First-team captain, first-team manager and a club legend; there’s no doubt that Jim Bentley’s 18-year association with Morecambe earned him hero status on the Lancashire coast, long before he left his managerial role with the Shrimps.
Bentley made over 300 appearances for Morecambe as a player, guiding them to promotion as captain in the process, and he very quickly went on to establish himself as a prominent figure in the Shrimps dugout - a role that, after nine seasons, culminated in him becoming English football's longest-serving manager, prior to his departure for AFC Fylde.
Honest, hard working, selfless and resilient, Bentley defied the odds at Morecambe to achieve wonders during his time at the club. Speaking to the EFL in October 2019, he told the story of his Morecambe years.
“Morecambe is a small club,” he explained, speaking prior to his departure for AFC Fylde.
"When I arrived as a player, we were playing in front of a hundred or so fans, but I met the manager - Jim Harvey at the time - and it just felt right. Jim got the club promoted to the Conference and did fantastically well, laying down the foundations to push the club in the right direction. Then, Sammy McIlroy came in and carried on the good work, ultimately getting us promoted into the Football league."
Having joined as a player in 2002, Bentley captained the side to promotion in 2007, as the club reached the Football League for the first time in its history, before cutting his teeth in coaching. And it wasn’t long before the club set its sights on their former captain taking over in the dugout.
“It was 2011,” Bentley recalled. “I heard that I might be in with a chance of the manager’s role, which was always a route I wanted to go down. The Chairman at the time was someone I got on really well with and respected. He asked me to come and see him, so I went for a cup of tea with him and I must have given a fairly good account of myself because he offered me the job!
"It was a privilege and pleasure to accept. For me, there was no better place to start my management career than a club I had played my football with for nine years, been captain of and been promoted with. It was perfect for me.
“Player-manager was my official title but I don’t believe you can do both. Once you put your heart and soul into something like I do and have done as a manager, it’s hard to balance both so I made the decision to not play again and just focus on the team.”
And he didn’t have a bad start either.
“I remember getting beaten in my very first game, but after that we went on a run. We were playing Crawley Town at home, they were top and we were third, and we beat them 6-0 to go top of the league. I couldn’t believe it, I came away thinking ‘this job’s easy!’
“I’d just got the job, we’d had a nice pre-season up at St. Andrew’s, the players were grafting, we had a nice togetherness and we’d just won 6-0 at home to go top of the league. I thought I was going to be manager of Everton before I knew it!"
When it came to resources, money and recruitment – all things that are associated with management in modern-day football - Bentley was perhaps one of the most unconventional managers in English football. He faced a number of challenges, including: the club not owning its own training facilities, not being given the luxury of paying a transfer fee for a player and having the smallest average attendance in England’s top four divisions. But none of that mattered to Bentley, and he continued to defy the odds, building a club for everyone to be proud of.
“Morecambe is a small club, with a small budget and the smallest average attendance in the League,” he said. "Because of that, it’s always tipped to go down, but it hasn’t and therefore the club has been successful and long may that continue.
“Since I was a player, the club has come on massively. One of the biggest developments during my time was moving to the Globe Arena, it was actually done off the back of getting to Wembley, a time when I was captain. The increased revenue it provided for the club was huge.
“We’ve always had to think outside the box at Morecambe,” he went on to explain. “This place has always been built on heart, spirit, togetherness and a strong work ethic - that’s something everyone at the club has always shown.
“The whole club has a nice family atmosphere. I believe a football club should be the heart and soul of any community and that’s what has done Morecambe well over the years."
With no transfer budget - something not many managers experience, Bentley was obliged to sign players on the promise that Morecambe provides a platform – a shop window, if you like. That's not to say he didn't ask the question every now and then, as proved when he once tried to sign Andre Gray a number of years ago.
“I remember going to watch Andre Gray play for Hinkley United. I came away thinking 'I wouldn’t mind him playing for me', so I asked the question about a transfer fee and it wasn’t possible. He then moved to Luton Town and Brentford, before going on to Burnley and Watford where he’s now a Premier League player. If things were a little different he could have been living the dream at Morecambe!”
In what was his first job in management, Bentley spent nine seasons in the dugout with Morecambe, and it took him just seven of those to rise to the top of the esteemed list of longest-serving managers - and he was only 42 years old when he did.
“I was only 42 when I became the longest serving manager,” he recalled. “It felt like it shouldn’t really be happening to me. It puts into perspective how tough it is being a manager these days.”
It’s not like that at Morecambe, and never has been according to Bentley.
“If you look at Morecambe, it’s almost a culture that the club has,” he explained. “The kit man has been here 25 years and he’s only known three managers during his time and as a player I only knew two managers as well.”
Another constant throughout Bentley’s tenure at Morecambe was evergreen winger, Kevin Ellison. A club legend who wears the Shrimps badge with pride, Ellison was Bentley’s first signing and, by his own admission, his best too.
“When I used to play against Kev, I always used to have a run-in with him,” he added.
“We’re both Liverpool lads, both big characters who think we’re tough, so when I used to play against him we used to battle like mad and more often than not both get booked too!
“But I always respected him and thought he was a player who had a certain skill set that made him a very good player at this level. When I took the job at Morecambe, he’d just been released. I knew what type of character and individual I wanted, and I knew he ticked all the boxes.
“I’d only had the job a couple of hours, but I got his address from someone and I just went and knocked on his front door. He looked at me as if to say ‘what are you doing here?’ I told him I’d got the job at Morecambe, was trying to build a squad and that he’d be perfect for us.
“He was my first signing and I have to say, he has been my best and probably always will be. When you need someone to rely on, there’s been no better than Kevin Ellison."
Bentley left Morecambe in October 2019 to take up the managerial position at AFC Fylde. After being involved with Morecambe for the best part of two decades, his departure may have been the end of an era at the club, but Bentley was at the forefront of some of its greatest memories.
One thing is for sure, it holds a special place in his heart.