The Monday Profile: Tom Bender
Young boys in the park with jumpers for goalposts, or battering a ball against a garage door, dream of pulling on that jersey, of scoring the winner at Wembley, of lifting the World Cup. Of making a name for themselves. And yet some players make a name for themselves inadvertently, their footballing achievements and exploits overlooked or forgotten.
Take Jean-Marc Bosman, for example, a relatively obscure Belgian footballer until his move from RFC Liege to French outfit Dunkerque was blocked and he decided to take on the football transfer rules. Now his name is inextricably associated with the landmark judgement which revolutionised the transfer market. Or Justin Fashanu, who, despite being the first black footballer to cost £1m, is far more widely remembered as the first – and, to date, only – professional player in the UK to come out as gay.
And then, of course, there are those players whose names are synonymous with sickening injuries, the sort that TV editors deem too horrific to replay. French defender Patrick Battiston, for instance, who was put in a coma and suffered a broken jaw and vertebrae and lost teeth following what can only be described as an assault by West Germany goalkeeper Harald Schumacher at the 1982 World Cup. Thankfully, Battiston recovered – as did Croatian forward Eduardo, who broke his leg and dislocated his ankle in a challenge with Birmingham’s Martin Taylor while at Arsenal in 2008 and who is currently resurrecting his career at Shakhtar Donetsk.
Less fortunate was Alf-Inge Haaland, the victim of what an unrepentant Roy Keane regarded as suitably violent retributive justice in a 2001 Manchester derby, who never again played another full 90 minutes. And then, perhaps most stomach-turningly of all, there’s David Busst, the Coventry defender who, playing against Man Utd in 1996, sustained a double compound fracture of his leg so severe that the cracked fibula broke the skin, it took 15 minutes for the blood to be swilled off the Old Trafford turf and eyewitness Peter Schmeichel subsequently required counselling. Despite 26 operations and the best efforts of countless surgeons and experts, his playing career was over.
In a 2005 interview with the Telegraph, Busst was remarkably sanguine about the incident which wrecked his life as he knew it – and the MRSA he contracted in hospital: “People have to cope with tragedy every day, what happened to me was merely a misfortune“. 29 years old when the dreaded diagnosis came, he at least had something of a career behind him. But what if the same fate was to befall a player at the very start of their professional life?
For a while, it seemed as though that might have been the case for Tom Bender. The Wales U21 defender, Colchester’s second youngest ever player having made his debut at 16, is now 18 and on loan at Accrington Stanley. On 4th October, 39 minutes into Stanley’s Johnson’s Paint Trophy tie with Tranmere, Bender was knocked out in a collision with his own ‘keeper Ian Dunbavin and opposition striker Lucas Akins. Such was the severity of the injury that the teams were sent to their dressing rooms before it was agreed the game should be abandoned. After half an hour of treatment on the pitch, during which Bender was given both oxygen and a drip, an ambulance arrived to take him to the Royal Blackburn Hospital – physio Joe Hinnigan subsequently complaining about the response time.
Mercifully Bender came around in hospital, the brain scans came back all clear and he was soon chatting with visitors and expressing gratitude for the “amazing support” of both those within football and beyond, suffering from nothing worse than a headache and a feeling of nausea. The incident itself he described as “more of a dream than reality“ – not exactly the dream most young aspiring players have.
Kept sidelined for six weeks on doctors’ advice, Bender finally made his comeback on 12th November in Stanley’s 4-1 FA Cup Second Round defeat to Notts County, entering the action as a substitute to applause from both sets of supporters. With his whole footballing future ahead of him, there’s hope yet that his name will come to conjure up far more than just memories of a wince-inducing and potentially career-ending injury.
A tale with a happy ending, then – but how many tales with unhappy endings go untold? How many footballers suffer more innocuous-seeming injuries which are unreported but which ultimately end their playing days? Something to give pause for thought. Footballers may often be an unlikeable and unsympathetic bunch, but there can’t be many jobs in which your career can be so cruelly and suddenly curtailed through no fault of your own.