After missing out in the League Two play-offs in two of the last three seasons, runaway leaders Forest Green – 11 points clear of second-placed Tranmere with 16 games to play – have an altogether different outlook this year.
There is no denying the catalyst was last term’s semi-final exit against Newport.
Rovers lost the first leg 2-0 away at Newport and welcomed the Exiles to Gloucestershire with a mountain to climb. But they stunned their opponents by storming into a 3-2 aggregate lead with three unanswered goals in 53 minutes, then forced extra-time when the visitors pulled two back and Jamille Matt responded three minutes from time.
In the final minute of extra-time, however, veteran striker Nicky Maynard found the back of the net to send Newport through. As defeats go, it could not have been more emotionally draining.
But there was a silver lining. Forest Green caught a second wind and have not looked back.
In goal that day – and the current man between the sticks – was goalkeeper Luke McGee.
“That was my first taste of the play-offs after missing out for Peterborough and Portsmouth before and that heartbreak and feeling is something I have not ever experienced,” the stopper tells Sky Sports in an exclusive interview.
“Certainly for myself – and I’m speaking on behalf of the other lads as well – it gives us an added fuel and reason as to why we are doing what we are doing every week and hopefully not getting into that situation again, doing it automatically.
“The work the manager and the boys put in day in, day out reflects on how we are playing. A game like that does definitely give you a bit more fire in your belly.”
After Edwards took over in June, Rovers stormed to the top of the division and have barely looked back since, clearly levelling up in all aspects both on the pitch and off it.
So what has changed since the former Wales international took the reins at The Fully Charged New Lawn?
“The confidence and the day-to-day management that Rob has brought is second-to-none,” McGee says. “He has been around the game for so long and he is just an upbeat, positive character who reflects onto all of us.
“There are always going to be managers who work differently, but with Rob, if there is anything wrong whatsoever, you can go straight to him and there’s never anything negative back; it is always positive about yourself or the team. Off the pitch, he takes everything at face value and does anything he can to help.
“He really is one of the most genuine people I have come across and I think everyone buys into that, which gives us that extra bit of freshness and energy because there is so much that goes into it. The coaching staff are, honestly, one of the best I’ve worked with.”
That is high praise indeed given his pedigree.
The 26-year-old turned professional at Tottenham in July 2014 and worked with Brad Friedel, Michel Vorm and Hugo Lloris during his three years as the north London club’s third-choice goalkeeper.
“From about 17 I was training with the first team every day so that experience was superb. It was strange at first because they are the ones you drive past in the car park and never really say hello to, but then you get to know them and you realise they are only there to do their job, too.
“Michel was the best at that as he would always put his arm round me and give me advice about the things he had been through. I tried taking a little bit of knowledge from all of the other goalkeepers. it was just a massive learning curve, with nothing but positives.
“As a goalkeeper, it is a lot harder to make it so I think the longer you can stay at a club like Spurs, the better chance you have got. But it got to a time where I just thought that I needed to go and play games and start my career.”
In 2017, McGee joined Portsmouth on a three-year deal, but after 50 appearances in his first season at Fratton Park, he was frozen out and made just five more appearances over two more frustrating campaigns.
They say things happen for a reason and, as a result, it is at Forest Green he has truly flourished.
His performances so far in 2022 have caught the eye, too, with five clean sheets in six games throughout January – preceded by a freak 5-5 draw in Rovers’ final game of 2021 – earning the goalkeeper the Sky Bet League Two Player of the Month award.
“That draw was a big anomaly for us; our defence up to then was really good, so everyone wanted to get straight back on it the week after and get back to what we do.
“We then had a decent break of about three weeks where we didn’t have a game because of Covid, so our first game back was against Stevenage on New Year’s Day. There was a little bit of anticipation as to how we were going to react to that game after so long, but we hit the ground running from there and that was the start of a really good, solid month.
“A run like that just builds confidence and shows that the things you are doing day in, day out, working with the manager and the goalkeeper coach, are paying off. It gives the team a solid base to go and get goals at the other end, knowing that not too many will go in at our end.”
McGee’s 14 clean sheets from 30 games puts him second in the League Two charts – behind only Northampton’s Liam Roberts – while with 37 goals between them, Matty Stevens and Jamille Matt sit second and third in the list of top scorers. He laughs as he plays down talk of competition in training. “The more they score and the less I concede, the better!”
His two-year contract at the club is due to expire this summer, but there is a clear appetite to remain in Gloucestershire – from both a football and culinary perspective.
“It is definitely a place I want to be. The football speaks for itself, but me, my wife and my little girl are all settled, so it [extending the contract] is something we want to do. There are so many positives to go with it, especially off the pitch.
“The vegan approach wasn’t a massive factor in coming here, but it has worked out well because I’m normally the fussy one at clubs and here it is absolutely perfect. The food is very good and the ethical side behind it is something I didn’t know about before I came here.
“With Dale [chairman Dale Vince] especially, there’s no pressure to do anything. It is a case of here’s your options, here’s why we do what we do, you can make your own assumptions and choices.
“I have not actually eaten meat for the last three, three-and-a-half years. From the age of about six or seven, my wife stopped eating meat so it was always like, when she cooked it wasn’t meat and when I cooked it was meat. It got to a stage where it was just a little bit easier not to.”
With the way things are progressing so rapidly for Forest Green, it seems it will not be long before they are testing themselves in League One for the first time in the club’s 133-year history.
For now, McGee and his team-mates are not letting their minds roam free. But they know that, little by little, they are edging towards history.
“The way the manager talks and the way the boys talk between themselves, we are big on half-by-half and then game-by-game. We don’t look far into the future whatsoever; it really is taking each game at face value.
“We can’t control anyone around us, we just have to do what we do and the rest will take care of itself. As a whole, I don’t think it is pressure at all; it is something to protect and we don’t want to let go of.
“We are feeding off the buzz around the place at the moment – long may that continue. We would like to win as many of our remaining games as possible and then see what happens in a couple of months’ time.
“If we keep on going the way we are going and keep enjoying it at the same time, I’m sure we will be alright.”