MASON Bennett has spoken publicly for the first time about the drink-driving incident that left him and Tom Lawrence facing the possibility prison sentences and former Derby County club captain Richard Keogh suffering serious injuries that have put his professional football career in the balance.
Bennett, 23, could make his Millwall debut this weekend against West Bromwich Albion at The Den after signing on loan from the Rams last week.
Bennett spoke to NewsAtDen this week at the training ground. The former England youth international understandably wants to move on and is reluctant to revisit the night of September 24 last year.
A question about whether he has spoken to Keogh since the accident is answered, “yes”, but there is no further elaboration.
Keogh, who was a passenger along with a youth-team player in Lawrence’s Range Rover that crashed into the back of Bennett’s on the A6 near Allestree in Derby after a team-bonding dinner, was sacked by the club just over a month later. Keogh appealed the sacking.
Bennett and Lawrence, who both fled the scene of the accident, pleaded guilty to drink-driving and were fined six weeks’ wages by Derby. The pair avoided jail but were ordered by a court to carry out 80 hours of unpaid work, and given a 12-month community order.
Both had been over the legal alcohol limit of 35mg per 100ml when they were breath-tested after returning to the scene 45 minutes after the accident, when Keogh was still in the back seat of Lawrence’s car having suffered knee injuries that will keep him out of the game for over a year. Bennett’s reading was 64, while Lawrence’s was 58.
Bennett and Lawrence were also banned from driving for two years, which means that Bennett walks to training at Millwall’s Calmont Road base from his local accommodation in Bromley.
Bennett is also carrying out the community work order locally, some of which is in allotments as well as charity work.
When asked about the details of that night last September – when he had vomited after consuming a Jaeger bomb at 9.30pm before leaving the Joiner’s Arms pub an hour later and then eventually getting behind the wheel of his car – Bennett wasn’t keen to go through them again.
“I’ve addressed all that in court and it’s all been settled, so as far as I’m concerned that’s it done now and I want to focus on my career,” he said.
“I know I’ve messed up. I’m just really focused on my career and getting going again.
“It was one of those mistakes…I’ll look back when I’m in my 60s and 70s and still regret it then. I’m still young, I’m still trying to learn life lessons and within football, so I can take that as a life lesson and move forward and improve in the future.”
Last October, the court heard that Derby had organised counselling for Lawrence following the death of his mother, Deborah.
Lawrence’s team-mates were aware of how the Wales international struggled after that loss.
“I knew about [the struggles],” Bennett continued. “He spoke about it with the lads, it’s a close group. But his personal problems are his personal problems and I won’t question him on that.
“Me and Tom were in this together and went through it together, and we’re still good friends now. I’d say he’s one of my closest mates because we went through so much together off the pitch and throughout the court case.
“We both look back on it and regret it massively. We’re both just trying to move forward.”
Bennett highlighted the support of his grandmother, Gene, who has been a strong pillar in his life. When Bennett was named Apprentice of the Year at the Football League Awards in 2014 and received £500, he took Gene out for an Indian dinner.
“I don’t see much of my mum, she’s getting on with her own life,” Bennett added. “My nan brought me up ever since I was eight or nine, so I’ll always look to repay her for what she’s done for me in helping me to get to where I am today.
“The past couple of months I probably wouldn’t have got through it without her, she’s a really special person in my life.”
Bennett insists he wasn’t concerned with the potentially negative reactions of Millwall fans after his move.
“No,” he said. “I’m here to play football. I think that’s what the fans want to see. What’s happened’s happened and I’m here to give my all for this club.
“I’ve had my time at Derby and when I look back on it I have some great memories. But I need to move on with my career and get going again.”
Bennett is form Langwith in Derbyshire and has spent his whole career with the Rams, with loans at Chesterfield, Burton and Notts County, all within a 25-mile radius, and Bradford City, just over 70 miles from Derby.
Is it a challenge moving on his own to London?
“It is,” he admits, “but I’m one of those guys that likes to get out of my comfort zone. I want to test myself, test my character and see if I can overcome these challenges. London is a big city and so far away from home, my little girl lives up there.
“But the train’s not too bad, I came back down [Monday].”
Bennett is Derby’s youngest-ever player, after making his debut aged 15 years and 99 days against Middlesbrough in October 2011. He is also their youngest goal-scorer, at 16 years and 174 days old.
It’s tempting to think that was a case of too much, too soon, but Bennett, again, emphasises that he’s looking forward, while learning from his past.
“I’ve had a few injuries, a few different managers who liked different people in different positions,” he said. “It has been difficult for me.
“But I can only look back at myself and maybe look to see did I do enough, did I do what I was supposed to do to get where I needed to get?
“I’m still only 23 and I’ve still got a long career. I’m really looking forward to learning from the mistakes and pushing forward.”
Image: Millwall FC