Currently in his second season with Brentford B Ben Hockenhull is well aware of the strides he needs to make over the course of the campaign; and there’s no doubt he is making them.
The 20-year-old central defender has been a key component for Neil MacFarlane’s young side this season. The side were on an unbeaten run which stretched from August to November and Ben has featured heavily throughout. Perhaps that showcases the youngster’s commitment to defending and his development.
“I think I’m in the best place I’ve ever been and I’m doing really well at the minute," explained Ben. “I’m the fittest I’ve been since I arrived and I’m always improving technically; I’m so happy to be here.”
So, after embarking on another year in West London, has anything changed since taking those steps away from the youth set up at Manchester United?
He explained: “I feel like I’ve grown up a little bit and I’ve seen what I have to do to become the best version of myself. When I first came in, I struggled with injuries, I wasn’t very fit, and I perhaps wasn’t in the right place mentally.
“In the pre-season we’ve just had I had a chat with the coaching staff to try and get me on the right path to become what they know I can become. Ever since I had that chat with them, I feel I’ve turned it around. It was an acknowledgement that I wasn’t performing where I perhaps should have been, and it gave me a bit of a wake-up call and that’s helped me to switch on more and be as professional as I can be. I’ve always wanted to be the best, but I think there is a difference between wanting to be the best and then actually doing everything in your power to be the best.”
When you speak with Ben there is a humbleness and a no excuses attitude to him. Having arrived at the Club in the midst of a pandemic, to a new city and an environment different to what he had become accustomed to since a very young age within the Academy at Manchester United, the youngster reflects on the past year.
“You can make excuses all day, but I think I wasn’t mature enough to deal with it all but now I think I’m definitely on the right path,” explained the defender. “I’ve managed to train more with the First Team, I’m playing every week for the B Team, and I’ve been captain at times.
“I don’t mind living away from home. It’s different but it wasn’t too big of a shock. If it’s the right time, I’ll go and see my friends and family on days off and I think we earn them because we all put so much work in.
“I’m 20-years-old now, I can’t be acting like scholar like I was at United. I had to change things and I’m doing it now. The performances come from everything that we do at the training ground, I’m in the gym all the time, eating the right food and working as hard as I can. You’ll then get rewards on the pitch. You train how you play, every day. It’s 100 per cent, there are big tackles going in, it’s intense, and everyone is working hard because they want to win. It’s about having the mentality to keep going every day.”
A consistent run of games has got Ben used to a new way of playing too. Having not had too much experience as part of a back three, the youngster has been able to forge partnerships with his fellow defenders.
On the adaptations Ben thinks the side have shown some positive displays this season from a defensive point of view. He said: “I’ve played usually as part of a back four, and I think being in the middle of a three suits me. Moving to a back three has helped with my understanding of the game and it’s also helped me to become a better leader and communicator. Tristan (Crama's) English has got much better and I get on with him really well. Nico (Jones) and Jude (Russell) are still new to the Club but we get on well and it’s good to have a relationship with your partners.
“I’ve improved in my defending, whether that’s one-vs-one or simply having the mind set to keep clean sheets. Even on the training ground, not just in matches. I feel like I’m doing the job that I’m supposed to do. Watching the Euros and seeing the Italian defenders celebrate every tackle, I understand that. To keep clean sheets is a good feeling and I love watching John Stones, Rúben Dias and Virgil Van Dijk. I take little bits from their games; the way Stones steps out with the ball or Dias and his willingness to defend.”
The youngster is also getting exposure to Premier League defenders first hand having been able to train alongside the likes of Club captain Pontus Jansson, as well as Kristoffer Ajer and Ethan Pinnock. So, what do you pick up when training alongside those players?
Ben explained: “It’s not so much speaking with them, it’s more about watching exactly what they do and try and take elements into my own game. I think all the defenders complement each other really well. You’ve got Pontus who is a real leader, Kristoffer who is fantastic at stepping in and then Ethan is like a wall at the back, he wins all his headers and nothing gets past him.”
The motivation and development of the central defender has been evident since the beginning of the new campaign, and with the support of the staff behind him, Ben will be aiming to keep up the learning in sessions to come as the hard work continues at Jersey Road.