Name: Luke Cairney
Club: Hungerford Town
Whenever a non-league club draws Football League opposition in the FA Cup, there’s always one tired cliché that gets trotted out by the commentary team. “Look at that, the left back’s just taken the ball off Johnny Big Potatoes – he’s a postman during the week!” For those of us who watch or are involved with non-league football though, players with day jobs are just another factor which makes football at this level unique.
Every semi-professional squad boasts a few fitness instructors and sports coaches, usually a handful who work in the construction industry, and a smattering of office workers, amongst a myriad of other trades. Almost all the players have to make sacrifices, both in football and in their day jobs, to balance the two commitments, with annual leave and early finishes a regular occurrence. A TFL worker on night shifts, for example, might have to move heaven and earth to make that tricky Tuesday night away trip to Truro City. Not many players, however, have to balance the commitments of playing football at semi-professional level, with the requirements of serving in the British military.
There are a few players about though. Former UK Armed Forces captain, Rob Farkins, balances his career as a soldier with a playing position at Plymouth Parkway, but the man between the sticks behind him – Luke Cairney – is now the highest level serving footballer, after his recent move to Hungerford Town of the National League South. During lockdown, I met up with Luke over a Zoom call to talk about his career so far, and to find out a bit about how he balances two such demanding roles.
The 28 year old goalkeeper has taken a step up the non-league pyramid this summer, after two exceptional seasons at Poole Town – more on that later – but his love for the game started as an eight year old, and it’s there that we start. Growing up in Accrington, the young Cairney first started in a local team as a left winger, when his Primary School headteacher set up a trial at Blackburn Rovers. He spent around a year there before being released at the age of nine – absurdly, for being too small – but by then he’d caught the football bug. It wasn’t long before his mum’s partner, a keen ‘keeper himself, was persuading Luke to change to the role of a number one, and it proved an inspired decision. At the age of ten, he was picked up by the Burnley academy, where he stayed for six years.
Throughout the conversation with Luke, it’s clear that he has a very rational approach to decision making, and this was apparent when he was released by the Clarets aged sixteen. A changing room conversation, with his parents present, ended Luke’s dream of professional football, leaving him absolutely devastated like so many other teenagers who don’t get offered that elusive first professional contract. So many players drift away from the game in that situation, and when Cairney decided to pursue a position in what he describes as the “stable job and good career” of the British Army, it was easy to imagine him being one. For readers who are uninitiated with the military, Cairney entered a training process, which put his footballing endeavours on hold until he reached the trained strength, but once he’d completed training and joined the Royal Engineers, he quickly found his feet in the Army football system.
The Army has a proud tradition when it comes to sport. Four serving soldiers competed at the last Winter Olympics, Heather Stanning became a double Olympic champion whilst also a commissioned Royal Artillery Officer, and England Rugby Union international Semesa Rokoduguni is still a Lance Corporal in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. But, when it comes to football, nowhere is the Army tradition grander than in Cairney’s corps – the Royal Engineers. Indeed, they can boast of being the only military side to have won the FA Cup, when AFC Royal Engineers took the trophy in 1875. However, despite this proud legacy, sportsmen still have to balance their athletic commitments with professional ones (unless they play rugby…), and the job always comes first.
Having joined the Army, Luke progressed through the various levels of military sport, first playing at Unit level, and then being selected to represent the Army, before finally being selected to represented the UK Armed Forces Team – following in the footsteps of the likes of Gary Holt, Lee Bradbury, and current Swindon Town defender Tom Broadbent. I ask Luke about the standard of Army football, how would the team compare to what we see in non-league, and he is effusive in his praise – “most of the players were Academy level, and it didn’t work out for whatever reason, so the standard is really high. Probably National League, National South – there’s some really talented players in the Army”. With recent Gibraltar international, and former Football League player, Jake Gosling recently joining the RAF, it’s easy to see what he means when discussing the standard in the UK Armed Forces team…
And it isn’t just the standard of players that earn Cairney’s praise. His bosses and colleagues in the Royal Engineers draw compliments too. The modern Army prides itself on being a good employer, and Luke’s bosses have been more than understanding when it comes to his football career. In his current position, as a Lance Corporal at a training unit, Luke has been able to really throw himself into football – but it’s not always been like that. Five deployments to Kenya, as well as one each to Cyprus and the Falklands, it’s no surprise that it took him a while to get back into football outside the Army, particularly as a goalkeeper. What manager wants to see their ‘keeper disappear for 3-6 months of the season? Now though, as long as the work is done, they support him taking the time to play, and cutting away early if necessary – it was exactly this attitude which led to Luke getting back into civilian football with Andover Town in 2016.
