Big interview: ‘I was a complete Space Cadet’ - Luke Woolfenden on coming through the Town academy, transfer rumours and Premier League goals
Young defender Luke Woolfenden is one of the jewels in Ipswich Town’s crown. Chief football writer Stuart Watson sat down with him for the latest Kings Of Anglia magazine, before the coronavirus pandemic struck...
Luke Woolfenden saunters into the Playford Road reception to greet me.
‘Want me to find you both a side room to do this?’ asks friendly receptionist Sally.
The 21-year-old smiles and shrugs his shoulders in a ‘whatever’ gesture. I suggest the waiting room is fine and he slides into a virtually horizontal position on the blue sofa.
It doesn’t take much time with the defender to see and hear supporting evidence of Luke Chambers’ jokey assertion that ‘sometimes you want to put jump leads on him’ and manager Paul Lambert’s claim that ‘sometimes you have to check he’s got a heartbeat’.
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Our conversation starts with a correction when I ask about growing up in East Bergholt.
“No, I’m a Chantry boy, a proper Ipswich buh,” says Woolfenden.
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“But I went to school in East Bergholt just because all my mates were going to Chantry and my mum thought they would be a bad influence. I think she soon realised I was more the troublemaker you know!
“I’d get the bus at half eight every morning, always praying it would be late. I’d start walking, look at the time and think ‘ah, I’d better pick up the pace here’. I did miss it a few times on purpose and then the next day I’d give it the old ‘ah, sorry Miss, I missed the bus’.
“I was always that guy who... I wasn’t the main cause of trouble, but if there was trouble I was always in and around it. I was a good kid though. I wasn’t overly naughty, but I wasn’t the teacher’s pet either. It was just messing about, being stupid, acting like a prat. To be fair, the same sort of stuff I do with Doz (Andre Dozzell) now really! That’s what you do when you’re a boy isn’t it? Just having fun.”
With two older sisters, Laura and Charlotte, Luke jokes he was ‘massively outnumbered’. “When I lived at home I used to come in and go straight to my room, come down for dinner and then be ‘alright, I’m going out’ then come back in about 11/12 and go to sleep. It was just that on repeat really,” he says.
“I used to have an Ipswich season ticket, but I was always really United because my dad was from Manchester. We were always going up there whenever we could.”
Then, at the relatively late age of 12, the Blues came calling. And it was almost a false start.
“I was playing for Hadleigh at the time,” he explains. “I’d only just signed there, it was my third game and we were playing Woodbridge. As I’m walking off an Ipswich scout came up to me and said ‘can I speak to your parents please?’ They offered me a six week trial.
“When I first came here I just wanted to go back to playing with my mates really. You know how I am, I was like ‘this is a bit too serious for me’. I said to my mum ‘I don’t really want to come back here’ when there was about three weeks left of the trial.
“Mum said I might as well do the last three weeks and see how it goes. It’s a good job I did really. They offered me a contract and it just went from there. As time went on I was happy my mum made me see out that trial.”
A couple of years later, walking away from the club was again something that crossed the now teenager’s mind.
“I started playing rugby at school and there was a teacher there that said I could go far, so there was a point where I was actually thinking about doing rugby instead,” he says.
“Obviously I was really good because I was massive and just running past everyone. They started me in the scrum, but I wasn’t having any of that. I was like ‘get me out of there!’ I moved to outside centre and used to just get it and run. To be honest, I still don’t know the rules now.
“Then, when I got to 15, Ipswich offered me a scholarship a year early just so I could focus on school and stuff. That was when football completely took over.”
Except it didn’t bring focus – neither at school nor on the football pitch.
“With exams it was like ‘whatever’,” Woolfenden admits.
“Because I had the scholarship, probably wrongly, I didn’t really care. If you didn’t pass maths and English you had to do it here for a year, so obviously I made sure I passed maths and English, PE too, and that was me done. Everything else got pushed to one side.
“Then when I an Under-18, in my first year as a scholar, I was a complete Space Cadet. I was messing about and wasn’t taking it seriously.
“It used to drive Alan Lee mad. He was always on at me. I don’t know what it was, but he was someone who always got a good reaction from me. He’d mix it up, it was either the old arm around the shoulder or he’d call me useless. Whatever he did it seemed to work.
“There was a point where I suddenly thought ‘I’m in trouble here’, and then as a second year scholar I had that all nailed down.”
Throughout his academy journey, a band of Blues brothers developed.
