Just a couple of miles from one of the most famous racecourses in the world, Brian Graham is emerging as a dark horse amid Cheltenham Town’s surge up the Skybet League Two table.
After a Championship-winning year with Hibs which he found enjoyable despite a frustrating lack of starts, the 29-year-old target man left Easter Road in early August in pursuit of game time and goals. Two months after opting to leave Scotland for the first time in his career, Graham is starting to find his stride once more at Whaddon Road. After feeling his way in gently during his first few weeks at Cheltenham and then being sidelined by a minor ankle injury in early September, Graham has started each of the Robins’ past five games – a run in which his new team have collected 13 points from a possible 15 and climbed from 22nd in the table to 12th. He has netted his first two goals for his new club in their past three matches, with the first coming against a Mansfield Town side with a certain Conrad Logan between the sticks 16 days ago, and the second breaking the deadlock in Saturday’s 2-1 win at home to local rivals Swindon Town.
“Since I came back from rolling my ankle, I’ve started the last five games and scored two goals so it’s been a good last few weeks for me,” he told the Evening News. “All I’ve needed is a run of games like this. If I got that at Hibs I would have done a lot better. I was in and out constantly, and as a striker that can effect your game. You need to be playing regularly to get the best out of yourself. I’m reaping the rewards of that at the moment.”
In making seven starts so far, Graham has already started as many games in his two months at Cheltenham as he managed in his last ten months at Hibs. Playing second fiddle to fellow target man Grant Holt, the former Ross County, Dundee United and Raith Rovers striker was restricted to nine starts in his year at Easter Road, with the majority of his appearances coming off the bench. When Simon Murray, Deivydas Matulevicius and Anthony Stokes were recruited in the last transfer window, it became apparent game time would be similarly limited this term. Following an honest chat with manager Neil Lennon, Graham decided to move on after scoring six times – his lowest total at any club he has played for in a career that has brought him more than 100 goals.
“I’ve always scored goals at whatever club I’ve been at and I always felt at Hibs I had more to offer but I just didn’t really get enough opportunities to start games,” he said. “Apart from one game at Cappielow when I was poor, I felt that every time I started a game I played well and assisted or scored a goal. It was just unfortunate the way it went. They’d just brought Deivydas in and Neil took me in and said ‘listen, I’m not running you out the door but there’s competition here and obviously game time might be limited’. I told him I had a few options anyway so I went away and spoke about it with my family for a few days and decided that I needed to be playing football.
“Cheltenham had contacted my agent earlier in the summer to say they were interested but at that point I was keen to go into pre-season with Hibs and have a right good go and see where it would take me. But when I spoke to Neil, I decided there was no point in sitting on the bench all season again. I spoke to (Cheltenham manager) Gary Johnson again, asked him about his plans for the club and he sold it really well to me, so I ended up coming down here.
“As much as it was hard leaving a club like Hibs, I had to do it for the benefit of my career. It’s not a bad move to get after leaving Hibs. I’d always fancied a crack at England. I had a few chances in the past to come to England but I knocked them back to stay in Scotland, so at the age I’m at, I decided I’d go and try something new and try and enjoy my football again, hopefully playing week in, week out. The way it’s going at the moment, I’ve got a buzz back about myself. It’s given me a wee kick up the backside. I’m buzzing for every Saturday knowing I’m in the team at the moment. I still had that buzz at Hibs but I just wasn’t getting the chances.”
Graham, at 6ft 2in, used to find himself cast as one of the bigger players on the pitch in Scotland. In England’s fourth tier, however, he is mixing with giants every weekend. “It’s more physical down here,” he said. “You look round the pitch and it’s not just one or two big guys – they’re all big monsters. I’m up against big centre-backs every week, but I didn’t expect anything less. I relish that. As a target man, I quite like getting a bit of wrestling going sometimes!”
In leaving Scotland for the first time in his career, Graham was aided by the fact his former Hibs colleague Jordon Forster had already made the move to Gloucestershire six weeks earlier. The defender has since suffered a season-wrecking ruptured Achilles’ tendon. “When you walk into a new dressing-room, if there’s a familiar face it obviously helps you settle in,” he said of Forster’s presence. “It’s been a shocker for Jordon. He was doing really well before the injury. He played really well in the West Ham game just a couple of days before the injury. He’s still got his boot on but his spirits are high – he’s coming in and working away with the physios every day. He’s working extremely hard in the gym – every day he’s coming out soaking with sweat. The boys are keeping him going so hopefully he’s well on the road to recovery.”
Graham’s bedding-in process was further helped by the fact he spent his early weeks living with Cheltenham chairman Paul Baker. “I’ve just got a house and my wife and kids are coming down in the next few weeks, but for the first six weeks after I came down, me and one of the other new boys were actually staying with the chairman,” he said. “I don’t think that would happen at any other club in but Cheltenham’s a real family club.”
After winning only one of their opening seven league games, Cheltenham’s recent revival has taken them within four points of the play-off zone. With 34 matches still to play and plenty of time for more form fluctuations, however, Graham knows there is little point in discussing the prospect of promotion at this stage. “We started the season badly but now our tails are up and we’re looking up the table. It’s a very long season down here and any team can beat anyone else in this league. We’re just trying to keep on this wee run, get some more wins on the board and see where it takes us.”
Graham is enjoying a new lease of life at Cheltenham after a stint at Hibs that ended with sections of the support turning on him in pre-season. The striker described these instances of disenchantment towards him as “water off a duck’s back”. “The Hibs fans were great,” he said. “Even though I didn’t play as much as I’d have liked, I loved it there. It’s a fantastic club and I’ll always speak highly of Hibs. The players were brilliant – we had a really good changing-room. We went on to win the league with fans turning up in big numbers week in, week out, so it was a great experience to be a part of. You could see how much of a winner Neil is – he got the best out of that bunch of boys and got us back to the Premiership. It was a pleasure to be part of that football club. The only downside was that I was in and out.”