When Ben Winterbottom signed for Brentford B back in January 2021 from Liverpool the Preston-born Goalkeeper opted to head south to continue his development in the capital. It was a chance to step away from an Academy set up that he had become so accustomed to and he was excited about a fresh challenge and environment to work in.
Many probably wouldn’t be aware that, prior to joining The Reds in 2019, he was schooled at the Academy at Blackburn Rovers where he first came into a contact with a current Bees First Team player. Whilst coming through the ranks in the youth set up, Ben became acquainted with someone who has become an inspiration over the past year. The player is David Raya, Brentford’s First Team Goalkeeper who has, like many, had a fantastic debut season in the Premier League.
“I knew David from my time with Blackburn,” explained Ben after his gym session at the B Team’s temporary training facility at Pennyhill Park. “I’ve been able to learn a lot from him. It’s about how positive he is, his starting position to come for balls over the top, to deal with crosses and how fast he is. He catches the ball and he’s instantly looking forwards for the next pass. He is so calm, and I think that rubs off on the rest of the team which helps settle the team down which is a skill in itself.”
Having worked closely with the First Team over the course of the campaign, Ben admits he’s like a sponge in soaking up information to help his game and develop.
He continued: “If I see something that he (David) does then I will ask him about how he’s done it. He’ll then watch me and help me, if my technique is a bit off or I’m not covering a post or not high enough in position then he will point things out. He’s now a Spanish international and it’s great to learn from him.”
As a young Goalkeeper stepping into the First Team environment for training may be daunting. A Christian Eriksen free-kick may put fear into some shot stoppers but Ben is enjoying testing himself against the best. Of course, we had to ask him… has he been able to do what many other keepers haven’t and save a penalty from Ivan Toney?
“I have! A few actually… maybe three out of 100! He’s the best penalty taker I’ve ever faced. He’s annoying with it; I wait for him, but I know he’s also waiting for me to make a move. I hold my feet and don’t move and by then he’ll stick it too far in the corner for me to reach. If I go early, then he will see it and put it the other side. I’ve saved a few because we do so many, and the winner has to clean boots. I try to run off to avoid it!
“For me, you have to see training with the First Team as an opportunity and be excited. Some people might be nervous, but I want to prove I can be there all the time. I think I will always make sure that I do the most that I can do in a day because then I know that the next day I am fully prepared for training. If I’ve then done everything that I can then I can believe in my own ability to perform at the standard required. If I make a mistake, then I’m not annoyed at myself because of lack of preparation.”
So far this season Ben has played 20 times for the young Bees as he challenges himself against all sorts of opponents which was exactly the aim when he arrived in West London. So, how does he assess how things have been going this season for himself and the team?
“We’ve been keeping lots of clean sheets and scoring a lot of goals. Especially this year, some of the lads that we’ve brought in and the talent we’ve got is top. We’ve qualified for two cup finals, played against teams from Arsenal and Crystal Palace. The standard of the team and the levels that we push each other to are really high. I’m enjoying being in and around the First Team and I feel that I’m getting good exposure to them. In the B Team, the training level has really lifted this season, which is helping performances, so I feel like I’m doing well.
“The types of games we play are all so different. We may play against a National League team where the ball is going long, and we have to deal with crosses and balls in behind. Next week the other team might dominate the ball and we may have to go into a bit of a low block and try to hit teams on the counter-attack. We then do a lot of video work to see things that you may have missed in the game. You might think in a game that one pass is the only option but when you watch it back you can see that maybe you could’ve done something different. That then creates pictures in your head going into the next game and you can refer back to what you have learned.”
With the side narrowly missing out on lifting the Middlesex FA Senior Challenge Cup earlier this month, they have another chance to gain some silverware when they face Hendon in the Final of the London Senior Cup on 26 April at Dulwich Hamlet’s Champion Hill. Discussing the Cup runs Ben feels the side will learn from the penalty shootout defeat to Barnet.
He explained: “We were all disappointed to lose against Barnet. Going into the game I can’t fault us because training was top, everything we did to prepare was spot on. We all knew that we did everything we could in that game. Even though it hurts, we feel we were the better team, and we’re disappointed but we’re confident we can get over the line in the next Final. Everyone knows what it feels like, and everyone wants to play in the Final so we’re all pushing each other and hopefully that can help us in the end.”
As is always the case in dressing rooms across the world, there is a high level of competition between the Goalkeepers because only one can play. With Matthew Cox and Roco Rees for company in the B Team there are three talented shot stoppers pushing for minutes, but Ben says there is a positive dynamic among the group as they look to learn from each other and develop together. As for the coaching staff, Ben believes that working with the Club’s Goalkeeping Coaches in Manu Sotelo and Jani Viander has helped him come a long way since his arrival.
He continued: “There is always competition but the fact we get on well as a group really helps. Obviously, you know that you’re pushing each other but that’s what you want because it means you’re working as hard as you can. Training is always a high standard, but we really enjoy it. There is only one position and there are three of us going for the same spot. You want to play every week, but we all know that we have to rotate who plays. It’s the position you’re in and it's something I’ve been doing for years.
“They (Manu and Jani) are both brilliant. The sessions that they put on are so well-rounded and I’ve done sessions which I’ve never done before which is really enjoyable. I’ve actually never worked with foreign goalkeeper coaches before so that’s really interesting to learn from. Manu comes from Spain with a style of playing out from the back and Jani, from Finland, has his own perspectives and so much experience, including at international level.”
Having seen Brentford in the Championship and now a Premier League Club, Ben has been able to witness the standards across both teams and how they are rising all the time. There is a consciousness that every moment in training has to be at the highest possible level across both sides.
“The B Team standards in training have gone up, and naturally the First Team is a class above,” explained Ben. “You have to be on it all the time, the tempo is fast with minimal mistakes. The First Team are playing in a league where you have to be on it every minute otherwise you can get done, and that means you have to train to the same standards. That’s what you want, and it’s a challenge, you see the likes of Christian Eriksen come in and to be able to train with this level of player is exactly what you want.”
There is no doubt when you speak with Ben there is a brilliant focus about him. He knows exactly where he wants to get to and is doing everything he can to make it happen. But where does that steely determination and competitiveness come from? A family trait perhaps?
“It’s competitive at home! I’ve got an older brother and an older sister, so I always wanted to be better than them growing up. I’d play football with the older lads locally and I just hated losing. I’ve got a really sporty family; they’re good runners, they play cricket and tennis. My Dad plays golf so we’ve always been sporty growing up and we’re all very competitive. Sometimes they say they’re proud of me and the journey I’ve made but I don’t like hearing it because I’m a long way from where I want to be. That competitiveness is something that always pushes me on because I know they will always be pointing me towards my next challenge.”