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Friday, 18 April 2014

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Aaron Lennon is best right-sided player in country but I’m biased, says Carlisle Utd boss

On Saturday night Greg Abbott sank himself into his boyhood community at Coventry and swapped ancient stories with old friends. Tonight brings yet another reunion for Carlisle United’s manager – one that threatens to be a touch more painful.

Greg Abbott photo
Greg Abbott

In the last 24 hours Abbott has made as many encouraging noises about United’s prospects against Tottenham Hotspur as he could manage. There has been talk of creating an unfamiliar, hostile environment in which Carlisle can greet Andre Villas-Boas and all his famous players.

If fortune favours the Blues then it could indeed be a night to stay forever in the club’s history. If the expected pattern is followed, Premier League strength will have its say. Should Aaron Lennon appear on the pitch at any stage, Abbott knows an incredibly hard job will get even tougher.

Out of all the internationals who will sink their studs into Cumbrian turf this evening it is Lennon who Abbott wishes to see the most. A dozen years back, before the England caps and top-flight acclaim piled up, Spurs’ right-winger was a 13-year-old firefly in the Leeds youth set-up, where Carlisle’s boss was a coach.

Mention of Lennon’s name in the ever-excitable build up to Brunton Park’s biggest cup tie for 11 years set Abbott off on a nostalgic trip, back to the days when he had a future star under his wing.

“I hope the wee man plays,” said Abbott, who confessed he is guessing like the rest of us as to the make-up of Villas-Boas’ Capital One Cup selections. “He is a bundle of fire, with unbelievable pace. I think he’s the best right-sided player in the country, but I’m biased, because I saw him grow up.”

If a coach is fortunate enough, and stays around for the right length of time, a flash of extraordinary talent will pass his way eventually. Abbott considers Lennon the best young player he has ever worked with.

“I had not long retired, and as a 14-year-old boy he put me on my backside,” the Blues boss continued, recalling the first training-ground revelation of Lennon’s teenage skills. “He was incredible. Absolutely streets ahead of anything I’ve ever known and wonderful to work with.

“I was always pleased with the way his family trusted me to develop him. His dad, Winston, always asked me what I thought, like the time Manchester United were desperate for him at 16. I said he would probably be best staying at Leeds, getting his regular football, and that his big move would come.

“And it did. He’s now at one of the biggest, most powerful clubs going. His career has panned out nicely. The other night he was captain of Tottenham against Lazio, the little lad from Chapeltown. I was absolutely delighted for him.

“Whether he plays or not, I hope I can shake his hand and wish him well, and get his shirt. I’m going be the first to ask for it, because it will be going up on my wall.”

With Villas-Boas’ likely choices hard to fathom for observers close to White Hart Lane, let alone those of us this far north, there can be no guarantees that the 25-year-old Lennon will fly down the side of Carlisle’s pitch this evening. But whether Abbott can add to his memorabilia collection or not, a captivating challenge for United undoubtedly lies ahead.

And this is how Abbott wishes his players to see it: a challenge, a test, a standard to aspire towards. An hour-and-a-half’s experience that might not come again for a decent while.

The Carlisle manager’s final press briefing before this third round tie saw many serious thoughts mixed with humour. Abbott could not appear any less stressed about the prospect of lining his League One hopefuls up against one of the top teams in England but do not let him convince you he has not drawn up some careful plans.

United, first of all, leap into the game having not been beaten in their last four outings. This run has topped up Abbott’s optimism and his sense of fun. “How AVB is going to deal with Danny Livesey’s headers that go out of play when he appears to be looking in a different direction, I want to know,” he said. “I’ll have a glass of wine with him afterwards to find out.”

This banter masks the plotting, of course, which Livesey will know as much as any reader. In fact, the no-frills defender was at the heart of Carlisle’s last brave salvo against top opposition, when he hit the crossbar at Everton in the FA Cup in 2010. A few inches south and an eventual 3-1 defeat might have been something much more spectacular.

“That Everton game was one of the best performances in my time here,” said Abbott, observing the theme. “We got close to them, and this time, as usual, we have tried to put in place a game plan to work as hard as we can to keep Tottenham at bay, and cause them as many problems as possible.

“They’ll have quality in their side, there’s no doubt about that. The impact would be phenomenal if we got through. It would be a fairytale. But it’s fair to say we start as underdogs.”

Many of the manager's brighter thoughts can quickly be reduced to smithereens if Villas-Boas’ players are in the mood. How can United avoid such an anti-climax, and at least give 12,000 home fans something to cheer, whether or not it is the fantasy scenario of a giantkilling?

“Well, we have to hope that [Tottenham] come here and don’t like the surroundings,” said the United boss. “The cold weather, the long journey, the fact that it’s a League One side they’re up against. If they don’t deal with all that, we can cause a shock. The one thing they will enjoy is the pitch, which will be as good as theirs.

“We know everything has to go our way. We have to play above our station, show great determination and enjoyment for the task ahead, and not give away early goals cheaply. That way we will have a fighting chance.”

Let’s say, though, that Villas-Boas stacks up all his strongest cards after all, and United's players look up after the pre-match formalities to see Gareth Bale, Jermain Defoe and nine other household names looking back. How do the Blues play the men and not the reputations?

“I can’t really answer that,” Abbott said. “When I played I never bothered about reputations. I was equally bad against Manchester United and Tottenham as I was against Aldershot and Accrington Stanley.

“I just think that once the game starts, you forget about things like that, and it’s 11 v 11. I played against Paul Gascoigne at the time he was the best in England, but I scored in the game and he then became pretty insignificant.

“It's only after the game you realise you’ve scored against Gascoigne and it’s a story you can tell later in life.

“The opportunity is there for our players to tell the stories that they beat a side with Lennon in, or Bale, or Adebayor. Of course it will be hard. There’s nothing we know about Tottenham that hasn’t been shown before. In fact, we probably know their second 11 better, because a lot of those players have been on loan at our level – the Caulkers, the Townsends. So if those players start we might have a fighting chance of knowing what their team is like.”

The benefits of welcoming Tottenham north have already been felt inside Brunton Park. The loan signings of Kallum Higginbotham and Joe Garner (the latter man is cup-tied tonight) are directly linked, Abbott said, to the revenue that will come pouring in from the biggest crowd for four years.

Looking forward, the appeal has also gone out for some of tonight's star-spotting thousands to return for a less glitzy game against Crawley, three days later. It is certainly true to say that United at all levels must be ready to capitalise on a feel-good factor once their illustrious guests have wiped their feet and left town.

But that comes after the challenge, which has Abbott looking back for omens and then gazing forward, imagining that his gang of journeymen and young prospects can do something unforgettable.

“I’ve actually knocked Tottenham out of the cup before,” he said, by way of teasing the North London visitors. “It was with Bradford, and I was instrumental in the goal. It was a four-inch pass to Brian Mitchell, who smashed it in from 35 yards. So I claimed an assist!

“But this is about the fans and the players – the fans hoping to see a great game, and us competing against one of the top clubs in the country.”

The anticipation is as big as the gulf. For proper context it pays to think of the young player whose second-round goal against Ipswich got United here in the first place.

“Dave Symington, an 18-year-old lad from Workington – he was 50-50 to get a contract and was in tears in my office when we gave him the deal," Abbott said. "Within three months of that, he’s got the chance to play against some of the best in the world, and he should be proud.

“Lennon. Bale. Symington. That takes some getting over.”

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