Michael Appleton has thrown down the gauntlet to Luke Varney and told him: Get back to how I remember you.
The Blues forward was hauled off at half-time in Pompey’s 4-3 win at Doncaster and has been a shadow of the player who joined the club in the summer since his return from injury.
While a knee problem saw him sidelined for nearly three months, Appleton believes Varney’s confidence has taken a hit by a barren run in front of goal that stretches back to his double in the 3-1 home win against Doncaster back in October.
But after a training ground discussion with the former Derby man yesterday, the Pompey boss insists he would have no qualms about turning to him for tonight’s must-win home clash with Crystal Palace – even though Dave Kitson, Marko Futacs and Ashley Harris are all vying for starts.
Appleton said: ‘After Saturday, Luke is a little bit down and you would expect that. But I think he understands.
‘It’s not quite happened for him since he has come back from his injury.
‘I think he is an honest lad but, for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened.
‘I only saw bits of Varns before I came here. But the bits I did see of him, I was impressed.
‘The Luke Varney I remember before I came to the club was someone who was a pest and was always looking to get in behind defenders.
‘He has done that in a couple of games since he came back but not in enough.
‘I just asked him to give me that type of performance when he’s on the pitch.
‘I’ve got no problems with him as a lad and he seems to be putting the effort in, but it’s just not been working out for him.
‘So I had a good conversation with him and I’ve got no problems about throwing him in against Palace. I’m sure he’d be fine.’
With five goals this term, Varney was seen as a key figure on his return to fitness.
And Appleton believes that increased expectation may have played a part.
He said: ‘I don’t think the injury is still a factor.
‘When he was out of the side, we were looking for a spark in terms of a goalscorer.
‘When he came back, there was a lot of pressure on his shoulders – not necessarily from myself but from everyone in general because they were looking for that big spark.
‘Maybe he has suffered a bit with that.
‘I would say 90 per cent of football is what’s going on in your head, rather than your feet. A lot of it is psychological and mental.
‘So if you’re not in a great place confidence-wise, it’s so difficult to play sometimes.
‘I know because I have been there and done it.
‘When you’re not scoring as a front player, no matter how strong your personality is, it’s very, very difficult. It can sap your energy a bit.
‘From the goalscoring point of view, I told him “if it happens, I’ll be delighted but I just need you to be a nuisance for me”.’