SHOTS boss Terry Brown has lost his battle to keep star midfield man Mark Bentley after he sensationally turned down an extended contract at the Rec and joined Conference newcomers Gravesend & Northfleet on Thursday.
The 24-year-old, who joined from Enfield in 1999, became a firm favourite with the Shots fans and was voted Supporters' Player of the Year two years ago.
However, he has had an indifferent season this time round, failing to make a significant impact and struggling to shake off a persistent injury.
As the News exclusively revealed on the day Bentley finally shunned the Shots, Brown was in a battle with both Gravesend and their closest title challengers Canvey Island to keep his most prized asset.
Canvey boss Jeff King was said to have offered the Hertfordshire-based player a lucrative deal but it was the lure of Conference football and the chance for Bentley to better himself, which finally swung the decision.
And with his close mate Owen Coll also shown the door at the Rec in Brown's summer shake-up, Bentley felt it was time to move on.
He said: "It wasn't just about Owen but I felt that was a strange decision. I've known him a long time and I felt he had his best season for Aldershot this year. I was very surprised and he was very disappointed.
"Leaving Aldershot was one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make. It's the best club I've ever played for and I have a lot of memories which I'll never forget.
"But I'm 24 now and I've got to be realistic. I need to play a higher level of football to get noticed and prove to myself as well that I can make the grade.
"With this ITV Digital thing, I know there is going to be a lot of professional players on the market for non-League clubs this summer, so if I didn't take my chance with Gravesend now, I'd regret it in the long run.
"I've got some great memories of this club and I will never rule out a return, who knows.
"The games with Bristol Rovers and Exeter in the FA Cup and the Hampshire Cup final at St Mary's were memorable days, no-one can take that away.
"The element I will miss most at Aldershot is the fans. I think I had a good rapport with the supporters, I think they appreciated me, and it was always nice to win for them. Hopefully we will meet up in the Conference one day and have a drink in the bar afterwards remembering the good days."
Brown added: "We are obviously disappointed to lose a player of Mark's quality and ability but he has stated his desire to play at a higher level before and has decided to take the offer from Gravesend.
"I thought the offer we made was a good contract, an improvement on his previous one, but he has said before he wanted to play in the Conference.
"We can't do that for him this season and in previous years he has been told that he would be guaranteed it with this club soon. The time has come where he has a chance to play in the Conference and he is taking it.
"He signed, I believe, on Wednesday night, and phoned me first thing on Thursday. It was done very amicably and I wish both Gravesend and Mark well for next season."
Bentley made 107 appearances in all for the Shots, scoring 23 goals, though his best season was his first.
His pace and power proved a thorn in many sides, scoring 14 goals from 50 games as the Shots finished a club high second in the Ryman Premier Division.
Bentley was involved in a similar transfer tug-of-war this time last year when he stalled on a new deal and supposedly had talks with Stevenage and Farnborough.
But they came to nothing, and despite Bentley visiting the likes of Southampton, Crewe Alexandra and Bristol City for a trial, then manager George Borg secured his services for another year by taking out an option on his contract.
But despite his rollercoaster season, Brown saw Bentley as a useful player to have around — although he will now have to put into place contigency plans made in case Bentley, Stafford Browne or Lee Protheroe failed to agree new terms.
Brown added: "I thought that it was only in the second half of the Hamsphire Cup final that he really showed what he can do. Up to then I don't think he had shown me that much. He was part of my plans however, and I will be looking to replace him with a similar player — one that is a creative, attacking midfielder who can score goals.
"Aldershot missed that last season, with Mark only playing about a dozen games last season through injury and didn't have the best of campaigns.
"I expect there to be loads of players who do want to play for Aldershot and we are setting our targets high. We are looking at Football League and Conference players at the moment, though obviously the prices have to be right for this club."