It took a meeting with stark reality but an about-turn has set Spennymoor Town winger Ben McKenna into his stride. The one-time Burnley and Carlisle United youngster is finally feeling fully invested in himself, while his first season as a Moors player has also seen him welcomed into the fold with unashamed authenticity.
Some time before securing his signature, Ben McKenna was a player Jason Ainsley was more than familiar with, having seen his Spennymoor side at the sharp end of the wideman’s capabilities at the beginning of last season. He was in the green of Bradford (Park Avenue) when he drifted in off the right and into a crowded penalty area to sweep home a match-winning, first-time left-footer from the edge of the six-yard box.
Before that 2018/19 campaign was finished, Ainsley had tried to sign him, and though Chester was his chosen destination at the time, the County Durham outfit belatedly got their man in the summer. With Spennymoor again in the National League North promotion conversation as this season gets set to enter its final reckoning, the one-time Northern Ireland Under-19 has been a significant contributor.
It might have taken that little bit longer for their association to come to fruition, but from Ben’s side, it has been worth the wait.
“Well I’ll be honest with you, I’ve been at a lot of clubs in non-league, especially Conference North, and so-called bigger teams, but Spennymoor, I’m not just saying it, it’s the best club I’ve been at. The way it’s run and the direction that they want to go in, I was at Bradford Park Avenue last season, and even though we were towards the top end of the league, they didn’t want to go up, because I don’t think the club could sustain National League football.
“Spennymoor want National League football, they wanna get there, so I’m loving it. It’s a very close club, everyone’s connected; the players, the fans, the people who work there.
“I’ve been there seven months now and I’ve loved every single minute of it.”
It has been the environment to help the 27-year-old thrive, though as he describes, a soft and gentle setting it could never quite be classed as!
“Well it’s a harsh dressing room! As soon as you sign for the club, you get put in the group chat, and you’ve got to take a bit of stick for a while; I think it took me two or three months to get used to it!
“Big characters, you’ve got Ramma (Rob Ramshaw), James Curtis; a lot of the North East lads and lads that have been there for a while. Sparky, Mark Anderson, Ste Brogan, and you’ve got me who sits on the perimeter and likes to observe!
“I don’t get too involved now; I just sit back and watch the chaos unfolding!”
With 30 of their 42 league games gone, Spenny are in touch with the play-off pack, level on points with Gateshead in the last of those coveted places, albeit having played two games more. They are, however, just three behind 5th-placed Altrincham, and with a game in hand on an Alty side they ran out 3-2 winners against at home last Tuesday.
Going one better is the season’s objective at the Brewery Field, with the club agonisingly close to clinching fifth-tier football last May. Having overcome Ben’s old side Bradford (Park Avenue) in the play-off quarter-final, they beat Brackley Town on penalties in the semi, before suffering shootout agony to Chorley in the final.
Also captain and assistant during his time, Moors’ gaffer Jason Ainsley is now 13 seasons in, making it a tenure that surpasses that of any manager in the EFL or National League. Far from an authority figure presiding from a distance, he has been central to what Ben has found since he arrived.
“I think one thing with the gaffer is he’s a man-manager. At some clubs, the manager’ll pull himself away from the players, whereas here, everyone’s connected.
“You get in the dressing room, lads have a laugh with him, you’re not worried about saying the wrong thing, he’ll ask for your opinion. I’ve got on with him so well and I think it’s because he can man-manage people; he works as a teacher and I think he’s taken that role and how he deals with people into the dressing room.
“I think it’s probably the best season I’ve had and I think it’s been down to the manager having belief in me. There’s been some games where I maybe haven’t played that well in them, but he’s stuck with me, kept playing me, and I think over the course of the season I’ve done well.
“I set myself targets at the start of the season, goals and assists-wise, and assists I’m on target with, but goals I’m not. Even though I do base myself on goals and assists, I do a lot of good work off the ball and I help people out, which I think they’ve noticed.”
— David Nelson (@DJNelsonPhotos) January 2, 2020
Although the guidance has been there, in signing the former Southport and Stockport County player, Spenny got themselves somebody who had reached his own turning point before he joined the club. A gambling addiction is a key part of his story up to now, though the crucial detail is that he is set on not allowing it to enjoy a destructive starring role.
As told to Cheshire Live, it had begun in earnest when he was a YTS player at Carlisle United, with a trend for some of the older pros to head to the bookmakers when training was done for the day. By his early-20s, working for his dad and playing in non-league with the likes of Workington and Stalybridge Celtic, the problem had very definitely set in, with Ben pawning his jewellery and turning to payday loan companies.
It is a bleak reality and one that is currently very real for many. Ben found critical help after contacting Gambling with Lives, which aims to support families who have been bereaved by gambling-related suicide, as well as raising awareness of the dangers of gambling.
It all interlinks with how Ben’s time away from work and football tends to get spent these days. The ex-Curzon Ashton and Chester man, who works full-time as a machine operator for a materials company in Blackburn, has nine assists to go with his three goals this season, and he has found a way to match that productivity in his spare time.
“People laugh but I’m into walking. I get up in the morning and I go for a walk before work, there’s a river down by my house and it just clears my head; I think it’s a really good start to the day.
“At the minute, my life literally is work and then football, and at a weekend, I like to chill out. I enjoy doing stages of sobriety, which is obviously not drinking, so I got into that.
“I had a gambling addiction, and one day, 5th September 2018, I decided to stop gambling, but just before that, to clear off my gambling debts, I decided to stop drinking for six months. When I say that, people might think stopping drinking means because you’re an alcoholic and you’ve got a problem with it, and it’s far from it.
