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Thursday, 24 April 2014

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Keeping track of the Zoko-motive

Paul Gascoigne, another maverick, was wisest on predictions. “I don’t make them and I never will,” he said. The world duly laughed along. But some of us wish Gazza had been around a few months ago to steer us on the subject of Francois Zoko.

Francois Zoko photo
Francois Zoko

The forecasting game's only guarantee is that it will make a fool of you somewhere down the line. A safe-sounding call back in August was that Zoko would definitely not wind up as Carlisle’s leading goalscorer of 2011/12.

One only has to think back to the first few games of the season, when Zoko was paired with Craig Curran in a sterile front two, to think how far-fetched the idea was that he would become any kind of spearhead. Yet he might well end today as Carlisle's top gun.

True, Lee Miller’s regrettable absence has helped to put the Ivorian bundle of uncertainties within one goal of that title, but it’s a surprising position nonetheless.

In this space and across many corners of United’s support the conclusion had long been Zoko was best kept back from the front line, that there was no point in trying to coach him, at 28, into the cold-eyed finisher he could never become. Let the creator create, was the popular advice. Shows what we know.

Sure. Fourteen goals from a league and cup campaign does not entitle us to sign Zoko off as a Van Persie of the lower leagues. It would be inaccurate to say he has been transformed by Greg Abbott and Graham Kavanagh into a penalty-box devil at the expense of his more familiar strengths. But his finishing has got Carlisle out of more difficult places, and into more interesting ones, than anyone had imagined this season.

The productivity of Zoko’s second term in Cumbria is a useful weight against the suspicions of those who still find it hard to cheer United’s master of the unpredictable. Depending on your view, the African is either an entertainer whose flicks and feints are worth the admission, or a temperamental performer whose moods and meanderings have cost Carlisle more than they have delivered.

The Zoko camp have a stronger case this season than last. They can slap his output on to the table. They can tell you to count the greater number of points United have earned by his goals. They can argue, with evidence, that when Carlisle are chasing a result late in a game, the man whose laces you want closest to the ball belong to the man from Daloa.

The arch-loyalists believe that a few dribbles and shimmies are enough on their own, but to convert the floating voters there needs to be an outcome. Zoko has added destination to journey in 2011/12. Last term he was chiefly remembered for one starburst of a goal (the overhead kick against Hartlepool) and a cocktail of other things which were hard to define. This season he has done more that matters.

Naturally, some uncertainties remain. Abbott, who will freely confess he is still unsure quite what he is going to receive from his No13 on any given Saturday. And the suspicion inside United, that the man who boards Carlisle’s team coach for away games isn’t the same chap who ripped Huddersfield’s Jack Hunt to shreds inside Brunton Park’s comforting walls, is backed up by some of the detail: three away goals, 11 at home (including his last eight).

Perhaps Abbott should respond accordingly and offer Zoko a deal for home matches alone, and then hunt out an alternative dribbler who can more regularly cut the mustard in distant stadia. Or maybe he will reduce one more assumption to ribbons at Oldham today and take the Blues into the play-offs. Or maybe he won’t be here at all beyond this afternoon, which would be a shame but not, perhaps, the surprise of the century, since Zoko is 28 and might now want to push himself towards a bigger opportunity, should one exist. The YouTube compilation of his best moments which surfaced recently suggests his agent, at least, is ready to gamble.

This summer there is not much need to linger on the idea that Zoko should not, out of loyalty, take his trade elsewhere. We have been here before with many players but once a contract is up it’s difficult to object, provided he has not set us off on misleading trails.

Many ex-United men in such a position have played the politeness game at this time of year. When Zoko was grilled by BBC Radio Cumbria last weekend he said: “I want to stay, I like it here, my family is very good, my children, this is important, and the school and the friends. I think about this but I can’t say today I stay at Carlisle 100 per cent, I can’t say that.”

I want to stay, but I might not. A cynic translates this to: “I want to stay, but only if nobody better will have me.” The first part is the politeness bit, although his closing caveat was actually more honest than many players are in such circumstances. At least we won’t be able to lay the charge of false promises if he does pack his bags. This wouldn’t be a club and its fans paying a tear-stained farewell to its best player in ages, but nor should we allow the old English suspicion of the maverick stop us from appreciating the sense of fun he has often spread around. At worst he has been an infuriating eccentric but at best he has sent people skipping down Warwick Road chuntering that line which Michael Bridges said was his weekly motivation: “Did you see what he did?”

You wouldn’t wish for a team of Zokos but one of them has added to the gaiety of watching Carlisle these last two years, and fairness says we now have to rank him highly in United’s history of overseas players, and better than a thousand bluffers who have tugged on the sacred blue.

There was always a case for writing in this space about a different player whose contract is drifting and who has not troubled Abbott quite so much with his moods. United have many admirable yeomen who it would be wise not to lose.

But only in one case, really, could you hand over a blank canvas and hope to get back something spectacular. This is important to the idea of football being something to engage, to make the heart kick. Zoko spinning past a defender has this effect. It’s a sight that will be missed, if he goes.

So will his finishing, which isn’t a sentence we were queuing up to write at the start of term. But that’s the thing about the unexpected: sometimes it comes. That’s a handy thought for Carlisle to take to Oldham today, when you feel like telling their unlikely goals man: Go on – just leave us with a couple more.

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