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Can Carlisle United afford Greg's old hands?

The trouble with “hardened criminals” is they have a going rate. Greg Abbott’s preferred way of putting a squad together is no secret but it is now likely to face a test it cannot pass.

Lee Miller photo
Lee Miller

One of Abbott’s favourite phrases was launched back into play this week. It happened as the Carlisle United manager settled upon a regular starting XI whose average age was 28.

“What we want,” he said, after that team earned back-to-back victories over Tranmere and Stevenage, “is a core of really, experienced, hardened criminals for League One, and to bring in the freshness and energy of the kids bit by bit. Sometimes people think you should bang them all in, but my job is to get results.”

And then, for effect: “The experience is massive”. This is a perfectly fair philosophy but you now have to wonder whether Abbott’s desire for a squad of maturing maestros is in direct contrast to where the Blues’ budget squeeze is telling him to go.

Here in mid-February after the latest snowfall, the season still has plenty to run. But Tuesday’s loss at Scunthorpe has rendered play-off talk as over-imaginative, at best, while the relegation risk has receded since that Tranmere victory. So Abbott’s voicing of the experience principle is a good trigger for us to look forward and wonder how he can make it work in the summer, and in 2013/14.

This is where the doubts crowd in. With no sign of a crowd upturn, without the obvious headline spark to set that off, United’s close-season trading is going to be more difficult than ever.

The more you look the less possible it seems that the Blues could carry as many experienced players as they do now, even in a small squad, because capable League One professionals in their late-20s and early-30s command a certain price, and increasingly such men will be hard for United to afford.

When this season is signed off on April 27 we will soon learn the meaning of austerity. As far as Abbott’s playing budget goes – a cluster of key men are out of contract in the summer – we shall find out who will be content to accept reduced terms, who will leave to find better elsewhere, who will be the chosen few backed to be United’s big guns, and which new faces can be lured up or down the country to Brunton Park.

Some will undoubtedly be best advised to gulp and then take whatever Carlisle push across the table, since generous offers are unlikely to be stacking up. But in the open market the obvious risk is that many will not.

The implications for United’s squad in its current form are considerable. Often this year we have talked about home-grown youth but right now there are hardened criminals everywhere you look: Frank Simek, Matty Robson, Andy Welsh, Danny Livesey, Peter Murphy, Sean O’Hanlon, Paul Thirlwell, Lee Miller, JP McGovern, Adam Collin – all 28 or over, all with their deals up for inspection.

Also on board: Danny Cadamarteri and Mike Edwards, both beyond 30 and with a year apiece to run. For all the focus that the teenagers have claimed this season, along with emerging pros like Chris Chantler and Rory Loy, a large percentage of Abbott’s troops have many years on their CVs, the way he likes it.

For most of the season a favourite game is guessing who might stick around and who might be off. Even now it feels risky to predict, given how volatile this team has been. As things stand, there is particular intrigue at the back, where Sean O’Hanlon already appears of such critical importance that you would want him to be chained to the railings.

Reading between the lines, from Abbott’s interviews, the defender did not come in on top dollar when he was brought out of the wilderness, at a time when he confessed his phone “wasn’t ringing”. This worked in United’s favour but how different will the picture be a couple of months on, if his displays have been consistently strong and his value higher? If Carlisle wish to retain such a player (and Abbott does) one assumes they will have to pay for it.

Decisions like these will have their own ripple effect. Just now you may not back against a new deal for Livesey, if his and O’Hanlon’s is a strong centre-half pairing in the making. Edwards, though not a success in his first term here, is contracted for 12 more months.

That would appear to leave Murphy as the extra man, in terms of the payroll, but a guiding principle across his 10 years with United is never to rule the Dubliner out, never to assume he’s on the wane.

A man who has given such long and brilliant service deserves at the very least not to be discounted this early. Knowing his form for rebounding he’ll be back in the side next week. Beyond that, his fate deserves careful and sensitive consideration, more than some heroes have received at pivotal times, such as Kevin Gray, whose release in 2007 felt too sharp a cut.

In other positions there will be decisions to be made by club and players. A suspicion is that one reason Abbott is not yet willing to rely heavily on the likes of Brad Potts and Dave Symington in his team is that a long game is under way.

Given the climate, those young players will be needed even more next year. Exposing them to burn-out now may be unwise if they will in 2013/14 be slightly more experienced figures, more recognisable and ready for more responsibility.

Given the tightness of the belt, Abbott may have little alternative. The same will go for the next wave of teenagers who step up. As the club’s head of youth, Eric Kinder may never have felt such responsibility for the first-team’s cause.

In terms the new players United will have to attract, the signs also point to youth, not age, and perhaps a few more gambles than Abbott would prefer to take.

This does not have to be something to fear. In 2011 Brighton won League One with an average age of 25. Without funds it will be harder for Carlisle to match that sort of rise but the notion can still be embraced, nurtured, encouraged.

In the end they may have no choice. Today’s teenager is next year’s old hand.

Have your say

How,s about a big pat on the back for Jon Colman whose reports recently, have been as good,if not better,than any top media sports writers!

Posted by kevin bowes on 20 March 2013 at 13:12

well done carlisle keep up the great work last night was great to see !!haha

Posted by leeds till we die on 27 February 2013 at 08:46

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