Back where Bennell belongs
Back where Bennell belongs

Those who witnessed the start of West Coast's new season could have been forgiven for thinking they had wound back the clock with a ride in Back to the Future's time-hopping DeLorean.

There was the familiar sight of a No.44 streaming out of defence with ball in hand, dodging through traffic with ease, just like the club's glory days of the past decade.

Only this time it wasn't David Wirrpanda. It was the future in the form of comeback kid Jamie Bennell.

The similarities between Bennell and one of the club's greats was not lost on East Perth premiership player Shane Nani, who watched the new recruit's debut for the Eagles last Sunday with genuine pride.

Nani was captain of Bunbury club Carey Park back in 2008 and recalls a highly-talented teenager helping the league side to a flag that year. Bennell was a natural sportsman who had been offered a contract to go and play English county cricket at the time and could easily have been lost to football altogether.

"He was a pretty quiet kid," Nani recalls.

"At the start of the year he was one of those kids who was still tossing up between cricket and football. He ended up having an exceptional year when he decided to play footy.

"He made the State country team that travelled to the national carnival. He then finished off the year playing in a WAFL colts flag for Swan Districts and then a couple of weeks later for us.

"He mainly played half-back and wing. Just with his run and dash and ball use, you could see he had all the attributes.

"When you're that age and you've got a bit more freedom, I think he was probably a bit more expressive with his skills. He would take more players on.

"To see him playing that sort of role and attacking the ball at West Coast, I was very impressed."

The Eagles originally spoke to Bennell and showed interest in recruiting him as a teenager, but it was Melbourne who read his name out with the 35th selection on national draft day in 2008.

After just one season the Demons would go against the grain of the draftee's background, switching him into the role of the team's specialist small forward. Bennell managed 23 goals in 57 games for Melbourne, but never came close to fulfilling his potential.

"It was a bit surprising," Nani admits of Bennell's role.

"At that time most clubs were trying to find that defensive forward that could sneak a few goals and they obviously earmarked him in that role, but I think his best position is being able to run and carry the footy and deliver it.

"His skills are pretty clean."

Then came the incident that appeared destined to send Bennell to the football scrapheap.

It was round 16, 2012, against Fremantle at Etihad Stadium when the right-footer twisted his left knee, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament. It meant 12 months on the sidelines and then-coach Mark Neeld, facing pressure to turn around a demoralised Melbourne, made the call to discard Bennell.

Retired Demons star Aaron Davey, who was Bennell's closest friend at the club, said it had been a tragic result for a "very down to earth, very respectful" young man.

"I think the whole situation could have been (handled better)," Davey said.

"Once the injury happened he was just not required. I thought 'well hold on, he's just done his knee and he's out of contract and he's just bought a place'. That was the big thing that struck me.

"Jamie was doing whatever he could to get himself right. I know for a fact he was working on all his rehab. It was one of those tricky times you face as an AFL footballer when you're told you're not wanted at a club, but for Jamie it was a lot tougher because he was only young."

A meeting with the Eagles was the turning point. Bennell was taken by them with the 26th pick in the 2012 rookie draft.

Twelve league and three reserves matches for Swan Districts last year proved the knee reconstruction had not robbed him of any pace or agility.

Bennell is grateful to West Coast - the club he supported as a kid - for a second chance and reuniting him with family in WA.

"It was something I won't forget," he said of his Eagles debut. "It was almost like a first game again. It was beautiful to get out there."

Eagles defence coach Adrian Hickmott was the one who pushed for Bennell to return to the back line, but it was the recruit himself who chose No.44 and intends to make it his own.

Fittingly, Wirrpanda met Bennell after last Sunday's win to congratulate his protégé.

"As a kid growing up I watched Wirra very closely," Bennell said.

"It was pretty special to grab that number. He was pretty happy to see the 44 out there again.

"He just gave me a bit of advice, said enjoy it, take it as it comes and just really enjoy the moment out there."

The West Australian

Popular videos

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West