“Chris Smith (who was recently released) got scouted first, then Wrighty (Harry Wright) and Doz, then I came along at 12,” says Woolfenden.
“Smithy is really smart. He had his head screwed on doing exams and that. He’s gone to university now I think. Me, Doz and Wrighty are pretty similar. It is what it is with us. It’s just football and playing the game we love really.”
So how does this laid back attitude go down with senior players and staff? I bring up the aforementioned quotes from Lambert and Chambers.
“The lads used to try and banter me about it, but they’ve stopped now because they know it doesn’t get anywhere because I don’t really care,” laughs Woolfenden.
“They give me a bit, but they’ve come to realise that’s just who I am. There’s no point trying to change that now.
“I’ve always been like it. My parents and teachers were always on at me. I think the teachers took it personally. I’d be in lessons, sitting there, laid back and I could see them thinking ‘look at this idiot, he doesn’t care’. It wasn’t really like that though. It’s just how I am.
“I think it’s a good thing anyway. I think it benefits me when I play. At the start of the season, when I was playing two or three games and then dropping out, I could take it in my stride. Even the Sheffield United rumours and things like that, I just take it in my stride. I don’t let it fluster me.
“It’s obviously nice to see you’re linked with big clubs, but you’ve got to keep playing really. I wouldn’t say it’s really bothered me.”
Does he also think that will help him deal with the pressures of social media and more intense media coverage of the game?
“I think so,” he replies. “I’m always on social media. What was it Andy (Warren, EADT and Ipswich Star journalist) tweeted the other day about some geezer wanting to break his legs up at Tranmere? That made me laugh. I’m always on there to be fair, just stalking.
“To be fair, I haven’t had to deal with too much criticism so far. I’ve seen a few people saying I’m slow, but if you check the stats I’m probably one of the fastest in the team.
“After a couple of bad performances everyone thinks you’re a bad player, but that’s the way it is.”
Confidence is not something Woolfenden struggles with. Last summer, in a club interview, he was asked if he was ready to break into the Ipswich first team. He replied, laughing, that he thought he was ready the year before (prior to being loaned out to Swindon). Was he serious?
“Dead serious,” he replies.
“I was training well, pre-season I was probably one of the best defenders, so to be on the bench for the first game of the season was disappointing. I think he (Paul Hurst) put Janoi (Donacien) in at centre-back didn’t he? And he’d only just been signed.
“I got sent out on loan to Swindon (in League Two). We beat Morecambe 1-0 in my first game, I think it was the first clean sheet we’d kept that season, and I was thinking ‘I’ll stay in the team now’, but the next game I wasn’t playing. It was kind of how it was at the start of this season at Ipswich, in and out.
“Then Phil Brown got sacked, Richie Wellens came in and I was a mainstay in the team. Richie coming in definitely made the loan more beneficial than it would have been had Phil Brown stayed the whole season.
“I felt good. As a footballer you’ve always got to back yourself to go out there and be the best player on the pitch. That’s what you’ve got to aim for every time you play.”
Which brings us back to the summer of 2018. Recently, when assessing the huge progress made by Woolfenden, Lambert said: “I saw him in pre-season and I thought ‘dear oh dear, we need to get a centre-half in’. He was a wee bit off it and I thought ‘do I go with the kid at Burton?’. But we put him in and he’s never looked back.”
Those comments bring a wry smile from the defender.
“I wasn’t really enjoying it,” he explains.
“I wasn’t really sure what was going on. I’d come back from playing every game at Swindon and no-one said a word to me. Was I going back out on loan? Was I going to play? Was I going to be on the bench? No-one said a word.
“To be fair, it’s probably my fault not saying anything out in Germany. Being my laid back self I was like ‘whatever’ and I just ended up floating through it. I wasn’t really pushing myself.
“So he probably is right. I didn’t have a good time in Germany. It was the Colchester game, when I didn’t play at all, when I kind of lost my head a bit. I was like ‘what’s going on here?’
“I had a chat with Stu (Taylor, assistant manager) and just said ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, am I playing?’ We had a good chat and after that my performances just went up and up and up. Thankfully he (Lambert) put me in against Burton and I haven’t looked back really.”
It’s at this stage of the interview that club legend Terry Butcher and general manager of football operations Lee O’Neill breeze through reception. It’s transfer deadline day. I jest that Lee should be on the phone doing deals. Lee laughs and says ‘we’ve done our deal – keeping that young man!’
