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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Carlisle Utd boss taking everything in his stride - with a little help from Bobby Robson

Those who believe that Greg Abbott is evolving into a more rounded football manager may take encouragement from his choice of reading material during the quiet days of this latest close-season.

Mike Edwards photo
Mike Edwards

Twelve months ago, Abbott stepped into a formative year of his reign after closing the hard covers of The Smell of Football, Mick ‘Baz’ Rathbone’s darkly humorous account of a career impeded by a crushing lack of confidence.

During that September’s slump it seemed like a soundtrack for a fall, until Abbott picked himself and his team up again and guided them to their best league finish for four years.

The Carlisle boss’s volume of choice for his summer break this time was another football autobiography, but one from the game’s peaks: Farewell But Not Goodbye, author Sir Bobby Robson.

The warm, sea breeze in Alcudia, and Sir Bobby’s inspirational words: it might be enough to convince a manager that he’s invincible. But even in paradise the uncertainties can't be chased away.

“It was an unbelievable read,” said Abbott, “because it told me that the problems are exactly the same, even at the levels Bobby Robson played and managed at.”

Abbott once compared his perilous profession to “dodging an oncoming train.” His point about the late, legendary Robson was that even the greats have to do some swerving, from time to time.

Down in League One, where Abbott returns for his fourth pre-season as manager today, the hazards remain.

At least in Carlisle’s case this has been no summer of large-scale overhaul.

Departures have been notable but Abbott has greeted them calmly, which may not have been the case had they occurred during his feisty, troubled early weeks in charge, back in 2008/09.

England’s 10th longest-serving manager will never be a model of serenity but it’s undeniable that Abbott has grown into a steadier operator during his eventful time in charge. Today, when his squad reassembles on the training pitch, Abbott will insist that the baggy-eyed, drained stumble to the line last April is a thing of history.

That narrow failure to make the play-offs cannot be allowed to leave behind any “hangover”, the Blues boss insisted, when fielding a question from his own media officer, Andy Hall.

“I don’t think there’s anything to be hungover about,” he said. “I think we’re still drinking.”

This is a typical Abbott quip and a manner of speaking he finds easiest when the pressure is low. July 5, when all teams are level on zero points, is not the most stressful time of a boss’s life.

But behind the humour, which is usually there, burns an honest belief that the Blues can keep progressing on Abbott’s watch, whatever the difficulties, which in Carlisle's case are mainly financial.

“A season takes a lot out of you,” he said. “With a fortnight to go last season I was on my backside.

“That’s the time where you say to players, ‘Take me across that line.’

“We couldn’t quite make it but it’s water under the bridge now.

“We’ve had our break and I’m ready now. I’m bouncing and feeling positive. There will be obstacles in the way but I’m really looking forward to the challenge again.”

No summer can be without change of a kind. At United the eye must adjust to a team without Tom Taiwo, Francois Zoko and Lubo Michalik, among others. The gaze will instead settle on the new recruits, Mike Edwards and Danny Cadamarteri, and whichever other additions Abbott can bolt onto a squad which appears to have a good core but remains short of a fresh face or two.

“We’re evolving now. We’re not resurrecting anything,” said Abbott, United’s most durable boss since Bob Stokoe in the 1980s, who had lots of fires to fight to start with, some of his own making, but not nearly so many today.

“If you are any kind of decent manager you have to be in a position to expect things [like players leaving].

“The challenge is to bring in players who are going to make us equally good, if not better. And as a group we stick together.”

The latter remark will be pressed home when Abbott kicks off the pre-season drills with a team meeting: a device he uses, from time to time, when he feels a few sharp messages are required.

This time it is employed from the very beginning as a way of setting down some principles for the journey up ahead.

“It is vital they all know and understand where we are right now,” the manager said. “Every season is different. Sometimes you’re in a better position, sometimes worse. Sometimes you have more money, sometimes less. Sometimes you have a stronger or weaker group. In the end you have to be honest and say that the only people who can do anything about it is the backroom staff and players.

“We are the ones that can make it better. If we start with wins in the league and cup runs, and bring in extra crowds, everybody wins. If we don’t perform, everybody loses, from the manager down to the fans.

“I don’t want to be in that losing position. I want the players to know the importance of their role. I can’t wait for the meeting. It’s planned, written out, there is a strategic theme to it and the players have to want to understand.”

United’s strength under Abbott has been in this regard: an esprit de corps which has enabled them to get through many demanding days, and which last season backed up the enormously influential work of Lee Miller, their talismanic centre-forward, to take them to the brink of the top six.

Miller’s return from injury is the first obvious boon to report today. Rory Loy’s comeback from a broken leg has been a longer haul but bulletins say the former Rangers man is progressing to plan. Chris Chantler, the third of last spring’s wounded warriors, is another available body for the approaching friendlies.

Other questions which will be answered over a generally low-key programme of warm-up games concern Abbott’s ability to cover Taiwo’s midfield energy and Zoko’s sometime genius, and how easily JP McGovern can be re-integrated into the operation after coming close to leaving Carlisle over the summer (he still might, according to Abbott in his recent discussion on the subject).

At least Edwards and Cadamarteri add a battle-hardened feel to a squad that looked a shade green when Miller’s injured groin took him out of the frontline on Easter Monday.

“We’ve got a lot of meat on the bones, a lot of quality,” said Abbott, who has the reliables – Miller, James Berrett, Danny Livesey, for instance – on board and at the centre of all his plans for 2012/13.

“Now we’re talking to some decent players to add the final bit. We have to be patient to get the right ones. But today I’m really comfortable.

“If all the ones we’re chasing turn us down, then that’s the time to get anxious, but there’s a lot of positivity in the way players are talking and receiving our club.”

At an early glance League One seems a touch less formidable, with Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield having departed, but there are so many unpredictables in their place that most guesses are unwise at this stage, with August 18 – when league combat begins – still a distant dot.

United, at least, attack their latest campaign on ever-tighter resources but fuelled by the faith of a manager who still believes he can scale the peaks. Sir Bobby, one of football’s greatest hopers and dreamers, would surely enjoy these messages.

“We are respectful of every club, every manager and every group of players, but I’m going to make sure my players do exactly what I’m asking, and with a real toughness, strength and determination that we are out there to be feared and respected as well,” Abbott said, summarising his manifesto.

“We will go into the season full of optimism and hope. I’ve got a silent feeling that we’ll be ok.”

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