‘GRANDAD’ HAS STILL GOT LOTS TO OF­FER

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE: - By Chris Dunlavy

LUKE Var­ney vividly re­mem­bers his first day at Charlton Athletic. Not that he was ever likely to for­get it.

Train­ing with house­hold names. Im­press­ing gaffer Alan Pardew. Dream­ing of a firstever game in the Cham­pi­onship. And then?

“I got back to the dress­ing room and Ben Thatcher… well, he’d ba­si­cally gone to the toi­let on my brand new wash­bag,” laughs Var­ney. “It was some ini­ti­a­tion.”

That was a decade ago, and it is tes­ta­ment to Var­ney’s ad­vanc­ing years that such ca­pers are now re­garded as relics of a by­gone age. At 35, the Bur­ton for­ward is very much the old guard.

“I’ve even got Marvin Sordell call­ing me ‘Grandad’ at the minute,” he laments. “I’m only six years older than him!”

It is 20 years since Var­ney was re­leased by Le­ices­ter, joined Quorn and em­barked on a peri­patetic ca­reer that has so far yielded 82 goals in 395 games for the likes of Derby, Black­pool, Leeds and Ip­swich. Much has changed on the voy­age from vir­gin to veteran.

“The dress­ing room is a dif­fer­ent place,” he ex­plains. “Look­ing back to when I started, you’d ask for ad­vice off the older play­ers. But, in terms of ban­ter, you’d keep it low.

“Now, if I pass on a bit of wis­dom, it def­i­nitely gets brushed off a bit eas­ier than it used to. We wouldn’t dare talk to the older play­ers like that in my day!

“For me, it boils down to fa­mil­iar­ity. When I was a kid, you had the pros and you had the younger lads. If you wanted to join them, you worked your way up.

“As a young lad now, there isn’t that sep­a­ra­tion. There’s no clean­ing boots, no jobs, no de­fined areas.

“When I was at Leeds, you’d see the young lads just as much as the pros. We used the same gym, same pitches.

“For me, the old way gave you a great ground­ing. How many fa­mous play­ers have you heard say ‘Oh, I used to clean his boots’? It hasn’t done them any harm.

“And, in a strange sort of way, I think it ac­tu­ally pro­vided a health­ier way of mix­ing with the pros. You’d clean the boots, then get a bit of money off them at Christ­mas.

“Through that, you built up a re­la­tion­ship – as a per­son and a friend, not just as a foot­baller and ri­val for a shirt. It brought young lads out of their shells.”

For Var­ney, those in­flu­ences were myr­iad. At Crewe, it was for­mer Wat­ford hard man Neil Cox, by then a veteran of 17 blood-stained sea­sons.

“He’d tell me about all the great play­ers he’d been with at Villa, the things they got up to at Mid­dles­brough,” re­calls Var­ney. “I’d just sit there, pick­ing his brains. It was fas­ci­nat­ing.” At Charlton, too, he was all ears.

“Ben Thatcher was great,” he adds. “As you can imag­ine, some of his sto­ries were an eye­opener.

“Nicky Weaver. I’m still re­ally close to him. He got Man City pro­moted with a big save at Wem­b­ley. I hadn’t played in any big games at that point so I soaked up his tales. Alan Pardew was a big in­flu­ence.

Life­long

“One of the first things I was ever taught as a kid was to let peo­ple talk. Don’t jab­ber on about your­self.

“If you haven’t achieved a great deal, lis­ten to what other peo­ple have done. In foot­ball, life in gen­eral. I’ve learned some great lessons that way, and made life­long mates as well.”

Var­ney, though, is no old cur­mud­geon ar­gu­ing for a re­turn to the good old days. What’s more, he sym­pa­thises with the is­sues fac­ing the cur­rent crop.

“Would I like to see kids clean­ing boots? Yeah, prob­a­bly,” he ad­mits. “But I heard the other day that they can’t even call tasks a ‘job’ any more be­cause they don’t want to put pres­sure on young lads! It def­i­nitely isn’t com­ing back.

“In that sense, we had it tougher, but young play­ers to­day face dif­fer­ent chal­lenges. So­cial me­dia is a big one.

“I’ve only re­cently gone on In­sta­gram and I’ve al­ready posted a cou­ple of things where I’ve thought ‘Will this of­fend some­one?’.

“At Portsmouth, I re­mem­ber a few of the lads posted things Steve Cot­ter­ill wasn’t too happy with. He fined us a few hun­dred quid per word, which did the trick!

“Se­ri­ously, though, you’ve got to be so care­ful be­cause foot­ballers are tar­gets. We’re held up as role mod­els but, at the end of the day, we’re all hu­man.”

For Var­ney, the chance to be­come Bur­ton’s ‘Grandad’ was al­most snatched away.

In 2015, play­ing on loan for Ip­swich in a play-off semi-fi­nal against Nor­wich, the winger rup­tured his achilles ten­don.

“I was al­most 33, out of con­tract at Black­burn,” he re­calls. “Lay­ing on that stretcher, my first thought was ‘That’s it, I’m knack­ered now’.”

But Var­ney bounced back in record time, thanks in large part to the kind­ness of Ip­swich and their man­ager Mick McCarthy, who ar­ranged for a

free apart­ment and re­hab ses­sions at a lo­cal gym de­spite no obli­ga­tion to help.

“It was great to see Mick again when we played them last week,” says Var­ney. “He hasn’t changed – still giv­ing me stick from the side­lines!

“He’s great for a player. You just know where you stand. If you’re do­ing well, he’ll let you know. And if you aren’t do­ing well... he’ll def­i­nitely let you know!

Com­mands

“He’s one of those peo­ple who just com­mands re­spect.

“When Mick walks in, you salute and stand by your bed, if you know what I mean. That is re­flected on the pitch.

“It’s the same as Nigel Clough here. The lads know when he’s in the room and it’s time to get se­ri­ous. Nigel leaves a lot to the lads. There’s a lot of trust.

“And he’s all about the Saturday. That’s all that mat­ters to him. As long as we put the per­for­mances in, he looks af­ter us dur­ing the week.

“Now it’s about time we started get­ting some re­sults for him in re­turn.”

Those have been in short sup­ply, with just two wins from 15 games mak­ing a re­peat of last year’s against-all-odds sur­vival un­likely. Var­ney, though, isn’t buy­ing it.

“We all knew it was go­ing to be a tough ask to do it again,” he ad­mits. “But dur­ing a bad run, all you need is one re­sult.

“Look how much pres­sure Steve Bruce was un­der a cou­ple of months ago. Now where are Villa? Six points of the top? There’s life in us yet.”

INI­TI­A­TION: Ben Thatcher

PIC­TURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

RE­SPECTED: Mick McCarthy FO­CUSED: Nigel Clough STILL FIR­ING: Bur­ton Al­bion’s Luke Var­ney shoots at goal STO­RIES: For­mer As­ton Villa man Neil Cox

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