By Rob Atkinson
Leeds United's pre-season programme hit a real low point at Walsall, the 1-0 defeat seemingly the least of the problems on a night when the team's performance levels were a world away from what will be needed in the nitty-gritty of the Championship marathon to be run over the next nine months. It was the pallid nature of the Leeds side's display which had the supporters tearing out their
hair by the roots. As this is an option denied to our smooth-domed manager, Brian McDermott settled for dubbing the match his "worst day as Leeds manager".
Happily, in the next outing at Stevenage, both performance and result were immeasurably better. A 3-0 stroll away from home is always a decent result, whatever the opposition. Stevenage may not be the stiffest possible test, but at home they have slain many a higher-grade opponent as Newcastle could testify. The stand-out role on the night was filled by Luke Varney, last season's pariah-in-chief, a man who has been described as having all the popularity and appeal of a fart in a spacesuit. It could take a miracle to redeem a reputation like that, and a nine-minute second-half hat trick might just qualify considering Varney's utter failure to pull up trees in a Leeds shirt last season, the odd flash of promise notwithstanding. Such was the vitriol aimed at the ex-Pompey hitman last time around that you might wonder if even such a lethally-effective performance might help his cause. But wonder of wonders, the Leeds fans appear to have taken note, and appear disposed to look much more favourably upon Mr Varney.
On the face of it, this is a little strange. Leeds fans are not noted for their tendency to re-appraise players once they have initially passed judgement. Dating back to the hapless Terry Yorath, it's usually been clear that once this crowd takes against you, you need to start thinking about moving on, even if it's to Coventry. That the fans now seem willing to give Varney the benefit of the doubt might say more about the increasing sense of pessimism out there, as the transfer window drags on with no further quality signings, than it does about any new-found tolerance on the part of the Leeds support. In short, if they're bigging Varney up, then things must be bad - doubtless an impression confirmed in some measure by McDermott's recent gloomy demeanour.
Perhaps, though, a new investor may be found shortly - to give us wingers? Perhaps the hangdog expression on Brian's face is just a front as he toils behind the scenes to bring us some late but great additions to our humdrum squad? Who knows? But it seems clear enough that pinning our hopes on last year's flop is not exactly a statement of optimism for how things might go this time around. It could just be that - if things do pick up on the transfer front, and if early results are favourable with Mr Varney confined to the bench - the vociferous United support will go back to having a go at the poor lad, and urging him to ply his trade elsewhere. It's not a happy thought for our hat-trick hero, and it's also possible of course that he might show himself to be true Leeds United material and bang in 15 goals before Christmas. It's to be hoped he does. But just for the moment, this new adulation says more about the general pessimism of the fans than it does about Super Luke Varney.