Big Interview: Preston boy Cory Bent is the No.1 pick in Canadian football
Tom Sandells talks to former Preston North End youth star Cory Bent who is making a name for himself in Canada
Cory Bent is making history nearly 4,000 miles away from where he grew up, as he enters his first season as a professional footballer.
Bent will take part in only the second season of the Canadian Premier League, having been the No.1 overall draft pick at the end of last year.
The 22-year-old’s path into professional football has not been by the orthodox method. Having spent time on the books at Preston North End as a youngster, a pro career looked over when he was released at the age 14.
After drifting into non-league, Bent gave the game up for a period to concentrate on his education, but just a few years later, he’s back with a football at his feet.
He said: “It’s a bit of a weird one. I went into full-time work, played some non-league for a bit but then I decided I didn’t want to do that. I decided I wanted to go and get an education.
“An opportunity came up in Canada for a four-year scholarship, so I just upped and left. I came over here to play and about two years into my time at university, they announced the formation of the professional league in Canada. Last year was the first season of the league and it’ll be going into its second year in March.
“That’s just how it happened. I did well at university level and was seen by the coaches. They liked what they saw and luckily for me I got picked up.”
In the same way as other North American sports, the Canadian Premier League operates a draft system, which flips the league table at the end of the year and gives those teams that finish the lowest, the first opportunity to select the best of the fresh crop of players coming through.
Bent was selected by HFX Wanderers FC, who are based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
He had previously represented Cape Breton University, catching the eye in their colours, scoring 24 times and setting up eight more in 36 games for the Capers.
But when the all-important draft was taking place, the forward was watching with limited expectation given the outcome of the mock draft which had gone before.
He had been the 14th pick in the mock, but found himself at No.1 when the real one took place.
Bent revealed he was confident of getting picked after enjoying such a fine season for his university, but to be the first selection certainly came as a surprise.
“There were murmurs,” Bent said of the draft and the possibility of being picked. “But I didn’t have anything solid beforehand – I was just waiting like everyone else to see who I fell to.
“I actually came to Canada through an agency. They help lads in England get connections with universities and coaches over here.
“It’s been the first time I’ve played up front, I’m usually a winger, but we changed to a 3-5-2 and we just clicked into the system.
“We were firing on all cylinders and when you have good players around you, it gives you the confidence to go and play how you want to play.
“I was able to express myself. I felt comfortable physically and mentally. I was probably the fittest I’d ever been and I was ready to go from day one.
“At the end of the day, I always said it would be an honour to be drafted to any team. There are only 48 players in the country who get the opportunity to go and play pro.
“So to be No.1 – I was a bit overwhelmed, I just wasn’t expecting it.
“I was going to be grateful to whoever drafted me.
“I wasn’t No.1 in the mock draft, I was 14th to Halifax Wanderers, but I actually ended up being the first pick in the end.
“I was watching the draft unfold with a couple of the lads, who were also in the draft, in our apartments.
“It was class – everyone was cheering for me, it was really nice.
“It was good to see the lads who you’ve come through with all being supportive of you, wanting to succeed as a group more than individually.
“We (Cape Breton) were the most represented in the draft again. Last year we had three, this year we had four.
“Shortly after the news got released, I spoke to the vice president of the club on behalf of the Wanderers.”
Now, next on the agenda for the Prestonian is a return to Canada, having spent Christmas and New Year back in Lancashire, spending time with his dad, former Burnley and Blackpool winger Junior Bent.
The new boy will have to show his worth, but admits he can’t put a price on his dad’s advice.
“I still talk to him every day,” said Bent. “He always offers me sound advice, he’s been there and done it.
“I don’t take it lightly, I’ve been lucky enough to have that ongoing support system.
“I know many people don’t have the same amount of knowledge that they can access with just a phone call.
“I’ll be meeting up with the team and pre-season starts in February.
“Technically, I have to go and earn my contract, so I will go to the pre-season camp, play, train and go with them to wherever the pre-season is and hopefully I can earn my contract and kick on from there.
“My coach said the reason he brought me in was because he’d seen what I’d done at university.
“He said not to change my game just because I’m going up to another level.
“He told me to adapt my mindset and give them what I’ve been giving my university.
“I will try not to change my game too much and focus on myself and my best performance and show everyone that I’m giving 100%.
“Hopefully, this league will grow and be sustainable and it won’t just be a step-ping stone for players to get exposure.
“That’s what it is right now, but it’s early days.
“I can see myself thriving in the position that I’ve been given. I’ll be no stranger to what happens at the professional level. I feel I’m ready.”
Despite becoming a professional, Bent has not forgotten where it all started for him.
As a Preston lad, he is grateful of the early education his local club gave him.
Being released by PNE as schoolboy was devastating but having had the opportunity to reflect and improve, he understands why the decision was taken.
“I was at North End for a while from the age of nine to 14,” he said.
“Once I got released, I played Sunday league and non-league.
“I’m not big in stature and people in the English game would say, ‘We don’t think you’re physical enough’.
“I just wanted to keep playing.
“I learned my trade at PNE and it’s nice having that solid base coming out of a good academy in England from an early age.
“That being said, I don’t think I was at my best.
“I think I’ve developed a lot more and I’d say I was a late developer. I probably wasn’t ready then and I can see why the decision was made.
“I was grateful for my opportunity there and it taught me a lot.”