Luke Varney was on target for the sixth time and for the 20th time overall in a Cheltenham Town shirt on Saturday.
The popular forward, who first signed for the Robins in September 2018 as Michael Duff's first signing, has been a massive figure in the club's rise up the League Two table.
A former top flight striker with Blackpool who can also recall spells spent at Leeds United, Charlton Athletic, Derby County, Blackburn Rovers, Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday among others, he sat down to recently discuss how he finds life as a Cheltenham player in Gloucestershire, how the team are punching above their weight every week in the higher reaches of the division and his influence in the dressing room at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium.
From the great experiences you’ve had in your career, where do you rank your enjoyment level from your time here at Cheltenham Town?
I’ve not been afraid of saying it, my time here is definitely up there. Probably my year at Blackpool was a massive high. In regards to enjoying my football it’s definitely up there. My wife will tell you I’m happy every day, as soon as I get back I’m looking forward to waking up everyday for training. Me and Boyley have an ongoing thing where I say I struggle to fall asleep because I’m excited to wake up. It may sound a bit silly but I look forward to training still, and especially the games. I feel like I’m involved in something special and long may it continue because it’s been a great few months for us all.
You enjoyed over a decades worth of playing time in the Premier League and Championship, was it a big decision to make the choice to drop down to sign for Cheltenham when you did?
I think it was more important that I carried on playing football. I had a few months when I stopped playing and people said to me you’re a long time finished and it did scare me a little bit. I found it hard waking up and having to keep fit on my own. I was really pleased that the gaffer gave me the chance to play in the reserve game and to get back involved in a club that at the time was in a bit of a transition with the new manager, new players, and since then we haven’t looked back. It’s something I’m really proud of. I don’t even look at the League, I’m just excited to be part of a project that’s definitely in a good place and something that I’m enjoying.
Does it say a lot about the vulnerability of football that despite the level you’ve played at you still had to come in and trial to prove yourself?
I look back three or four years ago and I saw certain lads having to go on trial and thought I couldn’t ever see myself having to do that with what I’d done in the past. But it’s the case that I spoke to a lot of managers who said they’d take me but it got to chairman level and they were a bit worried about my age which I can understand. I was delighted to have received that chance and I feel like I’ve repaid it and will continue to do so at the club.
For someone who has been at the top for so long who is used to the big games, environment and crowds, do you still remember your early times at Quorn and coming from that background at the beginning of your career?
I still live in the village now and go back and see them all the time. Football games have always been the same to me. My wife says it to me – at the end of the day it’s another game of football. It keeps me grounded and I don’t get too excited about an individual game. It’s just a case of chalking another one off and I think I’ve said in the past if I’m out there in the field I feel like I can contribute with goals and assists and in and around the dressing room. I look back on those days fondly – I trained there a couple of times in pre-season as well so who knows I might end up back there. The chairman still keeps offering me £10 a game or something so that might be something I’ll have to look forward to in a couple of years!
Michael Duff makes it clear often that the resources here at Cheltenham aren’t huge. Given where we are currently in League Two does that prove you don’t always have to have massive resources to be one of the best teams? It’s not just about the money but how you work with players?
The gaffer and the staff have to take a massive lot of credit. It is a massive achievement from when I came in and the gaffer had come in a couple of weeks before. It’s a work in progress but they must be really proud of what has been achieved so far. I know the lads are – we just don’t want to let it go now – like I keep saying it’s a work in progress and we still feel like an underdog going into most games. The budget is small but that stands you in good stead going into games against the so-called big teams. We’ve managed to knock a couple of those off this year.
When you were at Blackpool it was well documented that you had small resources compared to the rest of the Premier League. What did that feel like to then go into games with Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea?
I can’t speak for the other lads but I enjoyed every minute of it. We didn’t train at our training ground in December because it was snowed under. Ian Holloway was marking 11-a-side pitches out on a beach on top of snow – and then we went away and beat Sunderland and Stoke. It just really brought us altogether and it’s that same sort of feeling here. We don’t want to let each other down and I can remember feeling that in the tunnel looking at the other Premier League players. I had no fear. The manager instilled that into us. There was no pressure to win games. I feel like that here – we’re not desperate to win the games but we’re all fighting for each other. We don’t want to give up on this start we’ve had. Last year it felt a bit different looking over our shoulders, but we just want to keep continuing to make progress. Everyone is buying into it and you look at the players and the competition at the moment it is scary. Sheafy [Max Sheaf] has come back, Debs [Josh Debayo] has started training, Reuben [Reid] is getting closer and there are lads like Boyley [Will Boyle], Incey [Rohan Ince], chomping at the bit to get back in. It’s a great place to be involved in and something I’m enjoying being involved in.
Your goal return at Cheltenham has been outstanding. Are there better chances of scoring goals at this level because of the role you’re being asked to do?
I always probably knew dropping down I’d get more chances. Defenders make more mistakes in this league, it’s a fact. When I signed for Charlton they had just been relegated from the Premier League and Alan Pardew showed a video of about ten goals from the Premier League and ten goals from the Championship, and the difference was mistakes. It filters down the leagues. It helps with people who can create goals as well, we’ve got Huss [Chris Hussey] and Longy [Seàn Long] who fight it out with assists. Broomy [Ryan Broom] is assisting constantly but you look through our scoring table and it is fantastic with the amount of people who have scored. That first game against Morecambe scoring those two goals gave me great belief and a great start. I haven’t looked back from there.
You are a big character in the dressing room here. Is that something you always have been or has that grown as you’ve got older and got more experience?
If I’m being honest I’ve probably calmed down a little bit. Never to an extent when it could get me into trouble with the manager but within the squad I’ve always been a bit mischievous should I say! Now I feel like a senior figure in the dressing room. I’ve got to keep to myself a little bit. There are times when I do let loose. I think the lads enjoy having me around and I enjoy being a part of it. They keep me young and I look forward to coming in everyday.
When you played for the likes of Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday were there many massive Championship derbies you’ve taken part in your career?
The Sheffield one sticks out. Palace and Charlton was a bit spicy – I scored a couple in that game. I didn’t do a lot else in my Charlton career but that really made me fond with the fans. These games are very special to fans. If you can be that hero for that game it’ll keep you going for a long time.