“I’d only probably drink on a Saturday or every two Saturdays, just like any other lad, so what I decided to do was not gamble and not go out for six months, and not drink. In that six-month period of not drinking, I couldn’t believe the benefits I saw from doing stages of sobriety.
“Now I’m on my fourth stage, which I’m doing until the end of the football season, and I started it at the end of December. Honestly, it’s been life-changing for me, and I’d recommend it to anyone.
“One thing I found was my productivity level is so much higher. I’d play a game on a Saturday and I might go out and have a few drinks, I’d have a bit of a groggy head on a Sunday, but then I’d never look forward to a Monday.
“Now I feel like I’m doing things right, whereas before, deep down I knew I wasn’t helping myself. Now because I know I’m doing all I can, if I have a bad game or something doesn’t work out with football, I don’t beat myself up.”
— Spennymoor Town FC (@SpennymoorTown) January 27, 2020
Gambling with Lives is his chosen charity for a challenge he has planned at the end of the season. Walking from his house in Burnley, he intends to head over the Yorkshire Dales and then complete the Yorkshire Three Peaks, with the aim to finish the approximately 55 miles in 24 hours.
As well as being with Burnley up until 16, he is a Clarets fan, and was at Turf Moor for the Premier League draw with Arsenal at the start of this month. He does, though, come from a family filled with Liverpool fandom, owing to his Irish granddad following the Reds after immigrating to England.
Ben’s North West-to-North East journey to link up with Spennymoor each week is not a brisk trip by any means, but again, he does his level best to glean something valuable from it.
“On a Tuesday and Thursday I cut my hours short, work 9 ‘til 3 and I get in my car and drive to Billingham near Middlesbrough, where we train. I finish work at 3, go home, make a bit of food, and then I set off to training about 5 o’clock, and get there for half 7.
“It’s a big commitment, doing five-hour round trips to train for an-hour-and-fifteen, but that’s a decision I made at the beginning of the season. I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s a long way for me, I’m not gonna lie.
“They do understand that, so they help me out as best they can; if we win on Saturday they might give us a Tuesday off. It’s a long way but I’m into podcasts, so football podcasts, and also things like law of attraction, positive thinking, and one podcast I’ve really enjoyed is called The School of Greatness with a guy called Lewis Howes.
“I listen to all sorts; I’m into all sorts of music, positive thinking, 80s music, anything. We’ve just had a lad sign called Tyler Forbes and he lives near Blackburn’s training ground, so I’ve been meeting him in Skipton.
“It breaks up the journey a bit because we meet there, it’s half an hour for us both, then we can drive up.”
During the conversation, he talks of having his listening already sorted for the journey home that evening – the part two appearance of his old Bradford (Park Avenue) and Stalybridge teammate Liam Dickinson on Gareth Seddon and Jordan Hulme’s I Had Trials Once podcast. He puts the former Championship striker in the same bracket as another North West lad and not-so-shy-and-retiring character – Chester midfielder Gary Stopforth.
“Yeah, I’m good mates with Gaz and he’s a proper character. If you’ve never met him before, and you hear these stories with Gaz, you might think he’s an idiot, but honestly, he’s got a heart of gold and I’m really good mates with him.”
He first played alongside his fellow Burnley native at Stockport County, before joining Stopforth’s current club Chester for the latter part of last season following his impressive form at Bradford. Ben says Chester’s 6-0 home loss to title-bound Stockport in April stands out as the most gutted a game has left him.
Those two clubs are also where he feels he has had his toughest spells as a player.
“I think the second half of last season with Chester, and also a period at Stockport under Jim Gannon. It was nothing personal against the managers or anything, but I wasn’t playing as much as I’d like and I maybe wasn’t getting as much of the confidence as I’d like, or the words I’d like to hear.
“I just wasn’t feeling confident, basically. It’s the best way I can put it.”
He arrived at Chester off the back of contributing five goals for BPA, with his time working under ex-Bradford City stalwart Mark Bower a definite highlight of his playing days so far.
“It wasn’t just the football, with my personal life I was really happy, the lads in the dressing room were really good, Mark Bower was fantastic with me, so I think it was an accumulation of everything. In terms of going to training, looking forward to it, looking forward to games, I’d say that was the happiest time I’ve had before Spennymoor.”
— Chester FC (@ChesterFC) January 18, 2019
In amongst the ranks at Spenny are two coaches who have seen life at the highest level of English football – ex-Middlesbrough defender Stuart Parnaby and former Sunderland midfielder Tommy Miller (Moors assistant). For Ben, who got a brief taste of League One action with Carlisle against Miller’s old club Sheffield Wednesday almost exactly nine years ago, he still harbours ambitions of fulfilling an assertion he once made.
“I made my debut in League One when I was 18, and I remember when I got released from Carlisle at 19, I said to the manager Greg Abbott, ‘I’m gonna play League football.’ That’s still what I wanna do.
“Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy playing part-time football and my work life, but I’d love to get back into League football. I do believe I’m good enough, given an opportunity.”
In terms of the managerial style to help him unlock his full potential, Ben believes the ‘arm around the shoulder’ approach will win out every time over a dressing-down. He highlights his former Stalybridge player-manager Keith Briggs, a Football League midfielder with the likes of Norwich City and Stockport County, as another who seemed to grasp that well. So too John Flanagan at Curzon Ashton.
Off the pitch, he has encountered some harsher lessons than most, which he fully intends to never forget the value of. Alongside that, football itself has had a unique hand in helping this exuberant attacking talent become a yard or two wiser.
“It’s definitely made me a better person, and this isn’t to sound selfish, but in football, I think you really have got to look after yourself. I think there’s a lot of people in football who can try and dictate things for you.
“You’ve just got to be your own person and make your own decisions, and stay true to what you want.”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes