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Thursday, 02 October 2014

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Goal-hungry Carlisle Utd must bolt their back door

After the chaos comes the scrutiny, and today our task is to set to one side the bubbling drama of MK Dons 3, Carlisle 4 and get to work on the one clunking flaw which will continue to hold back this perplexing Cumbrian season.

There are some at Brunton Park who will argue that the aftermath of such a welcome and dramatic victory isn’t the best time to be inspecting the machinery for faults. That to point out a failing or two after the defeat of League One’s sixth-placed team at their own fortress is rather mean-spirited.

Nonsense, I say. It is precisely at these moments that constructive criticism needs to hit the page. What we are arguing for here is for United to strengthen from a position of strength, as opposed to the carcass-kicking that often takes place after a defeat.

Carlisle’s edging of a seven-goal epic at stadium:mk has undoubtedly bolstered the psychological ramparts down Warwick Road, so what follows should be taken as the necessary throwing of light on a problem rather than an attempt to hack away at the positive feelings generated by that triumph in Buckinghamshire.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you United’s clean sheet record in the league this season, which should probably be read with a glass of water to hand. Two out of 18.

Only in 11 per cent of Carlisle’s matches have they padlocked the safe from minutes one to 90. Granted, three of their cup engagements this term have also resulted in blanks at the back; another will be most welcome when Norwich rumble into town this afternoon.

But come next May it will be the Blues’ resting place in League One that will provide the source material for our lasting conclusions, not the entertaining (and potentially lucrative) frolics in the FA and Carling Cups and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

In previous seasons on the United beat it became a matter of enjoyable routine to interview Keiren Westwood about the formidable number of clean sheets he was stacking up between the Cumbrian posts. Such stories were handy measuring sticks for Carlisle’s mid-noughties era of progress.

Brilliant though Westwood was, it was slightly misleading to acclaim the goalkeeper alone, because those ‘shut-outs’ were also the property of defenders like Danny Livesey, Peter Murphy and Kevin Gray, all of whom deserved to have medals pinned to their tunics for protecting their target so successfully.

If memory serves, in 2005/6 Livesey struck a wager with Billy Barr, then United’s first-team coach, and cashed in on the final day of the campaign when the mountainous clean-sheet target of 20 was hit.

Similarly impressive tallies were achieved under Neil McDonald in 06/07, and under Greg Abbott and John Ward the following season, before last term’s grim unravelling.

So this season’s meagre stat will feel like a knife to the pride of someone like Livesey, who knows how it feels to be part of a much stingier unit.

The paradox of the last couple of months is that Abbott has hit upon a much steadier-looking back four of Richard Keogh, Livesey, Ian Harte and Evan Horwood – protected by the brilliant young scavenger Tom Taiwo – but only against the League Two also-rans of Morecambe in the FA Cup have they managed to keep an opponent at the gates.

And not since John Barnes’ bedraggled Tranmere were cuffed 3-0 have Carlisle negotiated a league game without the ball rippling their own net at least once.

Goal prevention is a team game, of course, so it’s wrong just to finger the defenders for this (Abbott’s bold decision to swap Lenny Pidgeley for Adam Collin in goal on Tuesday was another managerial admission that his team is not yet at its tightest).

And ample credit can certainly head Abbott’s way for coaxing a welcome burst of goals from his team (17 in their last eight games, many of them from expertly-worked set-pieces), but those strikes will not hold sufficiently high currency until those holes at the other end are plugged, on training ground and chalkboard.

On Tuesday night Carlisle were recast as Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle: score as many as you like, and we’ll get one more. It was all riotous fun. Then you remembered how many trophies King Kev put on the Toon’s table, and concluded that prizes will remain beyond United’s reach until they get that back door locked.

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