Butcher ribs Woolfenden about his attempts to grow some facial hair and then starts talking about how he’d have loved to have played alongside him. ‘Left foot, right foot.. You can play’. High praise indeed from the former England and Ipswich icon.
It brings us onto the topic of his strengths and weaknesses.
What are the areas of his game that he’d like to improve on? Phil Brown once said that Woolfenden needed to ‘get a few scars’ in League Two.
“Everyone says that to me but I’ve never really understood that,” he says. “I used to play with Sid Nelson, who’s at Tranmere now.
“He used to get a broken nose every game just because he’d head the back of someone’s head. I don’t see the point of that. Referees now, if you touch someone they give a foul.
“Obviously you’ve got to go and stick your head on things when the ball comes into the box, which I do try to do, but I don’t see the point of me going and heading the back of people.
“Nine times out of 10 now teams play with one up front. If that striker is winning the header and we’ve got three centre-backs then they are just flicking it on to us.
“I’d cover around and then we play. I’m good at reading the game. I’ve had a lot of interceptions this year. Stepping in and starting an attack is what I consider I’m very good at.
“There are areas of my game I want to improve though.
“I do need to be better aerially. And on my weak foot as well, so I can be more comfortable on both sides.”
Woolfenden’s game going to a new level in 2020 has coincided with Lambert taking the shackles off his wide centre-backs, ala Sheffield United. That pre-match conversation must, I venture, have been music to his ears.
“To be fair he didn’t really say it like that,” says Woolfenden. “It was more like ‘everyone just go’. I was buzzing with that.
“It causes havoc for the other team. As a striker you don’t want to be running back the whole way, but if the centre-back is going you can’t just pass them on because midfielders have got midfielders and defenders have got strikers (to mark). It’s an extra body up there who, to be honest, no-one really knows what to do with.
“Since we’ve been doing it, there have been a lot games where me and skip (Chambers) have had most of the ball. That suits me no end.”
That’s Woolfenden on the pitch. What about his role in the dressing room?
I suggest, given his laid back nature, he wasn’t one who was ranting and raving during the one-hour lock-in which followed the 5-3 defeat at Lincoln City after Christmas.
“Yeah, I’m not a skip or a Skusey,” he says. “I’m more a take it on board kind of person. That’s the way I learn. I don’t have to sit there and voice my concerns. To be honest with you it got to a point where we were just going round and round and round in circles. Everyone was just saying the same thing and I’m thinking ‘bloody hell boys, shut up!’
“For me I don’t really have a lot to say. I’m a quiet guy in the dressing room. I sit, chill and watch everything unfold.”
Town fans love to see one of their own do well. As a Chantry boy, what’s it like dealing with increased levels of fame around the town he grew up in?
“Things have been different this season,” he admits.
“When I was 18, on loan at Bromley, I’d go out in Ipswich every weekend and no-one would bat an eyelid. I go out now and you get a few more people going ‘oh, what’s the gaffer like’ and stuff like that. So I don’t really go out much anymore.
“Ipswich is a small town. Everyone knows everyone and there are a lot of Ipswich fans. It’s weird though because a couple of years ago no-one said anything. I’d go out and no-one would care. I remember one time I went out with Santy, Bersant Celina, and no-one said a word. It was just us two chilling. Now everyone wants a bit. I think that probably reflects the bigger interest in the team at the moment. You can see that driving around and seeing the ‘backing the Blues’ flags and the attendances we’ve been getting.”
Of course, Woolfenden wasn’t the only homegrown player being linked with a move up the pyramid in the recent January transfer window. Flynn Downes, the cheeky chappy from south Essex, has also come on leaps and bounds this season.
“I think Flynn, more than me, deserves the praise because he works his arse off every single day,” said Woolfenden. “It’s just a matter of time for him. Even when he went out on loan to Luton he was killing it there.
“He’s not like me. He’s not as laid back as me. He does think a lot.
“Since he’s said about him over-thinking things and how much he struggled when Mick (McCarthy) was here, I think he’s learnt from it himself and doesn’t really need the help anymore. I think he’s learnt to deal with the pressure that he puts on himself.
“He still does that now. He does a bad pass and he’s the only one beating himself up about it. That’s probably good, to be fair, because he pushes himself on.
“We can probably learn a lot from each other in many ways. We balance each other well.”
Woolfenden adds: “It is special for us playing for our boyhood club. Growing up here, seeing how close we were to the Prem a few years ago... Getting us back there is my biggest aim.”