Former Colchester United, Accrington Stanley and AFC Wimbledon midfielder Harry Pell on his Cheltenham Town return

“I was on the phone for one minute and for the first time in my 15-year career, I didn’t feel the need for an agent."

To say Harry Pell is excited about his return to Cheltenham Town is an understatement comparable to describing the Robins’ National League title-winning team as ‘quite good’. Pell was one of the central figures in that success, brought in as Gary Johnson’s ‘marquee signing’ of the 2015 summer and the only player given more than a one-year contract.

Six years after departing, the midfielder is back and beneath the playful exterior, there is a determination to bring more success to a club that provided him with such happiness. The 32-year-old openly admits that last season was one of the most challenging of his career, with only two League Two starts in his second year at AFC Wimbledon.

“I'm back because I want to be here and money is not the motivation,” Pell says. “I feel like someone has lit a fire under me again and I can’t wait to get back involved. After agreeing the deal, I got off the phone absolutely buzzing, told the wife and she cried, bless her. I’ve never found happiness like I did at Cheltenham and I feel like the club and the area are special.”

Pell had decided to move back to Gloucestershire with his family this summer, wherever his football took him. He has bought and subsequently sold houses in close proximity to each of the three clubs he has played for since leaving Cheltenham in 2018, but he always kept his property in Brockworth.

Pell joined Colchester United for £100,000 in the summer of 2018, hoping they would be the club to help him reach League One. A move to Blackpool had fallen through just as the 2017/18 season was kicking off. He helped Colchester reach the play-offs in his second season, but they were beaten by Exeter City in the semi-finals.

“When I went there, they were giving it a right good go, signing me and Luke Norris for fees and we had players like Sammie Szmodics, Frankie Kent, Kane Vincent-Young and Frank Nouble, so it was a very, very good team,” Pell says. “I felt I’d made a great decision and we should have gone up, but the budget was pulled and I found myself looking after kids really, rather than pushing.

“I was made club captain and I stayed on to try and help the club, but it ended on a sour note." The reason for that was that no new deal had been offered, so he had agreed to join Accrington Stanley on a long-term contract ahead of the 2021/22 League One campaign.

“I absolutely love John Coleman, who is a real motivator and he was very good for me,” Pell says. "He is a manager who gets everyone on board, running through brick walls for him and that’s definitely the type that brings the best out in me. We had a successful season, finishing 12th and I scored eight goals.”

Pell’s final appearance for Stanley was in the 4-4 draw with Cheltenham at the Crown Ground. “I lost my granddad and it was really tough for the family, so we had an honest conversation and I said I wanted to get back home,” Pell says. “The gaffer said it was fine and Wimbledon came in.”

Pell had enjoyed a previous spell with the Dons, joining them from Hereford United in January 2013. He had been playing in a number 10 role for Accrington, with Coleman asking him to run off target man Colby Bishop. “I’d say my best position is a box-to-box midfielder, stamping my authority on games, but John Coleman knew I had a goal in me and he made this role for me,” Pell explains.

“We were quite a direct team and Colby Bishop reminded me a lot of Danny Wright because if the ball went up to him, you knew you could run off your man all the time. He was unbelievable at that. Coleman had done similar with Billy Kee and Kayden Jackson and while I'm not comparing myself to those lads, it was his way of playing and it worked.”

The highlight of Pell’s time at Accrington was a 3-2 win at Charlton Athletic, where he had been as a youth player at the start of his career. He scored two and believes another free-kick that bounced off the bar had crossed the line, so he should in reality have been celebrating a hat-trick. Either way, Charlton boss Johnnie Jackson was impressed with what he saw and that performance is why Pell believed he later brought him to Wimbledon.

“I had a stormer and as always, I'm at my best when I have a point to prove, going back where I started at The Valley,” Pell says. “The only thing was, Johnnie Jackson saw me playing off Colby so he assumed I was a second striker. But it was an unorthodox role and I didn’t know too much what I was doing and it was more off the cuff, but defenders marking me didn’t know what to do either, so it worked.”

Upon signing for Wimbledon, Pell found himself used as a target man, which he does not believe suited his attributes. “I’ve always been used to running onto things, not playing with my back to goal, so at times I felt like a duck out of water,” he says. “I didn’t enjoy the role, but being a senior player, I did my best for the team and I felt I sacrificed myself a bit. Listen, you could put me in goal and I’d find trouble on a football pitch and be a nuisance, but I wasn’t having the impact on games I thought I should be having and to be honest, I fell out of love with it.”

Pell remains on good terms with Jackson, who he says was always completely honest with him as starting opportunities began to wane. He saw his exit coming midway through last season. “I had a couple conversations Michael Flynn at Swindon and I was very keen to go and work under him, but he left just before it could happen,” Pell says. “I’ve never not played in my career and I lost that edge to my game that I need. I couldn’t let the boys down because we were going for the play-offs, but I began to coast a little bit.”

Jackson sent Pell on as a 65th minute substitute on the final day of the season, allowing to make his 500th career appearance in a 5-1 home win over Walsall. “He didn’t have to do that because we both knew I was leaving so it was lovely of him,” Pell says. “I have a lot of respect for him and he messaged me to say he was buzzing for me when I signed for Cheltenham. Wimbledon as a club has huge potential and I think they’ll become a real force in the next few years.”