A season with Andover was followed by a year at Farnborough, before Luke tried his luck on a trial at Thatcham Town in pre-season 2018. With the Kingfishers coming off the back of a Wembley FA Vase triumph, manager Danny Robinson was understandably happy with his squad, and no move materialised, but there was a silver lining to that particular cloud. No sooner had the trial finished, Cairney was offered a move to Poole Town, which he took with both be-gloved hands.
Despite the four hour round trip to play home matches for Poole, Luke had a happy – and very impressive – two seasons on the Dorset coast, where he was regularly touted as the best ‘keeper in the league, and not just by Dolphins fans. During his first season, a strong Poole side rode a spring surge in form to pip Kings Langley to the last play off position, looking to bounce back from relegation at the first attempt. Heartache soon followed though, as they were dispatched by the Met Police in the Final, courtesy of a highly contentious Jack Mazzone header. A mention of that goal and a wry smile spreads across Luke’s face – “it still hurts now…”. I remember the goal – and the game – clearly. As a photographer behind the goal, I’ll diplomatically say that VAR might have seen things differently to the officials at the time… Another thing stood out on the day, and not just Luke’s highly un-military regulation haircut – but the performance of the two goalkeepers. Berti Schotterl, between the sticks for the Met, moved on to Lokomotive Leipzig in the summer, but Cairney stayed at the Tatnam Gound, and took his form into the next season.
Prior to the COVID-enforced cancellation of the season at Steps 3-7, Cairney had the best goals conceded per game (1.15) record in the Southern League Premier Division South, which was also lower than the average in any of the top seven non-league divisions. He also had the most clean sheets, and was part of the meanest defence (28 conceded in 27 games) in the league. When I ask Luke if he considers this a season he’s kicked on personally, his response is very telling – and probably in keeping with the team ethos you’d expect from a professional soldier. “Well, I love this club, and I love playing for them – if it wasn’t for the defence from the whole team, I would have been conceding a lot more goals.” I’m interested in how he perceives the season at Poole Town – who were one of my early favourites for promotion, but sat 9th at the end of the campaign – and whether they failed to live up to expectations. With the best defence in the division, surely they should have achieved more, and the table gives a good indication why – they were the lowest scorers in the top half. When I ask Luke why that might have been, he seems at a loss “yeah, obviously we didn’t score as many as we should. We had brilliant strikers, with James Constable and Jake Scrimshaw, but for some reason we just couldn’t make it happen. We definitely wanted more from that season.”
Unlike most footballers, Luke actually saw two seasons curtailed by coronavirus. Every year, in March, the inter-services football tournament kicks into gear, as the players from the various branches of the Armed Forces go into training camps, and then play set piece matches. After a 1-0 victory over the RAF at Shrewsbury Town’s Montgomery Waters Meadow, the Army looked well poised to take their fifth consecutive title against the Royal Navy, before the global pandemic struck. That RAF game was played on the 12th of March, meaning Cairney had to miss Poole’s win over Beaconsfield Town. He played the previous one, a 1-1- draw away to Blackfield & Langley. Little did he know at the time that would be his last match in a Dolphins’ shirt.
Fate is a cruel mistress, and had Poole Town won that Final at Imber Court in 2019, it’s hard to see Cairney leaving the Dolphins – it’s evident throughout our chat that the club has a special place for him. However, at 28, Luke still has ambitions to play as high as he can, and after 25 clean sheets in 82 appearances at Poole, when Danny Robinson messaged him with the opportunity to play National League South football, he decided to take a chance.
With the news that there will be no relegation or promotion between Steps Two and Three, Hungerford Town will have another season in the National League South, and appointed Robinson to replace Ian Herring who left in May. Luke feels that his strengths in the game – particularly kicking and footwork – will stand him in good stead at Step Two, but knows that he’ll be facing a different challenge this season. Not only are the strikers more physical, but the grounds and attendances are that much higher, and that’s exactly what appealed. Cairney was won over by Robinson’s plans to attack the division, to be the underdogs who bloody the noses of the bigger clubs – “he really wants to go and get results at the likes of Maidstone and Havant & Waterlooville, and that really attracted me.”
It’s an interesting time at Hungerford right now, after the departure of Ian Herring. Herring had become synonymous with the Crusaders during his time at the club, and made many friends in the league with his management style and personality. However, the new man Danny Robinson comes with an exciting track record. An FA Vase winner with unfancied Thatcham Town in 2018, he also won the Hellenic League the same year, and had his squad sitting top of the Southern League Division One South at the end of this season. At only 34 years old, he’s a rising star on the non-league management scene and definitely worth keeping an eye on. With Hungerford signing a raft of new players, including highly-rated Ryan Beckinsale and Sol Wanjau-Smith, whilst also retaining key men such as Mike Jones, it’s exciting times at Bulpit Lane. The key to survival though, is having a solid foundation, and who better to build that, than a Royal Engineer – especially one who was the best ‘keeper at Step Three last season.