József Varga is a man of mystery. His time on Teesside saw the Hungarian aid Aitor Karanka in laying the defensive foundations upon which successive promotion campaigns would be built. Varga had all of the makings of a classic cult hero. He always gave one hundred percent for the shirt, he flew into tackles and was part of a side that was steadily improving.
Yet, he has almost been whitewashed from Boro history. There isn’t any “on this day” facts or birthday wishes posted on social media about him and he would never be mentioned in a conversation about the best right-backs to represent the club in the past decade.
Is it because, in reality, József Varga was nothing more than a mediocre stopgap who accidentally stumbled into being a right back?
No, it’s because József Varga and Middlesbrough Football Club have been covering up the truth about the Hungarian and the real nature of his loan move from Debrecen for years. Until now.
Until we went full Louis Theroux and discovered that József Varga was in fact a hitman for hire, a mercenary from the Hungarian underworld who was paid off the record, to fix a problem that had plagued the club for some time.
József Varga was the man tasked with eliminating the right-back curse from the Riverside Stadium for good.
Arriving on Teesside in the summer of 2013, Agent Varga was given a viable cover story by Tony Mowbray, as a defensive midfielder brought to reinforce the engine room alongside fellow new boys Dean Whitehead and Jacob Butterfield.
He seemed to be every inch the classic Eastern European defensive midfielder; he worked and looked dead hard and displayed the talent that had seen him regularly capped for Hungary in a early season victory at Charlton.
Varga, adding bite and impetus to the midfield, would feature in the first five games of the campaign which allowed him the time to amass information on his true target.
Having lost fifteen of their last 20 games of the previous season, Tony Mowbray had attempted to rectify the teams defensive issues by replacing Justin Hoyte with Frazer Richardson, hoping that the veteran would add experience and consistency to the backline.
However, Boro conceded 21 goals in the opening 12 games of the campaign, including three against Barnsley in an infamous defeat that saw the away end erupt in scraps on a toxic afternoon.
People like to throw that word around when the atmosphere at the Riverside becomes deflated or apathetic but that day at Barnsley was truly toxic.
With Mogga, a club legend and hero of 1986, sacked shortly afterwards the game had highlighted a glaring hole in the side. During the defeat, Richardson was turned inside out on multiple occasions by Paddy McCourt and looked to be spellbound, unable to lay a foot on the ball all afternoon.
This issue was further compounded by the spotty injury record of captain Rhys Williams and the freezing out of Hoyte, the only other alternatives the team had at right-back, or so we thought.
During Aitor Karanka’s first month as manager, following Mowbray’s depature, József Varga was finding it hard to break into the team after being sidelined with a hip injury picked up on international injury.
While it seemed that he was suffering the fate of many players working under a new manager, seen as part of the issues of the old regime, the Hungarian was readying himself to shed his undercover identity as a midfielder and strike out.
After only featuring for three minutes under Karanka, Varga was a surprise inclusion in the team that started against Millwall in the days before Christmas. What was even more surprising was where the Hungarian was lining up.
József Varga was playing at right-back and he ended up being pretty alright at it.
After only keeping 7 clean sheets throughout the course of 2013, up until that game against Millwall, Boro embarked on a run of eight clean sheets in ten games. As Karanka’s influence began to take hold of the squad and the side became more organised and drilled, points began to follow the performances, taking the team from relegation form to the comfort of twelfth place in the league.
While it was not quite the 2016 vintage to come, the defensive quartet of Varga, Ben Gibson, Dani Ayala (replaced by Kenneth Omeruo after an ankle injury) and George Friend was providing adequate protection and confidence was being restored throughout the club.
This was best highlighted in the 3-1 win against Birmingham City that April in an action-packed game that featured two wonder goals, two red cards and a backs to the walls display from Boro that would become their calling card in the promotion run-in years later.
Despite being down to 9 men, the Riverside roared and the team put everything into securing the victory. It was a night that pales into comparison against the likes of the last-gasp wins against Hull or Reading but it was then that the Spirit of Teesside was reborn.
Varga had played a major hand in helping solidify the defence and it was a shock to the Red Army when he wasn’t brought back in the summer. The little mad baldy had become a fans’ favourite. There had been an option to sign him permanently from Debrecen for a set fee of around £650,000 which seemed a bargain to plug what had previously been such a problem position.
However, Aitor Karanka decided against activating that option. While this could simply be seen as the turning point for the recrutiment policy at the club, as being “alright” was no longer considered good enough, something more sinister was at play. József Varga hadn’t done his job properly. He’d performed admirably but something wasn’t quite right.
While the right-back curse had been pacified, it hadn’t been eliminated. Something tipped Karanka off that there was still a problem plaguing the position and he was proven right as the following year both Damià Abella and Ryan Fredericks would succumb to the evil lurking on the Boro’s right hand side.
This is where the cover up began. Both the club and Varga would begin to cover their tracks with mentions of the Hungarian in the local press decreasing rapidly and his career becoming harder to track.
He was conveniently being phased out of the national team, his final cap coming just weeks after Damià’s season-ending ligament injury, while still being an integral part of the countries most successful club side Debrecen.
The conspiracy deepened when Varga was sold to Videoton FC, at a time when the club was changing its name on a regular basis due to sponsorship agreements, before joining the even lesser known Puskás Akadémia FC.
These moves, to clubs bordering the aptly named Somogy County of Hungary, kept Varga out of the limelight as he came to terms with the shame of being unable to exorcise the Riverside right-back curse.
Over four years on the run and what seemed like a lifetime of ups and downs on Teesside helped to push the name József Varga out of the MFC vocabulary.
With their job seemingly done in covering up this great scandal, Varga was allowed to return home to Debrecen this summer.
Of course, he wasn’t really an international man of mystery. József Varga was just a solid if unspectacular player that didn’t quite have the talent to match his undeniable work ethic. His efforts will always be applauded by the Boro support as he helped to usher in the beginning of good times at the club and he will remain a cult hero to some.
While all of this seemed like a silly, easy way to begin writing about the brief Middlesbrough career of József Varga, something happened that has me worried. As I went to type all of this up yesterday, my WiFi went off for the entire afternoon. It has never done that before.
It’s almost like somebody has something to hide.
Photo Credits: Teesside Live