Luke Varney: Cheltenham forward on contract concerns and play-off hopes
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By Rob Jones
Last Updated: 19/06/20 7:13am
Cheltenham Town's Luke Varney talks to Sky Sports News reporter Rob Jones about the uncertainty facing out-of-contract lower league players and the prospect of playing in an empty Wembley stadium.
There were times in the past three months when Cheltenham Town's Luke Varney feared he had played the last of his 509 professional games.
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The forward turns 38 in September and is out of contract at the end of June - a day after Cheltenham could be competing in the League Two play-off final.
The uncertainty for Varney is felt by numerous players across League One and Two. "Guys with mortgages to pay" have no clear indication as to what form the lower divisions may take and what sort of offers some clubs may be able to make in terms of recruitment - some will surely be left without a contract.
Varney admits that even though there has been increased support from the PFA in recent weeks, there is a lot of concern amongst players at present, including some at the eight clubs contesting the two play-off competitions.
"There's definitely an influx of worry, I must admit, especially the lads out of contract, of course," Varney told Sky Sports.
"I think this is the reason the league wants it done before the end of June because if you go past that time, you are susceptible to injury and having to look after it yourself.
"There's definitely that bit of doubt in the lads' heads but once you start playing, there's that natural instinct to compete and there's a big prize for the team that are the eventual winners, so we're back at it and that worry probably only comes once you come off the training pitch and you start thinking about your situation.
"Covid has thrown everything into complete turmoil. Lads who were promised contracts before this all set off are now being told that they might have to wait. Budgets are being cut in all leagues, across all teams and that's understandable."
A decision on how to end those two divisions was only confirmed last week after an EFL vote meaning preparation time has been minimal.
Cheltenham have played a friendly against Cardiff City but this is still a hasty return to action and far from ideal preparation as they target a return to League One for the first time since 2009.
"Even as close as the week before we went in we were supposed to have our testing but when that got cancelled, I couldn't see how we were going to get it going again," Varney said.
"Then when you're told about there being no fans until 2021, maybe I just thought I can't imagine myself being involved in a football club with no fans because that's always been something I've loved doing, playing in front of crowds and making it happen on a Saturday.
"But since I've been back these last two or three weeks, I've really got the bug back again and realised I'd like to keep going at least for next year.
"I've been trying to get to Wembley for 16 or 17 years now and hopefully I can get there but if I do, there'll be no fans there - that'd be a fairy tale ending, shall we say, but we've got two very difficult games against Northampton."
Before football was halted by the coronavirus pandemic Cheltenham were the division's form team. Now they will travel to Northampton - who will have a cardboard cut-out of NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal in the stands - for the first leg of their semi-final, while Colchester face Exeter in the other tie.
Varney scored a late winner when the two clubs met in February but accepts recapturing that momentum is impossible for Cheltenham.
"We talked about that really briefly when we first went back, that we were six unbeaten, we had probably three-quarters of our games to play at home and our home record is brilliant so you can dwell on those sort of things," he said.
"I saw (David) Artell, the Crewe manager, saying he was disappointed to get promoted but they didn't get to win the league and I was like, 'wow, I'd take his situation'.
"We might have gone on to do it but we may not have, you never know, but we've talked about the games we've played against all the play-off teams, we've got a decent record against most, the best defensive record so all the stats stack up.
"But play-off games are a lottery - with this amount of training all the scenarios go out the window so we're just trying to get as many bases covered but without putting too much pressure on ourselves. We just want to go out and express ourselves and get our football as close as we can to when it stopped."