the square ball week: varney armyBack
Football is supposed to be a game of non-stop, flowing movement – even when Michael Brown is playing it. It’s one of the reasons why America has never fully embraced the world’s game; the World Series, for example, works itself out episodically, play by play, and that’s how the Yanks like it – slow and easy. If you tried to write down a football match play by play like a baseball game, you’d find the plays coming faster than you could write them. Yes, even when Michael Brown is playing.
The theory behind the differing excitement levels in football is that the ball should rarely leave play – it’s a danger at all times, able in a second to be shifted from one end to another, from defence to attack, from almost conceding to scoring in one graceful movement. That’s not always the reality, though. I said at times last season that being at Elland Road was like being at a cricket match: in the stands we’d talk among ourselves, looking from time to time at the field to see if anything was happening. Especially when Michael Brown was playing. Football might have constant action in theory, but it shares with baseball a reliance on big moments that change a game, memorable plays that alter the course of the game, and can instantly change a club’s destiny from failure to glory. And back again.
In might not have been the shot heard round the world, but Luke Varney’s nine minute hat-trick at Stevenage was one of those moments that football throws up from time to time. Football is more whimsical than baseball in this way, too: while a big play in baseball is broadcast to every television set in North America and replayed again and again, football will happily give away its grandstand moments in front of the less than grand stands of the Lamex Stadium. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a big deal, especially for Varney.
Leeds always seem to have a scapegoat figure – and this is rapidly turning into the Michael Brown column – but while the gallows humour at Elland Road is often harsh, it’s rarely undeserved. Varney suffered last season through Neil Warnock’s comparions to Robert Snodgrass, but he also suffered because most of the time he was playing really badly. Add to that his apparent sense of humour failure about the ironic ‘Varney Army’ chants, and the televised refusal to applaud the fans at Hillsborough, and you had a mismatch that seemed to sum up the way Leeds United were going under Warnock. We still loved the club and were desperate to get behind the team, but we had a group of players only their mothers could love, with Varney among the least likeable of the bunch. As another aimless Varney cross failed to get within twenty yards of Steve ‘Not Becchio’ Morison’s head, I had to sit on my hands, bite my lip, resist the urge to yell obscenities.
New manager, new season, ugly new strip (and away strip), new start, new Varney: summer’s the time for all that. It didn’t, at first, look like anything had changed in Luke’s world. Our pre-season game against a Slovenian third division select featured a stand out moment from Varney: through on goal, he controlled a high pass, then promptly fell to the ground and rolled away like a rolling pin thrown down a hill. It looked like same old typical Varney, and the first half at Stevenage didn’t offer much more hope. Then came the nine mad minutes he needed.
After losing to Walsall, defeat at Stevenage would have pushed panic buttons for a lot of people, and Brian McDermott must have known that as he put Ross McCormack and Rodolph Austin on with the mission of winning the last half an hour. Austin might not be available for the first games of the season, but Leeds need to go into those games with the steam engine momentum The Beast provides, and his cameo at the Lamex combined with Varney’s reinvention turned pre-season around. Austin’s cross for Varney brought the goal Leeds needed to stop this silliness of losing to lower division sides, and with that Varney was off: two more, plus an invitation to the fans to join him for a party on the pitch. Nobody took him up on the offer; he’s not that popular. Yet.
With Becchio thrown away like an unwanted rag doll, Morison chased out of town by an angry mob, Diouf missing all pre-season injured and Mathieu Smith untried, the opportunity is there for Varney to stake a claim up front. His two headers against Sheffield Wednesday last year were brilliant striker’s efforts, and if you ask Luke himself, that’s where he wants to play. “I feel like I’ve moved on from the difficult times and I want to hit my peak this season,” he told the Yorkshire Evening Post, which is why those three scoring moments provided such relief from the pre-season moil. We needed something to happen to switch the mood, and while Nurnberg are an unknown and possibly very tough proposition at Elland Road this weekend, it’ll be nice to turn up feeling confident, looking forward to a show from Varney. Words I never thought I’d write.
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