Dave Bennett: Fighter, believer and pioneer

We look back at the groundbreaking career of the silky-skilled Dave Bennett - first published in 2021...

If the name Dave Bennett isn’t familiar with younger City fans, perhaps it should be.

With 65 appearances and 15 goals over a two-year period, he doesn’t top any stats lists and while there are one or two notable moments in his time with the Club, on paper he is not that remarkable.

But his path to becoming a City player is a story of triumph over adversity as he became the first high profile Black player to play in sky blue.

Stan Horne, Tony Whelan, and Roger Palmer had played for City before him, but it was David P. Bennett who rose to prominence in the late 1970s, becoming City’s first Black player to play at Wembley against Tottenham.

It was a journey full of obstacles and hurdles, prejudice, and racism, but the Manchester-born forward had a dream and Manchester City, based in the heart of the city’s biggest Black community, helped him realise his dream.

“I was born in Longsight near the market on Dickenson Road. There was just me and Gary my younger brother that lived at home with mum and dad,” says Bennett.

“I played football anywhere – on the street, in the park or in our backyard and did well with my primary school side. Because of my sporting ability, I got a place at Burnage Grammar School which was a very good school back then.

“Gary, who is 18 months younger than me, went to Burnage as well and I got to know a lad called Peter Coyne really well. Coyney was in the same year as me and we were part of a strong school team who beat most teams easily.

“I was selected to play for Manchester Boys and would always make the 14-man squad but was either sub or just missed out being selected, so while Coyney was scoring goals left, right and centre, I was on the periphery of the team.

“I played amateur football, too and was with Ashford Celtic and Moravians on Saturdays and Haddon Hali on Sundays - the latter played in an open-age league.  I played for a few teams over the weekend, but Ashford were one of the best Sunday League sides in Manchester.

“I started to get noticed because I was doing so well and scoring plenty of goals, but I didn’t think I was going to get anywhere because the attention was always on Coyney who was playing for England Schoolboys and scoring hat-tricks regularly – three of them at Wembley.

“He was snapped up pretty quickly by Manchester United.

“I thought I’d missed the boat if truth be told, but eventually I did get scouted and was invited for a trial at Oldham Athletic. I went along, and after I’d finished, another scout, Len Davies,  asked me to come and have a trial at City, which I was more than happy to do.

"There were hardly any Black footballers in the English top flight back then so we had to have superstars like Muhammad Ali and Pele as our role models because, being from a West Indian family, they had proved Black sportsmen could achieve great things."

Dave Bennett

“I was a bit nervous when I arrived at City and though I did well, my mum and dad, who weren’t into sport that much, insisted  Gary and I continued with our education.

“There were hardly any Black footballers in the English top flight back then so we had to have superstars like Muhammad Ali and Pele as our role models because, being from a West Indian family, they had proved Black sportsmen could achieve great things.

“I knew of Clyde Best at West Ham and there were two or three lads in the lower divisions, but because these guys were rarely seen on TV, they didn’t get much exposure and in truth, they weren’t pulling up trees. I could count on one hand the number of black players doing well in this country in the mid-to-late 1970s.

I used to go and watch City one week, United the next – I just wanted to watch great players doing what they did whether it was Franny Lee or George Best. I loved the Brazil teams of 1970, ‘74 and ‘78 and I wanted to play like a Brazilian footballer.

“I started training at City every Tuesday and Thursday because I had college work and wanted to keep on track for my grades, but gradually that became training every day and because my birthday was in July, I was a bit older than some of the lads in my year-group I was offered a one-year contract instead of an apprenticeship.

“We had a game against Blackpool in the FA Youth Cup and I remember hearing the boss, Tony Book, would be coming to watch me – it couldn’t have gone much better for me and I scored a hat-trick in a 5-1 win, so the next day they gave me a year’s professional contract.

