DARREN Bent is no stranger to attracting the ire of rival football fans. Two weekends ago, the Sunderland striker was repeatedly booed by Stoke City supporters after turning down the opportunity to move to the Britannia Stadium via the social networking site Twitter.
Today, with Hull City visiting the Stadium of Light, the 25-year-old will experience more of the same after similarly shunning the Tigers earlier this summer.
And as he gradually settles into his new surroundings following a £10m move from Tottenham, Sunderland’s club record signing has also learned a valuable lesson about life in the North-East.
If you’re going to be a Black Cat, it’s probably not the best idea to head into Newcastle City Centre when the Magpies are at home.
“I’m living in Gateshead so I’ve been around Newcastle quite a bit,” said Bent, who was a trainee at Ipswich, but who has spent the vast majority of his career playing in London for Charlton and Spurs. “I’ve had to have my scarf around my face!
“Actually, it’s not been too bad. You get the odd comment, but the people are great up here, friendly and mad about their football.
“I went to a restaurant a couple of weeks ago in Newcastle and it was right next to the stadium. I parked up and thought, ‘This is busy – I wonder why’. Then I realised they had a home game. It took half an hour before I was brave enough to sneak out of my car!”
Witty, engaging, self-effacing.
Little wonder Sunderland supporters have immediately taken Bent to their heart following his switch to the Stadium of Light.
The two goals that crowned his first two games obviously helped, but the honesty with which he outlined his desire to leave Tottenham for Wearside earlier this summer also stood in marked contrast to the guarded comments that characterise many footballers’ dealings with their fans.
All of which, of course, brings us back to Twitter.
Bent’s online outpourings provided one of the stories of the summer, and while the striker admits he should not have criticised his former employers at White Hart Lane so publicly, his comments provided a rare insight into the frustrations that simmer beneath the surface of Premier League football clubs.
“I’m back on Twitter,” said the striker. “But obviously it’s a bit more light-hearted now.
You have to learn from your mistakes. I can’t get away from what happened but, at the same time, I’ll learn from it and know I can’t do it again.
It’s just me and 15 friends on there now and we post about trainers and clothes.
“To be honest, I didn’t realise how big it would all get.
The day it came out that I had an account, I had about 5,000 requests to follow me. It was from Sunderland fans and Spurs fans, and some of them were saying that I was never given a chance, which was nice.”
The acrimony that accompanied Bent’s exit from Tottenham has been well-documented, with Harry Redknapp’s withering assessment that his wife could have scored with an opportunity the striker spurned looking even more indefensible in the light of the forward’s goals against Bolton and Chelsea.
Bent’s face did not fit from the moment he walked through the White Hart Lane entrance in June 2007, and with the Spurs supporters quick to jump on his back, he had to develop a thick skin to ensure he did not crumble in the face of some sustained and vitriolic criticism.
“The last couple of years have definitely made me stronger,” he said. “I’ve been talking to my mum and dad about that. With some of the experiences I’ve had, I’ve had to become stronger.
“After the first season at Spurs, a lot of people would have crumbled, but I came back and scored a lot of goals the next season. I got myself out of there and started again up here. So yes, I’ve had to grow up and it’s been a hard couple of years, there’s no denying that.
“In other jobs, you can have a bad time and no one notices.
But if you’re a footballer, you’re going to be in the spotlight.
“I had that on me for two years, and when that happens, you need good people around you.”
While Redknapp offered Bent precious little support during his time at White Hart Lane, Steve Bruce has pledged to do all he can to make the striker a success during his time at the Stadium of Light.
That means assembling a team that will play to the forward’s strengths, but it does not mean going easy on him in training.
He might only have been on Wearside for a couple of months, but Bent has already learned who to avoid in the squad’s small-sided games.
“The manager’s been brilliant,”
he said. “He’s always talking and joking with us and that’s what you need in a manager – someone who is on a level playing field with the players.
“Steve is always out there, even training with us at times, but it would help if he wasn’t so good! People talk about differences in speed or whatever, but there’s no substitute for experience and I’m sure he could still do a job with us in the team.
“The moment you turn to run away from him in training, he has dropped off ten yards and is already in the right place. You never lose it.”
Having hit the ground running in terms of his Sunderland career, Bent is already ensuring Redknapp is left in no doubt about that.