TOM Bender made his Colchester United debut at the age of 16 to at the time become the club’s second youngest-ever player.

Gazette sports writer Jon Waldron caught up with the former U’s defender.

WHEN Tom Bender high fived Anthony Wordsworth and dashed onto the Community Stadium pitch to make his Colchester United debut a little more than a decade ago, he created a piece of history.

At 16 years and 243 days old, his appearance as a late substitute for the U’s in their League One clash with Hartlepool United in September, 2009 made him the club’s second youngest-ever player at the time, just 26 days older than their current record-holder, Lindsay Smith.

Todd Miller, who made his senior U's debut in a League Two game at Exeter City in March, 2019 at the age of 15 years and 166 days, is now the club's youngest ever player. 

But for Bender, making his debut at the age of 16 was a memorable moment.

Being handed a first-team call-up for Colchester by then manager Aidy Boothroyd at such a tender age came as something of a surprise not least to the young defender, despite his undoubted promise.

He was undoubtedly very highly rated by the club and its academy and tipped for big things.

Bender had already chosen to represent Wales at youth level and he was regarded as a gifted young player and hot prospect.

But after that memorable day against Hartlepool, he was to make only one further senior appearance for Colchester and after several loan spells away from North Essex, eventually left them in January, 2013.

Since then, Bender has dropped out of the Football League and is now plying his trade at National League South outfit St Albans City.

But does he feel that his senior debut came too early, given his tender age at the time?

“I think it’s irrelevant,” said Bender, who signed his first professional contract with Colchester in the summer of 2012.

“There’s no guarantee that had I made my debut a year, two years or three years later that anything different would have happened.

“When the debut came, I only found out the day before when Aidy told me that I was going to be on the bench.

“I think they kind of forced the situation – looking back at 16, was I ready to play in League One? No, I don’t think I was.

“But I think they thought that with stuff that was going on behind the scenes with Wales, that it would be more beneficial for them to get more money.

“It was me and Anthony Wordsworth who looked like we were going and I made a decision to stay, because I thought at the time I’d be better off there in and around the first team rather than playing youth-team football.

“Hindsight is an amazing thing and it’s not something you can dwell on.

“Had I gone at that point, who’s to say I wouldn’t have still been where I am now? It’s one of those things.

“It’s fantastic to still be one of the youngest players ever to play for the club.

“It’s something that my family are probably more proud of than me!

“I hadn’t realised it had been ten years until someone from Colchester tweeted me on the anniversary of it.

“Looking back, at 16, was I ready to play in League One? No, I wasn’t.

“But it’s nice memories to look back on and the shirt is still up on the wall from that game, in my mum and dad’s house.

“They are nice memories to look back on but that’s all they are, memories.”

Bender experienced another big moment in his career in October, 2011, while on loan at Accrington Stanley.

The defender suffered severe concussion after a sickening collision with two other players during a Football League Trophy match against Tranmere Rovers, which was abandoned as a result.

Bender was taken to hospital and underwent a brain scan but thankfully made a full recovery.

“It hasn’t really crossed my mind since,” said Bender, who attended the Ballon d’Or awards in 2011 where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

“It was a long time ago but one thing I pride myself on is my commitment.

“It was probably something that was questioned of me a long time ago, so it’s probably something that I take a little bit more pride in now.

“My lifestyle is a lot different now, in terms of it only being part-time.

“I’m not as fit and sharp as I was when I first played for Colchester so I have to make up for my lack of ability in other ways.”

Having played for the likes of Millwall and Forest Green Rovers after leaving Colchester, defender Bender is now plying his trade in the non-league game for St Albans City, under former U’s attacker Ian Allinson.

Bender combines playing for the National League South with his job as a business analyst, which he has been doing for the past 18 months.

“I enjoy it,” said the Harlow-born player.

“It’s obviously completely different to going in and messing around with 25 other lads on a football pitch but for my sanity, it’s a lot better.

“I suffered mentally a lot during my time in football and I took it out on the people closest to me.

“They were the only ones who would get the brunt of my actions.

“Coming into part-time football, when you’re only in for two evenings a week and play on a Saturday, it’s not as intense.

“You do get a break away from the club and you’re not with them every day, so it’s a nice balance for me.”