Ex-Portsmouth, Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Derby, Ipswich and Blackpool forward Luke Varney: I'm 38 and playing non-league in front of a stand built from my sale 18 years ago - football's wonderful

Mercifully for Luke Varney, the football stand his talents helped buy is not adorned with his name.

Thursday, 9th September 2021, 6:30 pm
Updated Thursday, 9th September 2021, 8:49 pm
Luke Varney celebrates scoring at West Ham in a 4-3 Pompey defeat in September 2011. Picture: Clive Rose/Getty Images

It’s back to where it began for the former £2m forward who once scored an Anfield winner and netted against Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.

And that means performing in front of the 500 all-seater stand funded by his Quorn FC departure some 18-and-a-half years earlier.

Varney has returned to a Farley Way transformed since his 2003 exit, courtesy of significant transfer windfalls received by the Leicestershire-based club during his nomadic football career.

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The dynamic forward would represent Pompey, Leeds, Derby, Sheffield Wednesday, Blackpool, Ipswich, Blackburn, Cheltenham and Burton on his travels.

Yet it was Quorn’s sale of Varney to Crewe for £50,0000 in March 2003 which began the lengthy Football League association.

Then, three-and-a-half years later, Charlton’s £2m outlay earned the non-leaguers a further £20 per cent cut through a sell-on agreement.

The Birstall lad who turns 39 this month sealed an emotional reunion with the Uhlsport United Counties League Premier Division North club in June.

Luke Varney scored six goals in 31 Pompey appearances. Picture: Barry Zee

And among those cheering on Varney from the stand which proudly serves as permanent reminder career success are his children.

‘We train only on Wednesday evenings because the Astroturf is rented out. These are the things you are dealing with now!’ Varney laughed.

‘It’s a village club, everyone wants to get onto the pitch, I understand that. It’s an important revenue for the club. Teams even play on the surface on the Saturday morning before our home games.

‘Quorn used to have one of the best grass pitches around this area, now they’re benefiting from community use. Times change.

Luke Varney comes close to scoring against Crystal Palace. Picture: Allan Hutchings

‘When previously here, I worked at Threads Clothing Company, in the heart of Leicester. It was ladies fashion and I was employed in quality control. I’d run there and back to work every day. The place is flats now.

‘There’s a big stand at the ground, which was built with money from my sale. My kids sit in there on a Saturday.

‘It hasn’t got my name on it and I never gave it a grand opening, but that doesn’t stop me getting a bit of stick from my team-mates!

‘I was never expecting to come back. To be honest, after Burton I was going to stop playing.

Luke Varney heads at goal against Southampton in April 2012. Picture: Allan Hutchings

‘Last season I had taken up the fitness coach role there, but when Jimmy Flloyd Hasselbaink came in he had his own ideas and own staff, so I went back to playing.

‘The intensity caught me out, I knew I wouldn’t end up staying there – and understood it.

‘I live half-a-mile from Quorn’s ground so the manager badgered me to join, while I’ve remained in touch with the chairman.

‘He gives me a few beer tokens as payment, but I don’t drink that much. They’re in my little glass bottle at home, I’m saving them for the kids. Having said that, I’ve got a few new bikes with it!

‘I must admit, as we play on 4G, it was a bit of a worry initially, but my knees have got used to it. I think it’s a bit of a myth, artificial pitches are just another thing for footballers to moan about. It’s a blame culture, isn’t it.

‘I came into the game from non-league anyway, so have always looked forward to playing, whatever the surface. It’s a ball and 11 players, so crack on.’

Luke Varney made 30 Premier League appearances for Blackpool in 2010-11, scoring five times. Picture: Joe Giddens

Released from Leicester City’s youth set-up at the age of 14 over height concerns, Varney joined Birstall before linking up with Quorn in 2000.

Moving to Crewe in 2003, he rose to promise in the 2006-07 League One campaign with a return of 25 goals in 42 matches earning a £2m switch to Championship Charlton.

Eventually the footballing journey would take him to Fratton Park in July 2011, when new owners Convers Sports Initiatives allowed Steve Cotteril to splash out £750,000 on Varney following loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Blackpool.

He told The News: ‘Ahead of the 2010-11 campaign, I was out of it at Derby, I hadn’t been in any pre-season teams.

‘The manager, Nigel Clough, would put up the team sheet the second you walked into the dressing room, so you’d never know about selection before then.

‘For the first match against Cardiff, I walked in and looked – I was starting up front. I remember Robbie Savage laughing as if to say “What the hell?”. This really had come from nowhere.

‘I actually played well and, on the Monday, was at Blackpool on a season-long loan. Basically, Clough picked me so other teams could watch me in action. That one Derby match, though, would come back to haunt me.

‘Still, I was in the Premier League now and we had a fantastic start under Ian Holloway, doing the double over Liverpool and beating Spurs.

‘During January 2011, midway through my loan, a few Premier League clubs were interested in signing me permanently from Derby.