“I was still an apprentice, but I didn’t have to clean boots or do the same jobs they did. That was for the 1976/77 season when we finished runners-up to Liverpool by a point and I just kept developing  in the younger teams. My coach Dave Ewing was very hard on me – thank god – and told me to get in the gym every day to build myself up and they must have seen something in me because they gave me a new two-year contract at the end of that season. I’d played in the reserves and we had just won the Central League with players like Ged Keegan and Paul Power for the first time, and it was a really big thing at the time because it was a proper men’s league back then with seasoned pros and players coming back from injury. So it was all going well.

“It was funny, because there was another Dave Bennett in the reserves at the time, so I was Dave A Bennett and he was Dave P Bennett who was a white lad - we used to joke that we were brothers with different mothers.

“I learned things the old fashioned way. When I was an apprentice, the first year pros could kick us in training, but we couldn’t kick them. You had to show you could take it, but also give it out, so when I was on my first pro contract, we could kick the triallists but they couldn’t kick us.

“Then, as a reserve, you couldn’t kick the first team players but they could kick you – it was just how it went. The coaches absorbed it all to judge your temperament – were you tough enough? Too nice? Too soft? Could you take it and look after yourself? It was old school style; things were looked at differently and everything mattered.”

Bennett had done enough to impress manager Tony Book and on 14 April 1979, Dave Bennett replaced Tommy Booth in a Maine Road clash with Everton.

With Roger Palmer also playing, it was the first time the Club had two Black players in action at the same time. But Bennett’s excitement at making his debut would be soured within a few minutes.

"Then, as a reserve, you couldn’t kick the first team players but they could kick you – it was just how it went."

“I remember running on for Tommy Booth at Maine Road,” he said. “I’d been surprised to see my name on the team sheet that had been pinned up on the Friday as I hadn’t expected it to happen so soon, but I got a really warm reception from the City fans – though it wasn’t on long before I was brought down to earth with a bump.

“I’ll not name him here, but I was running around bright and full of energy and tried to knock it past an Everton player when I got dumped on my backside. As he put his hand down to help me up, he said, ‘If you do that again, I’ll break your legs you Black *******. I’d felt six foot four when I came on, but he made me feel about five feet two and to this day, I don’t know whether he did me the biggest favour of my career or if I should have jumped up and taken matters into my own hands.

“What he did was made me realise that this is what I was now up against and that I’d have to face that kind of abuse on a weekly basis - and it wasn’t only on the pitch.

My dad worked for the railways at Cheadle and he would pop over to the pub across the road every now and then. One day, not long before I made my debut, a guy said to him, ‘I hear your lad is doing really well at City. What does he do? Sweep the terraces?’

“My dad mentioned this and after I’d played against Everton, I said, ‘Come on dad, let’s go and see him and tell him that I’m playing for Manchester City and not sweeping up’ but he asked me not to and said I needed to calm down and forget it, like dads do. But it was hard.

“The thing that meant the most to me was that after I’d started playing regularly, the West Indian community in Moss Side and surrounds started taking an interest in me and black people started coming to Maine Road to watch me and Roger Palmer play. That was a wonderful feeling and the City fans being the way they are, they never had any problems and were welcomed just like anyone else.

“We didn’t realise it at the time, but we were starting to open doors for the people in the Moss Side community and more and more Black people started to feel comfortable to come to games. They knew of us; they knew of our families and friends and they were willing us to do well."

“The truth was, many Black people were still doing low paid jobs and were being treated as second class citizens, when all of a sudden one of the biggest clubs in England has two Manchester-born West Indian descent lads playing up front.

“We didn’t have to be good, we needed to be excellent to have gotten where we were and more Black youngsters started coming through the ranks at City – and my brother Gary was one of them! The City scout asked my dad if there were any other talented footballers in the family and he told him, ‘Well; David’s younger brother is probably better than him!’

“He gave him a trial and Gary was then signed up as an apprentice. Mum and dad were pleased as punch and they were bursting with pride when I played in the Manchester derby and got the man of the match award for a 1-0 win over United. Derby games were matches you had to win, by hook or by crook. The only thing that mattered was having the bragging rights on Monday.

