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Saturday, 26 July 2014

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Francois Zoko: Carlisle United's all-action hero

Carlisle United now have their own, rewritten version of Gary Lineker’s famous quote which said football is a simple sport: 11 versus 11 for 90 minutes and then the Germans win on penalties.

Francois Zoko photo
Francois Zoko

Up here, at Brunton Park, one sight in particular is becoming so familiar that it might very well be remembered as the defining sight of Carlisle’s season.

You know how it goes by now. United turn up for a home match, make decent but complicated pursuit of the points, and then Francois Zoko scores at the end.

The vision of Carlisle’s Ivorian forward cutting through a period of frustration by finding the net at the Warwick Road End, often right at the death, is something you can pretty much set your watch by.

Tuesday’s winner, a left-footed missile from close range against Rochdale, was simply part of a very recognisable pattern.

The undeniable truth is that the Cumbrians are benefiting richly from Zoko’s capacity for playing to the end, for seeking gaps and possibilities until the very finish of a match at Brunton Park.

Of a goals tally which now stands at the dozen mark, the stats lean heavily towards the African’s liking for leaving it late.

Five of those 12 goals – nearly half, in other words – have been taken in the last six minutes of a game.

In that time alone Zoko’s boots or head have salvaged eight points without which Carlisle would be in the bottom half of League One, not a point shy of the play-off places.

These five late strikes have seen the African win matches against Yeovil, Chesterfield and Scunthorpe and force draws against Oldham and Wycombe.

Creep a little further back and you find another winner which came with less than 15 minutes on the clock, against Dale.

This is surely a precious quality because it identifies Zoko as a man capable of defining tight games, rather than a luxury scorer who only turns up when the going is favourable, or a shallow contributor to lost causes.

With 13 matches to go in a play-off race which still shows few signs of clarity, having such a lockpicker in the ranks cannot be anything but a strength for Greg Abbott and this promotion bid which refuses to die.

United’s manager defined Zoko’s latest headline-stealing display as typical of the man and also, maybe, his team.

A frustration in the first half, but the catalyst for such dramatic improvement afterwards that they were singing his name by the end.

Zoko might be a volatile customer, in terms of his 90-minute form, but the man is impossible to ignore and Abbott could scarcely avoid dwelling on the African in his post-match address.

“Francois is a matchwinner,” said the Blues boss, “but I want to talk about his work ethic.

“The harder he works, the more we see his magic. The less hard he works, the less we see of his magic.

“At half-time I had to let him know that I think he can be better. He worked harder in the second half, we saw his magic, and I loved him again. I didn’t love him in the first half.”

The suggestion that hard graft, plain and simple, was behind Zoko’s dynamism from the 46th minute onwards on Tuesday, is therefore strong from Abbott.

Other factors, if we look deeper, might include the half-time tactical shift which allowed the Ivorian to occupy a more attacking role in support of Lee Miller.

It may also be worth highlighting the improved physical condition in which Zoko professes to find himself this season. “For me, it’s not about the quality – I know what I can do – but it is about the fitness,” he said in an interview with News & Star Sport last month.

“When you know your body is strong and fit, you can do different things, better things. Sometimes the game is hard, but I know in one moment I can do something to win the game, because my body is strong.”

One other point worth noting, and which Bury – United’s opponents in two days’ time – may wish to observe, is that of his nine home goals this season, eight have been dispatched into the net at the Warwick Road End.

Again, this fits the idea that Zoko is a stronger asset when a game is past the halfway point, since the Warwick has always been Carlisle’s traditional, preferred second-half target.

Or maybe he simply looks up at the empty Waterworks terrace at the other end and sees no audience to enthral, so saves his best work for the time when he is running towards a mass of people.

It would explain a lot, certainly, because no player in blue currently has a better knack of pleasing the crowd.

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