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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

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'I'm nowhere near as good as I have been, I know I can do a lot better' - Lee Miller

His first word: “terrible”. By the end of the interview a few other usual suspects had been ticked off: embarrassing, atrocious, not good enough. Lee Miller was talking about himself and the team. Carlisle’s captain has never been so contrite.

Lee Miller photo
Lee Miller

In the main he has never needed to be. Over 18 months at Brunton Park the requirement to ask Miller why his standards have dropped has not been there.

Now it is, and this troubling issue is just the latest to accompany United on their hard journey in 2012/13. The idea that Miller would heal everything when he came back from injury last December was not supposed to veer off in this direction.

But with three goals from 15 games and a display against Walsall that he rated the worst of all his time in Cumbria, the questions must come, if only to deal with a few circulating theories on Miller’s displays: the most extreme being that he is easing down to the end of his contract and a likely summer departure.

When this suggestion was put to him during a long confessional after Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat, it was the only time the centre-forward bristled. As anyone would, surely, at the allegation that they had given up trying at work.

“No,” he said, cutting into the question. “It’s an absolutely ridiculous statement. The contract doesn’t come into my mind. I go out, cross that white line, always give 100 per cent and want to do the best I can for the team.

“That will never change, no matter if I’ve got a contract in place or not.”

No other member of this under-performing United team has had to front up to the claim that he has downed tools. It is because Miller has been so towering a figure in past months that displays like Tuesday’s stand out a mile.

But is it fair to aim all the conspiracy theories at one player, when the explanation might be more complex, or at least less suspicious than some believe? Could it possibly be the case that Miller is simply suffering the form dip that all other players have endured, but because he is so important to Greg Abbott’s set-up, we notice it more?

Is he, in fact, finally buckling under the heaviest imaginable load? Is fatigue – he has been back just two months, after a half-season absence – to blame in some way? Is Carlisle's creativity deficit in other areas not an equally big factor?

Answers do not flow freely on this but Miller does accept that he needs to get out of his tunnel soon. “Yeah, obviously I’m nowhere near as good as I have been, I know I can do a lot better, but it’s not for the lack of trying,” he says.

“I feel fit, feel good in training, but obviously sometimes it doesn’t click. Strikers are judged on goals, and I’ve not been scoring goals. I’m going through a little period now, and hopefully I will come out of it the other end.”

This first Brunton Park defeat of 2013 has brought all the worries and complaints crowding back in again. A renewed competitiveness in the early weeks of the year had only, it seems, held them back until the next thrashing.

This brings more focus than before onto Miller because he is now the man who leads the team out. For the first time in his career the 29-year-old has the duty to speak for the entire dressing room during difficult times.

At the very least he can’t be docked points for honesty or self-analysis. “It was terrible,” he says. “Throughout the whole team not one of us did our job. I’m the first to criticise myself – I wasn’t good enough, and every one of us can hold our hand up and say that.

“Yes, we took an early blow in going 1-0 down so early, but there’s a whole game to make that right, and not one of us did our jobs to the best of our abilities.

“The manner in which we got beat was far from good enough. From a personal point of view it was embarrassing. I’m not one to shy away from wanting the ball but every time I touched the ball it was a case of giving it away. You try harder and harder again and it just doesn’t happen for you.

“I don’t think we’ve had a performance like that, never mind a result. The performance was absolutely atrocious. At the end of the day we need to look at ourselves in the mirror and question ourselves. We know we need to do things a lot better.”

Miller describes as “massive” the mental challenge now facing United: to deal with Tuesday’s hammering quickly and not allow the recent improvements to crumble away. His recent promotion to the captaincy is dismissed, meanwhile, as any kind of reason for his own struggle.

With four of the next five games away from home, and with several promotion contenders still to confront, this may not be a period for the faint-hearted. Getting safely to the end now appears to be the limit of Carlisle’s hopes.

It starts with a trip to Notts County on Saturday, with Abbott himself under scrutiny again. Loyally, Miller says the players, not the manager, should walk into the strongest gale of criticism today.

“I don’t think a lot of blame can be put towards the gaffer,” the Scot says. “He picks the team, puts the players out. It’s our responsibility to look after ourselves and the team, and I think we’ve got a really good team spirit. But we didn’t show that at all [on Tuesday].

“You ask yourself what went wrong, did you prepare right for the game? I feel we did everything right, but sometimes it just happens. We weren’t at the races. A lot of fans are going to be disappointed, but no more so than ourselves.

“We set our standards last season, and I think we’ve had a reasonable run over the previous six games, albeit maybe not as many wins as we should have. But this is the worst I’ve felt in a match for a long time.

“I’ll not sleep tonight. I take my football serious. I know my standards, I set them high. But you regroup, we’ve got strong characters in the changing room, and we’ve got to bounce back and a get a performance in, more than anything, on Saturday.”

No wins in four and this new inquest: the build-up to Carlisle’s 35th game of the season will not be an enjoyable wait for many. The idea of a stagger back towards the bottom four is quite unbearable.

Miller says: “We were on a reasonable run, getting a few draw and wins, but now we’re getting sucked back into that. We don’t want to be looking below us, we want to be chasing teams above us. Hopefully we can make things right on Saturday. It’s down to us as individuals and collectively, as a team, to pick up.

“The whole club needs a lift from somewhere. It will be a hard game for sure. We have to go there with no fear and get a performance.”

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