FA Cup: The Southport manager giving second chances to former prisoners
|FA Cup second qualifying round|
|Date: 21-22 September Coverage: Irlam v York City live on the Red Button and on the BBC Sport website from 12:30 BST on 21 September|
When Southport played Tranmere Rovers in a televised FA Cup replay last season, Russell Benjamin was in prison counting down the days to his release.
Sentenced in 2015 to nine years for conspiracy to supply class A drugs, the non-league midfielder was nearing his release date after serving half his time, having remained in custody since his arrest in July 2014.
This summer, Benjamin was handed a one-year contract by Southport, a club whose manager Liam Watson is all about giving players a second chance.
After spending 18 years working at Ashworth high security hospital near Liverpool, which treats some of the UK's most disturbed criminals, Watson has learned how to help people turn their lives around.
As well as Benjamin, Southport's squad to face Scarborough Athletic in the FA Cup second qualifying round on Saturday is likely to include Paddy Lacey, jailed in July 2017 for possessing Class A drugs and counterfeit money at the Glastonbury Festival.
Last season, Watson had former Liverpool academy keeper Michael Kinsella, who has spent time in prison for drug offences, as Southport's goalkeeper coach.
"People make mistakes," Watson, 48, told BBC Sport.
"Those who show genuine remorse, realise they've made a mistake and want to make amends, I think they should be admired. They deserve a second chance."
'One colleague had his throat slashed'
Watson started work at Ashworth in 1995 after his career as a forward at Preston was cut short by injury at the age of just 23.
A former team-mate of David Moyes at Deepdale, Watson worked in the hospital's intensive care unit, rehabilitation ward and high-dependency unit until 2013, when Telford offered him the chance to go into full-time management after leading Southport to two sixth-tier titles.
By then Ashworth had become an "extremely dangerous place to work", according to Liverpool-born Watson.
"One member of staff had his throat slashed when I was there," he added. "I was assaulted - I think everyone who has worked there has been assaulted.
"A lot of the patients were extremely volatile - committed criminals who had a mental illness or a personality disorder.
"There were high-profile patients, infamous murderers."
Despite the daily threat of physical attack from patients, Watson learned valuable life lessons working at Ashworth.
His experience there goes some way to explaining why he is an advocate of giving fresh starts to players others might have given up on.
"Working at Ashworth gave me an insight that even good people can make mistakes," said Watson.
"I've stayed in touch with one former patient, I speak to him regularly. Whether it was drugs or whatever, he had issues.
"I'd take him with me to matches at Telford or Southport.
"He'd stand behind the dugout while I was managing. I liked him and he's since gone on to do really well for himself."
Benjamin, now 27, was 22 when he was arrested following a dawn raid by police.
He had just joined Stockport County from Telford, then managed by Watson, and had yet to make an appearance for his new club.
During his trial, at which he pleaded guilty, Benjamin was described as the ringleader in a Merseyside drugs gang.
"I don't think I've ever been so shocked when they were telling me he was involved," added Watson, who had rushed to Widnes police station where Benjamin was being held following his arrest.
Having known him since he was a 16-year-old at Southport - and brought him back to the club as a 19-year-old after he was released by Rochdale - Watson felt compelled to support Benjamin, even though the midfielder was no longer his player.
That support continued throughout Benjamin's four-and-a-half years inside jail.
Benjamin was moved three times during his sentence. Having started it at Altcourse in Liverpool, he was switched to Garth, near Leyland, and finished it at Thorn Cross, near Warrington.
Watson visited him in all three prisons.
"Russell held his hand up, he pleaded guilty and showed remorse," said Watson. "He's served his sentence and deserves another chance."
Before Benjamin left Thorn Cross, Watson used his contacts in non-league football to arrange for him to train and play at nearby Warrington Town on day release from prison.
After leaving prison in January, Benjamin continued to play for the Northern Premier League part-timers before linking back up with Watson this summer at Southport, where he has been one of the club's most consistent performers.
'I owe Liam'
Explaining what drove him to get mixed up in crime, Benjamin says he had been left "playing catch-up" in life by a combination of failing to secure a contract in the Football League and "seeing some lads up to no good driving nice cars".
With the trauma of prison behind him, he is eager to repay Watson for giving him the opportunity to return to full-time National League North Southport, for whom he played between 2011-13.
"Going to prison was a shock to the system," Benjamin told BBC Sport. "When I heard the judge say nine years, I asked myself: 'Is this the end of the road?'
"Liam kept in contact and let me know that it was not the end of the world because I'd made one mistake.
"At Thorn Cross, I was given an opportunity to leave the prison on day release to work. It's aimed at rehabilitating you back into the community.
"Liam sorted it for me to go to Warrington Town, which allowed me to start playing again.
"At first, I could only play home games.
"I don't think they wanted the public to see that I was out playing football, having fun, when I was supposed to be serving a sentence.
"But when you are a Category D prisoner, that's what it's all about - you have got to give people a second chance. If you are rehabilitating someone, you cannot just throw them on the street and expect them to crack on with life.
"Towards the end of my sentence, they started letting me go to away games as well.
"I couldn't have asked more of Liam. I owe him because I feel like I have been given a second chance.
"Southport feels like my home because they've helped me out in a big way."
Benjamin is now keen to use his experience to dissuade other players, who have missed out on making a fortune out of football and may be tempted to engage in criminal activity.
"I try to help others who I see going down the same path I did," he said. "I can spot it because I've been there.
"There are some players who get to 20 or 21 who think their football career is over if they're not at a big club.
"They start venturing out and get themselves involved in other things."
Like Benjamin, Lacey is also benefiting from being given a second chance by Watson.
In May 2017, the midfielder was sacked by Accrington Stanley after being given a 14-month drugs ban by the Football Association.
Two months later, Lacey was jailed after being caught with Class A drugs and counterfeit money.
"When things go wrong, people often turn their back on you," added Watson, who signed Lacey in January. "I know Paddy is a good person.
"When Paddy was going through his FA ban, I did a character reference for him.
"What I will say about Russell and Paddy: If you like the people then you will help them - whether they are footballers or not."
Southport's average crowd in the sixth tier of English football this season is 930. Some of those remember when the club fell out of the Football League and replaced by Wigan Athletic in 1978.
Will signing former prisoners harm Southport's image as a family club, which the club has worked hard to achieve?
"I've made mistakes in my life," added Watson. "Deep down, everyone has made mistakes in their lives - some have been bigger than others.
"Both Russell and Paddy know this is last-chance saloon."