Paddy Davitt: Can Ryan Bennett be Norwich City’s leading man?
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Ryan Bennett has often been the support act at Carrow Road, but chief Norwich writer Paddy Davitt insists, in the latest part of a summer series, it is now time to move centre stage.
This is a big season for Norwich City. It might just be an even bigger one for Ryan Bennett.
The 26-year-old is approaching the final 12 months of his current deal at Carrow Road. Perhaps Bennett's contract situation may, in part, explain why he has already found his way into the transfer gossip columns this summer.
The centre-back has been touted with the likes of newly-promoted top-flight duo Middlesbrough and Hull City, while Celtic chief Brendan Rodgers has also been mentioned, after losing out to Norwich for his signature when he was in charge at Swansea City.
Bennett should attract interest from potential Premier League suitors because he possesses all the attributes to become an accomplished defender. You look at his physique, his athleticism, his aerial ability, his range of passing and the fact he is now entering a phase of his career when he can marry all of that with experience and maturity.
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Bennett should be a valuable commodity. Yet, he remains potential rather than end product.
Injuries have not helped his cause at Norwich but in four full seasons since his move from Peterborough Bennett has yet to make more than 20 league starts each campaign. That came last season, in another demotion for the defender, in the midst of his first really extended run in the Premier League.
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Bennett's best Norwich displays have come when he is paired with a dominant, assured partner; a point that might shine a light into his character as much as his ability. The former Grimsby prospect exudes a laid back, carefree attitude on and off the pitch that at times can be mistaken for indifference. Nevertheless, chart his early development and Bennett had to scrap for his career in the top echelons after failing to make the grade at Ipswich's academy as a teenager. Within a year he had not only played first team football for Grimsby, he was the Mariners' youngest-ever captain. That hints at a footballer with the fighting spirit, belief and leadership traits to maximise the most of his undoubted talent. But there remain question marks until he truly establishes himself in the Norwich first team fold.
Bennett should not settle for second billing behind Russell Martin, Seb Bassong or Timm Klose. Irrespective of the vagaries of the transfer window this summer and whether Neil considers the need for fresh reinforcements in a key area of the squad Bennett must back his ability to emerge as one of Neil's key lieutenants.
That brief interlude alongside Klose towards the end of the season, when they subdued Manchester City's array of attacking talents in a goalless Carrow Road draw against the star quality of Sergio Aguero and David Silva, offered a tantalising glimpse of the strong, forceful central defensive pairing City have arguably lacked week in, week out over recent campaigns. Norwich's relegation clearly raises doubts whether such a union will get another outing in less glamorous surroundings, but if Bennett is on board for the Championship odyssey – and we will find out soon enough once the transfer noise subsides – this coming season must be the one where he emerges from the shadows to stamp his authority on the City backline.
Bennett should be reaching his prime and if Neil is prepared to invest responsibility and trust in him to become one of his cornerstones then the best days of his Norwich career can still lie ahead.