“Roger was  really quiet guy – I don’t think I ever saw him lose his temper, he was easy-going and kept himself to himself. He was very elusive and you might be out and getting ready to go home and Roger would be gone! We weren’t even sure where he lived because he’d always get dropped off at the end of the street! But what a goal-scorer – he could score goals like you’d never seen and was so fast over 10 or 15 yards.

“He was a law unto himself, but we didn’t have a voice back then and people would say that Black guys didn’t like to play in the cold and only turned up when the sun was shining – we had to breakdown all these stereotypes and change the philosophy and thinking of managers who maybe believed all that. We just had to get on with it.

“I remember Mick Channon asking me if I wanted to join as  group of players travelling out to South Africa for some exhibition games in 1980. I asked my dad, because they were paying me about £5,000 which would have bought me two really smart houses back then. He was well aware of apartheid in South Africa and said: ‘Son, don’t go.’ Thank god he did, because I only then started to learn what apartheid meant an no amount of money would be worth touring a country where Black and white friends couldn’t drink in the same bars. Rebels who did go out there in cricket or whatever, ended up being banned for a long time. It was 100% the correct decision.

“Roger and I were ambassadors for the West Indian community and it meant we had to set examples of what could be achieved and people looked up to us.”

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But 1980s Britain was a long way from the multi-cultural union of the present day. Racism was rife, particularly at some clubs where Black players would be targeted and insulted throughout the game, week in, week out.

“Some of the away grounds we played at weren’t as welcoming as Maine Road, and some were positively hostile,” he said. “I would get merciless stick at certain venues but I had to keep going because I wanted to keep going. I didn’t have that many people to talk to about it other than Roger, my brother, and my parents. Roger and I tried to help each other through it because they were hard times.

“In contrast, playing at Maine Road was brilliant. Because I was one of their own, it helped me. I was a local lad, went to local schools and came through the ranks – not to say that some fans might not have liked me after a bad game, but that’s a natural reaction towards players, especially if you’ve lost the game. I can honestly say I never witnessed any racial abuse while I was a City player at Maine Road. The fans could see I would give a 110% every time I played and I loved playing at home because it was where my heart was.

“The 1980/81 season was memorable for a number of reasons. Tony Book and Malcolm Alison were sacked in early October and John Bond came in and signed Tommy Hutchison, Bobby McDonald, Gerry Gow and Phil Boyer.

“It was bizarre because none of the new signings could play in the League Cup and that meant some of the lads who weren’t playing regularly would be picked for the League Cup, and we’d have all the new players in the FA Cup run. I was playing up front with Kevin Reeves and doing really well and I scored in every round of the League Cup, up to the semi-finals when we were beaten 2-1 on aggregate over two legs by Liverpool – I hit the bar at Anfield in the second leg and that would have put us into the final had it gone in.

“The other half of the team helped us get all the way to FA Cup final.

“We got to the semis where we faced Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town and they were the team were to beat at that time. They had a great side, were going for three trophies and were favourites to win, but I thought I might have blown my chance of selection due to an incident that happened a few days before. Team-mate Nicky Reid and I had decided to try a new nightclub out that had opened in Northenden and as we approached, United’s Jimmy Nichol and Sammy McIllroy were just coming out – we asked what it was like and they said it was OK, so we carried on to the door where I was stopped and told Black people weren’t allowed in.

“Some members of the press were present and picked up on the incident, but I said ‘no comment’ when they questioned me about it. That was the last I thought of it until I was on the coach bound for Villa Park to take on Ipswich when I opened the paper and saw a double-page spread on the story. I thought if John Bond saw it, he’d drop me, but he already seemed to know and told me at the ground that I was to get at their right-back Mick Mills.

“At half-time, it was 0-0 and I hadn’t played that well, but Bond told me to get my act together because I was going to win this game for the team. We did win, with Paul Power’s free-kick in extra time which meant we were at Wembley with a game against Spurs to come a few weeks away.”

