making just two appearances. It was his fourth club of 2009, making it 24 in total for the man who once played in the same England Under-21 side as John Terry and Jermain Defoe. His most recent team-mates, playing five levels below the Premier League, were perhaps shocked not by how far he has fallen, but that he was ever there in the first place.
From WSC 277 March 2010