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Sep 29, 2010

Bent on the path to recognition

The name Darren Bent may conjure up images of Twitter posts, Sandra Redknapp scoring from five yards out and beach balls, but it should also be synonymous something else: consistency.

In scoring his 150th career goal this weekend with a double for Sunderland against Liverpool, Bent continued to add to his growing reputation and now has 79 goals in 177 games in the Premier League (a goal every 2.2 games) that puts him almost on a par with England's former golden-boy Michael Owen, who has 147 in 308 at a goal every 2.1 games.

But while Owen is viewed as one of the Premier League's greatest ever strikers (even in light of his recent struggles with injury), Bent continues to find himself overlooked both in the eyes of the average fan and in his chances at international level.

Ahead of the World Cup, only Wayne Rooney was in better form. But Bent carries the unusual distinction of being the only player from the major European leagues to have scored over 20 goals last season and to have missed out on a place at the 2010 World Cup. Finishing third in the Premier League scoring tables behind Didier Drogba and Rooney, Bent may not be in the same class as some of his continental peers but can certainly consider himself unlucky not to have made the plane to South Africa when you consider some of the names on show.

As it was, Fabio Capello chose Rooney, Jermain Defoe, Peter Crouch and Emile Heskey as his four strikers for the ultimately doomed campaign and left Bent disconsolate. "I feel really disappointed," the striker said after the squad was announced. "I have always said to myself, 'If you play well and do your best for Sunderland then there is a chance you can go to the biggest tournament in the world', but obviously on this occasion it has not worked out."

But perhaps it should have. Of the three he could have replaced in the squad (with Rooney exempt), Defoe is the most similar in playing style and has 97 goals in 288 Premier League games at a rate of 2.9 games per goal - not as good as Bent's. Defoe also bagged just four goals in the 14 games running up to the World Cup, while Bent netted ten. Elsewhere, while the 'big men' are judged on slightly different criteria, it really should have been no contest in the goal stakes as Heskey's 107 in 471 (4.4 games per goal) and Crouch's 59 in 231 (3.9) pale in comparison.

Capello may have erred in not taking Bent with his squad, but his performances so far this season make him a certainty to be a part of the Euro 2012 campaign. He has the skill perhaps coveted most by modern footballers: pace. And he has it in abundance. Bent's ability to hang on the shoulder of the last defender and dart into the space behind them makes him a dangerous opponent to face, while he has also developed other facets to his game.

Incredibly accurate, he netted with a very decent 21% of his 115 shots in 2009-10 and also outperformed his England rivals when it came to staying onside. Not to be overlooked is also his contribution to the team effort - one could never accuse him of being a selfish striker, nor a lazy one, as he covers ground well, tracks back and has the stamina required to back up his forays around the pitch.

The one criticism you could throw in Bent's direction is that he has not made his mark at a big club. His chance came with a £16 million move to Tottenham, but he suffered the only single-figure goal haul during his career (6) in his first season and was haunted by the miss against Portsmouth that caused manager Harry Redknapp to proclaim that his "missus could have scored that one" in a post-match interview.

During his time at White Hart Lane, the price tag weighed heavy on his shoulders - possibly unsurprising given that his previous clubs, Ipswich and Charlton, limited him to just three seasons of Premier League football - but key to Bent's success throughout his career is his desire to feel wanted. Spurs did not grant him the opportunity in his first season (with just 11 starts) and even though he finished as top scorer in his second season (12 goals in 21 starts) he was allowed to join Sunderland, eventually.

It was a move that would breathe new life into his career. The same Twitter account that had afforded him some publicity when he spoke out against Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy for disrupting his move away from the club was binned and a new life began up north. Eight goals in his first nine games won him instant approval from the Stadium of Light faithful and he even appeared to have appeased the footballing gods as his beach ball-deflected shot was enough to beat Liverpool.

Nearly a year on, a more legitimate performance against the Reds has, once again, reminded the Premier League that the striker is one of the best around. Bent is all too aware that he requires a small image makeover if he is to start winning people over. The final step, as he revealed in an interview earlier this month, could be to write his name into the record books. ''I want to get in the 100 club for scoring goals in the Premier League,'' he said. ''I think about that a lot and the quicker I get into that group, the better, because not just anybody gets into that.''

Perhaps only then will the name Darren Bent start to get the recognition it deserves.

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