Bennett scored regularly on the run up to the final, but there were no guarantees he’d be playing, so he was delighted to learn he’d been picked to start. It was huge for any player, because the FA Cup final was the biggest date on the calendar back then – plus it was also the centenary final.

“I didn’t really think or know about the fact I was City’s first Black player to play at Wembley – I’d never even been to the stadium before, only passed it from a distance. I just didn’t want to let anyone down because my parents and brother were there and a lot of friends and I felt a lot of support from family and the West Indian community.

“We met the royals before the game and then got on with it and it couldn’t have started much better with Tommy Hutchison opening the scoring early on from my cross – what a goal! We ran harder, tackled harder and went looking for a second, but they scored ten minutes from the end with that deflected free-kick. Hutch was in the wall me and Gerry Gow and Joe was lining up the wall. Hutch overheard Glenn Hoddle saying it was going to curl it around the wall and I told him not to break off – but he did and his touch took it past Joe to make it 1-1.

“The replay four days later – the first to be held at Wembley - was another fantastic game and full of great goals and moments, Steve Mackenzie’s volley was superb – but nobody talks about it! That brought us level and I got brought down in the box in the second-half and won a penalty that Kevin Reeves scored from to put us 2-1 up, but it wasn’t to be and they scored twice in the last 15 minutes to win 3-2.

“The following season, we signed Trevor Francis for a lot of money but nobody told me that I was surplus to requirements.  Reeves, Francis, and Bennett – as I understood it, three of us would battle for two places and whoever was doing well would be in the team.

“I’d signed a new two-year contract after the FA Cup final, was still only 22 and was happy and settled. I felt I was being nurtured along nicely, but early into the 1981/82 season, John Bond and his coaching staff went over to Norway to see Molde defender Aage Hareide play and while they were away, the chairman, Peter Swales, asked to see me. He asked me if I’d do him a favour and go to Cardiff City – my brother Gary had gone there in the summer and I didn’t see a problem in helping the chairman out.

“Nobody else spoke to me, but the way it was explained by Swales was that I was going to Cardiff to help them out and then come back to City. It looked like a short-term loan move where I could go and learn my trade some more and maybe come back a better player, but while I was there, I discovered City had asked for a fee for me to move to Cardiff permanently. Everyone was a bit shocked that I’d left, but I hadn’t had any say in it. It was disappointing for me and the clubs had to go to a tribunal where an agreement was reached that City had first refusal on me. That was the end of my time at Maine Road, but the following season - 1982/83 – was weird because Cardiff ended up winning promotion from the Second Division and City were relegated.

“Had I gone back to City in 1983, Alex Williams had come through and Clive Wilson was emerging, so as Black players, we were breaking new ground. West Brom had Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson; Garth Crooks was at Stoke and then Spurs while Wolves had George Berry and Viv Anderson was at Forest. It changed the perception of people about Black players and we were, in effect, smashing down barriers."

"On a personal note, I went back to the FA Cup final in 1987 with Coventry City where we beat Spurs 3-2 in a game that had a player (Gary Mabbutt) score at both ends again, just like Hutch had in 1981! I scored the equaliser at 1-1, so I gained some vengeance for City fans just six years later.

I still follow City’s results closely and regularly come back to Manchester – occasionally I go looking for Roger Palmer with no joy!
Dave Bennett

"He’s as elusive as he ever was.  The Club will always be a big part of my life and they gave me my chance. People like Tony Book, Glyn Pardoe, and Dave Ewing helped me get to where I wanted to be.

“The proudest thing in my career was making it at my hometown club. I was so proud to play for Manchester City and it made my parents very proud, too. It was a hard slog and there is still a lot of work to do, but it’s all been worthwhile when you see the number of Black players there are in English football now.

Today, we see Micah Richards as a regular pundit, Joleon Lescott is on TV regularly and it’s great, but people don’t understand what they went through to get there.

"I know that for a fact.”