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Thursday, 23 October 2014

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These numbers only add up to one thing

It started with Lee Miller, who was first out of the tunnel when Carlisle United faced Leyton Orient on August 3. Where it will end, who can say?

Lee Miller photo
Lee Miller

In this season of uncertainties, only one thing looks likely – that the United team that leaves the pitch after the 46th and final game of the campaign at Wolverhampton next May will be full of record-breakers.

To date, 33 men have pulled on the blue shirt for first-team action in the opening 17 weeks of 2013/14. By the time Graham Kavanagh has got to the end of January, that figure is sure to have leapt again.

Given that the maximum used by the club in an entire season is 40, we appear to be heading towards a high point for player influx on Warwick Road. Or a low point, judging by the historical picture.

It is hardly revealing the secrets of the universe to suggest that a club’s success rate is roughly equal to how few players it needs over a campaign. Still, it is striking how Carlisle’s story over the last couple of decades can be told in this way.

The high numbers reflect struggle and chaos. The lower figures, relative success.

When Roddy Collins fielded 40 first-teamers to get the Blues through the 2002/3 season, each one an individual sugar-rush when better nutrition was needed, the club was at its flabbiest. It took Brian Wake’s hat-trick heroics in the penultimate game to keep United in the Football League.

Within two seasons, the more measured Paul Simpson had trimmed the required men to a more modest 28, as the club earned promotion from the Conference.

We see this pattern throughout. When Mervyn Day led United up from Division Three in 1996/7, a year after three outfield substitutes were first allowed (a watermark for squad sizes), he did so with just 27 players.

Other strong seasons show the same: 2005/6 (25 players), 2007/8 (28) and 2011/12 (26). By predictable contrast, some of their worst campaigns saw the entrance door flapping like a gate in a hurricane: 1999/2000 (36 players), 2001/2 (38), 2008/9 (37).

It would obviously be wrong to bracket Kavanagh with those latter eras, since his reign is less than three months old and the consequences of much of his recruiting unknown. Having identified various faults upon appointment, he has surely acted as most managers would, given the resources for which he publicly praised his directors yesterday.

A new leader is quite entitled to plan for the future in his own way. And it cannot be said that he has not signed decently so far. Other than the early failure of Nathan Eccleston, the other incomers have added a certain something: Pascal Chimbonda, Prince Buaben, Max Ehmer and Ben Amos. Hopefully Thursday’s new faces Craig Roddan, Josh Morris, Tom Lawrence and Courtney Meppen-Walter will also prove wise captures.

This is plainly different from a scenario when a manager is given the freedom to keep failing in the market beyond the point when it is obvious that his only skill is an ability to observe the law of averages. But it still rams home a certain reality at Brunton Park right now.

Carlisle’s problem is not that Kavanagh is increasing the squad list apace, but that he felt the need to at all. If there has been a bulging at the seams it is because what happened before was directing the Blues to failure – and that this drift was forgiven for too long.

In these circumstances it would be rich for anyone at Brunton Park to hint that supporters are not turning up as they should, and that this is principally what is holding the club back. The truth is that, in the times that they did, their turnstile investment was not cherished in the right way and the healing process cannot possibly be instant.

Carlisle’s last two home crowds have dipped below 3,000. It is true that the latest, against Crewe, coincided with televised Champions League games, and this is a challenging matter for lower-league football in general.

But the showing of big European games on midweek TV is not a new development. United’s attendance crash is the more recent happening. Unless there is an emphasis on self-diagnosis here, there is little hope.

Supporters will note that a significant wage continues to be paid to the dismissed Greg Abbott, as a result of the year’s contract extension which was prematurely offered and then proceeded with on a gentleman’s agreement, despite decline on the pitch having left the managerial position ripe for revision.

This may not be the only reason Carlisle are struggling but there may be no greater explanation as to why many lost faith in the decision-making processes at Brunton Park, and why the next unbeaten run did not instantly draw them back.

Supporting a club of Carlisle’s stature can never be a sure bet. But when certain things are apparent to the majority, and necessary action does not follow: that is when doubts become ingrained and, once there, difficult to shift.

People can only judge upon what they see and hear. If there has not been enough obvious evidence of acumen and purposeful direction over time, this requires United to supply some, with patience, depth and a good deal more creativity.

Ideally Kavanagh’s deadline-day additions will help here, but this cannot be all.

It is said that some encouraging hints about the future were made to shareholders at last week’s AGM. If so these need to be disclosed at the double, with those responsible willingly open to full scrutiny.

We must all be given the chance to look, to listen, to challenge, to examine. To be cheered, hopefully, by the outlook presented. To be trusted with detail. To be asked to play an involved part.

This is not just an ideal scenario, it is essential. Given the current limitations, all Kavanagh can realistically do this season is keep United honest, spin a little gold from what he is given, hope that each new face disguises a little of the failing and the waste that went before.

It is next summer, surely, when his time will come to implement lasting change. Should supporters be given enough reason to believe in the overall direction, he will have a puncher’s chance. If they don’t, he will have almost none at all.

Have your say

Intelligent, thought-provoking, challenging, brilliant. Jon Colman is the best CUFC fans' ambassador!

Posted by Iain on 6 December 2013 at 08:44

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