The Crowdfunded Footballer

When Wrexham AFC signed a Future Singaporean International with Beer Money

In 2002, with the club struggling financially, a six-foot centre-back who had already enjoyed a seven-year career in Singapore’s S.League by the age of 24, splintered by completing a degree in Sports Science at the illustrious Loughborough University, signed for Wrexham AFC.

Born in Great Yarmouth but raised in the city-state of Singapore from the age of two, Daniel Bennett has one of the most interesting stories of an English football player making their career abroad, because, for other than two seasons with Wales’ Wrexham, that is exactly what he has done.

Joining Tiong Bahru’s youth ranks at the age of 15, it was only two years before he was part of the club’s inaugural season in the fledgling S.League, which was founded in 1996. What he got up to in those early years is hard to tell, with even the ever reliable transfermarkt unable to provide his playing history prior to the 2003/04 season, but by the turn of the century, he seemed to be outgrowing the nine-team league and won the S.League Player of the Year in 2001. He was the first and only Englishman to do so.

His potential had long been known to the Singaporean football authorities, who selected him for the FAS Milo Scheme, which focussed on developing young footballing talent, at the age of 12. Twelve years later, it was another scheme, the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme, through which Bennett was able to take up Singaporean citizenship and debut for the national team, 12 years after first moving to the country.

The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme has facilitated the migration of non-Singaporeans who are deemed sporting assets to the country since 1993, with the aim of improving performance on a national stage through importing talent but also improving local standards through the acquisition of sporting expertise. It has courted some controversy, though to-date only nine foreign-born players have acquired Singaporean citizenship and all of them have played in the S. League, too. In 2007, it became a requirement for players to have done so for a minimum of two seasons before they could be considered for citizenship, anyway.

Image result for daniel bennett warriors united

The Scheme’s biggest success is undoubtedly Bennett. Since making his debut on December 11 2002, the now-41-year-old has 145 caps for The Lions, making him the appearance record holder, also chipping in with seven goals along the way. It seems his last international game was in 2017, meaning he was still active at the age of 39, and with five outings in this year’s AFC Cup, Asia’s Europa League equivalent, he is certainly still active domestically, only signing a new two-year deal in February of last year.

Despite his unusual backstory, however, perhaps none of it is as random as when he signed for Wrexham - at least his Singaporean citizenship was 12 years in the making, whereas his signature at the then-Football League Second Division club (now known as League One) was secured with beer money.

Set up by the Wrexham Independent Supporters group, who were financially assisting the club at the time, the ‘Beer a Week’ initiative encouraged fans to donate at least £2 – then the cost of a pint – to the fund that ultimately enabled The Dragons to sign Bennett.

"This is just the start, but it demonstrates what can be achieved through the commitment and generosity of supporters," WINS Chairman Rob Owens said at the time. "This is a direct result of the success of the 'Beer a Week' fund which has been well-publicised over recent weeks and continues to grow.”

As recently as 12 years ago, a third-tier side – now home to the likes of Bolton Wanderers and Sunderland – genuinely paid a player’s wages through crowdfunding at the expense of a weekly beer. It is therefore no real surprise that nine years later, the they became a supporter-owned club. The money raised covered Bennett’s salary and expenses, and the defender looked back on his spell at the Racecourse Ground, the oldest international stadium still hosting international games, with fondness.

Image result for daniel bennett strait times

“My time in England was very memorable,” he told the Straits Times in a 2018 interview. “With Wrexham, I won the Cup, got promoted (from League Two) and relegated (From League One) all in two years.”

The relegation came first and before he embarked on his second season at the third oldest professional football club in the world, Bennett flew back to Singapore and played 11 times for Singapore Armed Forces FC helping them to the title. It was the first of five S. League titles he would win with the club, grabbing three consecutive ones from 2007-2009, and then winning his final one in 2014 at the age of 36. Three Singapore Cups came his way whilst at SAFFC too, winning consecutive doubles in 2007 and 2008, and the third one in 2012.

When Bennett finally does retire, he will be remembered for trademark long-range goals, longevity, and he himself will probably forever remember the time he came up against Argentina and the likes of Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala, and Ever Bangea, in 2017. However, the aforementioned interview he gave to The Straits Times last year, when he had just signed that two-year contract extension, showed he had no plans of retiring.

"It is something that I don't really think about. I just enjoy playing and every year, I push myself to keep going. As long as I can keep up with the younger players, as long as I feel strong enough, I am good enough.

Still starting week-in-week-out at Tampines Rovers, nothing’s changed in the past 18 months either.

 

 By Jordan Florit - @TheFalseLibero

Jordan is currently writing Red Wine and Arepas: How Football is Becoming Venezuela's Religion. To pre-order it, visit his Kickstarter here. The Terrace subscribers have already been emailed an exclusive discount. Message Jordan if you no longer have it.

Written with the cooperation of the executive president of the Venezuelan Football League, Rubén Villavicencio, Red Wine and Arepas will feature exclusive interviews with players past and present.

He has already secured numerous interviews and meetings with Venezuelan players, managers, officials, journalists and fans, domestic and international, men and women, and will continue to work hard to arrange more. This includes members of the 2019 Copa América squad and teams from previous Copas, domestic league legends, young players at the beginning of their careers, and stars of the women’s game. The whole project comes with the blessing and support of the executive president of the Venezuelan Football League Rubén Villavicencio, who will be coordinating much of his time in Caracas.