Neil Warnock called it the “miss of the century” and the rules of dressing-room etiquette mean Luke Varney will never be allowed to forget it.
The consolation for Leeds United’s maligned forward was the freedom to smile at his own expense after Tuesday night’s League Cup win over Southampton.
His wayward finish from all of a yard out embarrassed the one Leeds player who least needed fingers pointed at him but by full-time he was able to reflect on a performance which could mark the beginning of happier times at Elland Road.
Varney has been on United’s books for too short a period to think that the opportunity presented by a £200,000 move from Portsmouth is passing him by but his initial experience has been unforgiving. Dissatisfied with his form and jeered repeatedly by Leeds’ supporters, the 30-year-old craved a watershed moment.
On Tuesday it was his general contribution rather than his comical miss which stood out at the final whistle. Warnock declared him man of the match and said he was “instrumental” in United’s easy progression to the last eight of the Capital One Cup, a stage of the competition the club last reached in 1996.
All that was missing from Varney’s lively display was a goal. He is yet to score in 11 appearances for United and will not have a better chance than the tap-in he contrived to skew wide of a post after 15 minutes of a one-sided tie.
He slid in to attack an empty net after El-Hadji Diouf knocked a hanging cross from Aidan White along Southampton’s goalline. With visiting goalkeeper Kelvin Davis stranded on the turf, Varney allowed the ball to strike his shin and deflect behind.
Varney’s opinion of the error was nothing less than brutally honest. “I was celebrating before the ball came to me,” he said. “I’ve done it in the past. I thought one of their defenders was going to get a touch and maybe that put me off too.
“I know I should have scored and there are no excuses but even after the miss, I wanted the ball again. The fans were brilliant and told me to keep going.”
Varney’s misfortune became increasingly extreme as one shot curled around Davis’ goal and a 29th-minute lob crashed against a post. When Michael Tonge gave Varney another good chance shortly after the hour mark, Davis positioned himself well and blocked the winger’s chip with his body.
But Varney’s penetrating run created the opening goal for Tonge with 35 minutes played, and the satisfaction for Warnock was the creativity and movement offered by the forward’s selection up front.
A shortfall of chances in recent league games against Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton Athletic and Birmingham City prompted United’s manager to voice concern about a forward line which was out of sorts but difficult to change with few alternatives present in his squad.
Warnock thought seriously about playing Sam Byram as a striker on Tuesday night but was dissuaded by his coaches, Mick Jones and Ronnie Jepson. In the end, Varney took the place of Luciano Becchio despite the illness which affected him over the weekend.
“Everybody’s aware that I’ve been disappointed with how we’ve been up front,” Warnock said. “Varney showed what we’ve been missing – people running in the channels.
“Sometimes we take the easy way out but Varney did well in that respect. I first saw him playing like that at Crewe with a lad called Nicky Maynard and he epitomised everything good about us – miss of the century but man of the match for me.
“He hasn’t been very well and at half-time he was a bit sick. He looked like he was going to have to come off but I asked him to give me 15 more minutes and he gave me 40. That’s the attitude of the lad and he was instrumental.
“I almost played Sam Byram there because I wanted something different to look at. Sam’s played in a few positions so I thought ‘why not?’ But Jeppo and Mick Jones talked me out of that.”
Varney said: “Character’s a big thing in football and you have to show it. To be fair, the manager helps.
“When I signed in the summer the gaffer said ‘I know you’ll miss chances but if you do then I want you to keep getting in there.’ Having a manager like that is great. Obviously he’s had a bit of banter with me but knowing he has my back is brilliant.
“I asked the gaffer if I could have a go up front. He gave me that bit of freedom and it allowed me to be involved. I missed three or four chances through the game so I was just delighted that we got the win but when that first goal comes I’m sure I’ll start knocking a few in.”
United came in for criticism after their defeat to Birmingham last weekend – a first loss in eight games but a result which came on the back of a series of unconvincing performances.
Varney revealed that Warnock had moved to address the form of his squad on Monday morning, calling for them to “create a bit of spark”. The resulting performance took the scalp of a weak Southampton side and earned Leeds a rare appearance in the last eight of the League Cup.
Leeds will return to their Championship season away to Brighton tomorrow with Varney clear on the need to replicate Tuesday’s performance at the Amex Stadium. United fell to 11th in the league after losing to Birmingham but would climb into the top six with a victory over Brighton.
“Hopefully this is the start of something for me and the team,” Varney said.
“On Monday the gaffer called for us to create a bit of a spark. He said ‘I want to really go on a run now and get us up the league.’
“It hit home that we hadn’t put a good shift in during the past few weeks and that things needed to change. We’d let ourselves down with three draws and a defeat to Birmingham. We don’t want to be mid-table and we need to get going in the league.
“But I’ve never really had a good cup run and I’m told it’s a long time since Leeds were in the quarter-finals.
“This is a big result and it can kick-start our season. That’s what happened in the last round when after beating Everton we went on a good run.
“We based our performance against Southampton on the Everton game – a good, positive start against Premier League opposition. We showed our professionalism and they couldn’t deal with us.”