‘The main one was Bolton, my agent was in quite advanced talks, but it was realised that I’d already played for two clubs that season – and the laws stated you couldn’t represent three. I had to stay at Blackpool.

‘Blackpool did offer me a permanent deal to stay, but should we go down to the Championship, I would be on less money than I was on at Derby, so it didn’t make sense.

‘I really wanted to carry on in the Premier League and if I’d signed for Bolton could have had two or three more years at it. I wasn’t scared of the level, I enjoyed the space and freedom on the pitch, but unfortunately it didn’t go any further.

‘I had a year left at Derby. They wanted to get rid of me and Neil Warnock at QPR and Pompey boss Steve Cotterill wanted me.

‘I’d promised my wife that I was going to move closer to home, which was Leicester. Then ended up going to the other end of the country!

‘It was such a good group at Pompey, a really fun time. We often felt it was us against the world, but just cracked on with it. That was our job.

‘For the first game of the 2011-12 season, we drew 2-2 at Middlesbrough and I remember having a bit of needle with Tony McMahon during the game, he was giving me loads.

‘Then I scored our equaliser in injury time and ended up running past him saying “It will be my name in the paper tomorrow, mate”.

‘A few months into my time at Pompey, my daughter Brooke was born in October 2011, and a week or so later we received a delivery to our home.

‘It was a hamper from Harrods, containing cashmere cardigans, a couple of baby grows and a few other bits. It had been sent by our owners, such a great gesture, and one I’d previously seen happen at properly-run clubs.

‘I said to my wife: “We’re going to be all right here”. Then you realise you have no idea where the money’s coming from.’

Following Pompey chairman Vladimir Antonov’s arrest on bank fraud charges in November 2011, owners Convers Sports Initiatives entered administration.

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Subsequently, the players failed to receive January wages and, the following month, Pompey entered administration for the second time in two years.

Varney and his team-mates agreed to a ‘significant’ pay cut until May to help the club, while some were loaned out to earn the Blues fees and save on wages.

A summer firesale ensued and, in July 2012, with eight first-team members remaining, among them Varney, administrator Trevor Birch issued an August 10 deadline – or Pompey would be liquidated.

Varney was the first to depart, joining Leeds, while Liam Lawrence was the last, his mutually-agreed departure confirmed on the day of Birch’s self-imposed deadline.

‘I sometimes think our situation as players was misunderstood,’ added Varney.

‘I know there were a couple of players who wanted money going forward (Dave Kitson and Tal Ben Haim), but most of us didn’t. For some of us, it was purely about money we were owed from the previous six months.

‘I left three years worth of money behind, bearing in mind the remainder of my contract. I was never going to hold the club to ransom.

‘As long as I got another contract elsewhere – which I did at Leeds – I was willing to ask only for what I was owed.

‘Finances are relative, aren’t they. I know a lot of lads were ringing their mortgage company asking if they could have a bit of a holiday from paying.

‘Many people have their mortgage over 25 years, whereas footballers try to pay it off as quickly as possible. It’s a short career, that income level doesn’t continue when you retire.

‘Some of our lads had short-term mortgage payments over five years and, with no pay, were having trouble meeting them.

‘I remember one lad – I won’t mention his name – struggled to pay for his hotel. He was down here on loan, so that was wrong.

‘I’m a positive person, I tried to keep most of the lads’ spirits up, but you can't in that situation because you know they have individual battles going on.

‘I have been back to Fratton Park since and wouldn’t say I got the greatest reception. I can probably understand it to a certain level, but I think my situation was a little misunderstood.’

Varney totalled six goals in 31 appearances for Pompey the season after featuring in the Premier League for Blackpool.

Following his Fratton Park departure in July 2012, he turned out for Leeds, Blackburn, Ipswich, Burton (twice), Cheltenham, and now Quorn.

Realistically, he will retire at the club where it all began. But not just yet.

Varney said: ‘Pompey was probably my funniest period in football.

‘When there’s stuff happening off the pitch which you can’t really control, you’ve got to create a certain level of enjoyment at the training ground.

‘Benjani loved his cricket and we’d play in the corridor next to the treatment room and manager’s office. They had to change a few plasterboards, I can tell you!

‘I’d send him a few bouncers down early to soften him up, before taking out his middle stump.

‘One time, there was a disgusting smell coming from my locker. When I opened it up there was a pig’s head in there with a fag hanging from its mouth. I had to wash my clothes three times!

‘That was revenge from Big Kev, I think I had turned his washing machines off a few times during mid-cycle, or put a dye tablet in there.

‘Despite everything, I genuinely enjoyed it at Pompey, such a great club, but nothing could ever dampen my enthusiasm for playing football. It's wonderful

‘I’m 39 this month, I don’t know whether it will be my last season. It depends how the body is, I suppose. I'll keep on playing in the meantime!’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Luke Varney blasts Pompey level against Derby in April 2012, yet the game ended in a Blues defeat - confirming relegation from the Championship. Picture: Steve Reid