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Former Tottenham player David Bentley swaps football for GAA

By Liam Kelly

Former footballer fell out of love with the Premier League - but he rediscovered the core values at Crossmaglen GAA club in south Armagh.

And before delving further into this fascinating odyssey, let's start by quoting Crossmaglen and Armagh stalwart Aaron Kernan on just how good a Gaelic footballer David Bentley could become if he stuck at it.

"I spoke to John McEntee and Oisin McConville (Crossmaglen mentors) about David and how he did. They said 'two months'. If they got two months they could make something out of him," said Kernan.

So what was an English soccer international who had never taken any notice of Gaelic football doing in a Crossmaglen jersey?

The answer will become evident in tonight's TV3 documentary 'The Toughest Trade', a documentary film commissioned by AIB, which will be screened at 10pm.

It's a 'sport swap' reality feature, in which Bentley swapped soccer for GAA; Aaron Kernan went to sample professional soccer with Sunderland; and Kilkenny hurler Jackie Tyrrell swapped hurling for baseball with American pro Brian Schneider.

How well the idea worked will become evident on TV3 tonight, but Bentley's involvement is particularly intriguing.

Less than 20 years ago, any Englishmen walking around Crossmaglen carried heavy weapons and wore British Army uniforms. They were hated by the locals.

But in 2014, David Bentley, born in Peterborough in 1984, formerly a £15million signing by Spurs from Blackburn Rovers, a quintessential Englishman, could stroll freely around the south Armagh town, and be made welcome by the players and supporters of the local GAA club.

We should think about that and be grateful for the Peace Process, all of us, and be grateful for the bonding power of sport.

Bentley came out of the experience with a huge respect for the GAA players and their sport, and a good feeling about Crossmaglen.

"I was excited, I was nervous obviously going in and being the type of player I was and the reputation that had come with you, you don't know if you'd be accepted but they really did accept me.

"It's a great place. They really looked after me, really nice people. It was good. I enjoyed it," he said.

Irish soccer legend Liam Brady brought Bentley into the Arsenal ranks as a 12-year-old schoolboy, and he graduated through the ranks at Highbury to first-team level.

Later, he played with Robbie Keane at Spurs. Coming from the professional and mega-millions industry that is Premier League football, Bentley had his eyes opened to the demands of the GAA.

"I was there (in Crossmaglen) for a week, training and being part of the life, of what they do, balancing their life with their jobs, their family life and obviously playing at an elite level.

"I've got great respect for what they do and the commitment they show.

"It was nice for me obviously because I had problems with the way football - sorry, soccer - has gone. I say 'soccer' now," he says with a smile.

Continuing, he adds: "I love playing soccer/football, it's what I love to do. It's my life. But I had a problem with the direction it went as a job. There have been quite a few things I have fallen out of love with in football. I fell out of love with that aspect of it.

"To come here (Ireland and Crossmaglen), it was great for me to see the togetherness.

"What they have here is what I fell in love with as a young player, so to be a part of that for just a week was really good for me. I loved it," said Bentley.

As a soccer player who played either as a winger or midfielder, Bentley was good, really good.

At one stage of his career he was being tipped to become the 'next David Beckham'.

His journey took him from Arsenal, which he left due to limited first-team opportunities, to Blackburn Rovers, and Spurs with loan spells at various clubs including Norwich and a stint in Russia with Rostov FC.

The money, the fame, the accolades were there in abundance, and yet, for Bentley, his passion for the game increasingly began to cool, to the extent that he announced his retirement in 2014.

"The way I saw it was I loved playing and the football side of it but the whole social media and the impact it has on your personal and family life, your relationships, it breaks you down.

"Obviously the money's there but there's a problem in the relationship between the players and the public. It's something I didn't really enjoy being part of," he said.

Having done all the hard training with Crossmaglen, and playing in a match against Silverbridge, Bentley got to sample the realities of Gaelic football at the coalface.

He got an early 'welcome' when he was shunted to the ground by an opponent with the ball nowhere to be seen.

"He put me down a couple of times. Once when the ball was nowhere. Came in and flattened me.

"I don't mind that. I got flattened a bit when I played.

"That was fine. It was something I quite enjoyed it actually," said Bentley.

The debate continues as to the relative fitness values in Gaelic and soccer.

Bentley's verdict?" It's a question that will always be unanswered.

"Obviously what they (GAA players) deal with, with their home life and keeping their wives happy and their jobs, and the whole balance of their travelling and still performing at a high level, it's tough.

"People like to think that soccer players can be soft but it's a very physical sport. They're both difficult but I respect both. They're really physical sports," he said.

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