After the end of the season, Pell enjoyed a short break in Marbella with Wimbledon teammate Alex Pearce only to find out Gary Johnson was also there. “This was before anything had happened with him going in at Cheltenham,” Pell says. “But we met up for a beer and chatted football for an hour or so. I came home and he was announced as director of football, so we had a conversation to see if I’d be interested and obviously I was – everything else went out of the window at that point and it was never about money.

"Gary Johnson is so straight talking and he said whoever the new manager is, if they want you, there would be an opportunity. If Cheltenham had stayed up and Darrell Clarke was still in charge, I wouldn’t be here, simple as that. But the whole thing fitted into line because Michael Flynn agreed, so he brought me in. Gary Johnson of all people knows how much this club means to me and how desperate I’d be for it to succeed.

"The fans know I am a 100 per center and I am not claiming to be the best player in the league, but they’ll get someone running through brick walls for the club and he’ll always know what I’ll bring off the pitch too. It’s so important to get everyone rowing in the same direction and have that strong base, after a relegation.” One of the issues Pell has now is that he insists on both calling Johnson and Flynn ‘gaffer’. “I’d never, ever dare call him Gary!” he laughs.

Pell then enjoyed a family holiday to Turkey along with newly-appointed assistant manager Aaron Downes, who was best man at his wedding. The two have been close friends since first meeting as players at Cheltenham in 2015. “I speak to Downesy every day and he’s like family,” Pell says. “But we’ll have a different relationship at work and it’s definitely not in his makeup to give me any special treatment. The season we won the league we fell out more than people would ever believe. At half-time of one game we nearly came to blows because made a comment about me being the only one trying to try and rev everyone up, which he didn’t take too kindly to!”

West Ham United's Declan Rice and Cheltenham Town's Harry Pell
West Ham United's Declan Rice and Cheltenham Town's Harry Pell -Credit:PA Images

Pell credits Johnson and Cheltenham for putting him on the football map, which is one of the main reasons he believes he is so close with his former manager and teammates Downes and Danny Wright. “A lot of it is down to having success and the memories you create,” he says.

Pell understands that his return to Cheltenham may have prompted a mixed response, but he is adamant it was meant to be. “I'm at my best when I have a point to prove and I need to be poked and prodded by a manager, which Gary Johnson did all the time,” he says.

“People will have opinions about whether it’s right to come back, or if it’s a step backwards and if second spells are never as good, but I have a point to prove to myself and that’s all I care about really. Last year I let myself down and lost hunger for the game, which I can’t do because it’s impossible for me to perform unless I have the bit between my teeth, on the edge.

“If you train all week and know you’re going to a mannequin on a Friday, it’s tough and I did struggle with it. But it’s probably made me a stronger person. I'm desperate for Michael Flynn to succeed and I’ve seen how Downesy works and he’s the ultimate professional.

“With GJ upstairs too, the man who started my career off and the respect I have for him, I feel it’s the perfect fit. Michael Flynn will probably be on the sidelines giving me stick and Gary Johnson will be in his ear hole as well, telling him to liven me up, but that’s how I respond. I'm expecting him to be an honest manager, who demands high standards and if I can help him in any way on, or off the pitch, I’ll be more than happy to do so with the minimum of fuss.”

Pell has been impressed with Cheltenham’s transfer business so far this summer, with Scot Bennett, Ryan Haynes, Arkell Jude-Boyd and Luke Young signed up and plenty more to come. He also knows Robins striker Matty Taylor through mutual friends. "I found myself on a stag do with Tayls for around four days... two would have been enough!" he jokes. “But on a serious note, you see time and time again teams go down and have a hangover, but we have enough characters and experience to get Cheltenham Town back on track, with everyone pulling in the same direction.

"You can judge how strong a club is by the togetherness of the board, staff, players and of course the fans. Clubs like Stockport and Portsmouth last year, you could see they were on their way and so strongly united. We have a lot of people here who want to be here, which is very important and I can’t wait for the season because I can sense that togetherness.”

Pell has just been sent the pre-season training schedule, which begins with fitness testing on Tuesday. He has already been in, putting in extra hours ahead of what he expects to be a gruelling few weeks leading up to August 10. “I’ve never seen so many double sessions in my life!” he laughs. “The toughest pre-season I’ve had so far was under John Coleman, who used to take us into the sand dunes at Formby beach. This pre-season will be full on, but I'm excited.

“There’s something on the schedule in a different colour called ‘family day’ which I expect his Michael Flynn’s work and I think that’s class. I don’t know exactly what it is yet and it could just be a meal, but you can’t get close enough as a group and if it even helps us one per cent, it’s worth doing. I drove from my house to the training ground for the first time on Friday and the memories just flooded back. I am going to work my socks off because whatever happens after these two years, I can say I’ve gone full circle at a club that properly started my career.

"Now, let’s see where it takes us, but I am going to take in every moment of every day. I feel like a kid in a sweetshop.”