Ethon Varian insists playing alongside Wales hero Joe Allen provided an invaluable learning curve, hailing the nurturing influence and effortless class of the silky playmaker.
However, the Ireland under-21 internationalist is adamant the time was right to cut his teeth in senior football with Raith Rovers.
Varian, 18, has enjoyed a fine apprenticeship to date, emerging as a prolific goalscorer at under-18 and under-23 level for Stoke after making the move from his native Cork in 2018.
The striker can count the likes of Ryan Shawcross, Kevin Wimmer and Moritz Bauer among his teammates in Premier League 2 (PL2) action, but former Liverpool and Swansea man Allen — named as new skipper at the Bet365 Stadium last week — stands unsurpassed.
In one of the matches in which the duo were in the same side — a 4-3 triumph over West Brom’s kids — Varian bagged a hat-trick and Allen ran the show from midfield.
“Playing along side Joe when he came back from injury was amazing,” Varian told Courier Sport. “He played a couple of games for Stoke’s under-23 side when he was getting his fitness back and you could just see how good he was.
“He would create chances so effortlessly, always seemed to be in space and was just miles ahead of the game. There’s something brilliant about a player who does the simple things perfectly, and he was on a different level.
“He would see the entire game play out in front of him and his awareness was incredible.
“He’s a good person to have at that level because he’s always there to help the youngsters along. He leads by example and is always ready to give advice or answer questions.”
Varian was similarly grateful for the chance to go up against a host of experienced, seasoned defenders on the occasions they would drop down to PL2 level.
A tussle against Reading skipper Liam Moore sticks in the youngster’s mind as a wake-up call — even if he did score twice in a 3-1 win over the Royals.
“Although you are playing under-23s, you’ve got to relish it when you go up against seasoned players who have dropped down from the first team,” he added. “That always whet my appetite to play senior games.
“They are more experienced and can read the game, so you need to be better; be smarter with your movement; be more clinical. It makes you a better player.”
However, what will truly make Varian a better player in the long run is regular first-team football in a senior league, with precious points up for grabs.
— Ethon Varian (@VarianEthon) April 13, 2021
Stoke City boss Michael O’Neill, formerly Brechin manager and a fine Dundee United and Hibernian player, knows Scottish football inside-out and urged Varian to jump at the chance to hone his skills at Stark’s Park.
“This is a big jump for me but it’s a challenge that I felt I needed to take,” he continued. “Stepping out of my comfort zone will help my development.
“It was time for me to play regular men’s football. My aspiration is to make that step from Stoke’s under-23s to the first team and, to do that, you need experience in senior football.
“The gaffer [O’Neill] told me a move to Scottish football would be a positive step. He knows about the standard up here and the quality of some of the teams, and I’m sure he’ll be keeping tabs on things.”
And, having made his under-21 debut for Ireland in a 2-1 win over Wales in March, Varian is keen to remain on the radar of the boys in green.
The all-action forward joined Stoke from local Cork side Greenwood FC at the age of 16 and, just like another of that club’s alumnus — 14-cap Sheffield United ace John Egan — he has international aspirations.
“That’s a level I want to get back to and if I can make my mark — score goals, create goals — then hopefully that will come,” added Varian, who will be in action when Rovers face Inverness on Saturday.
“Playing for your country is all you want to do growing up so it was a huge moment for me to get called up. I’ll just try to keep performing and hopefully keep catching the eye.”