‘GRANDAD’ HAS STILL GOT LOTS TO OFFER
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.
“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!
“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
RESPECTED: Mick McCarthy FOCUSED: Nigel Clough STILL FIRING: Burton Albion’s Luke Varney shoots at goal STORIES: Former Aston Villa man Neil Cox