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Thursday, 30 October 2014

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Under-fire Carlisle Utd boss to fight for result on 'Tin-hat Tuesday'

Zigor Aranalde, a former Carlisle defender of fine vintage, called it “the dark work” – the need to get dirty in order to protect your honour. He was talking about an average day of penalty-box slog but it’s also a perfect term for where United and their manager are about to go.

Carlisle Utd photo
Greg Abbott congratulates Dennis Booth after beating Southend in 2009

In times of crisis nobody more willingly heads into dark places than Greg Abbott. United’s leader responds to these moments of deep worry by turning off the lights and doing some unseemly slugging, for as long as it requires.

When the switch is flicked back on the room has been rearranged, as if by magic. Happier times are suddenly restored and the enemies are on their heel. The only clue to the war that has been waged comes in Abbott’s vibrating voice, and perhaps a bruise or two, when he comes up blinking for the next press conference.

We have been down this unlit path many times before, as Abbott himself has acknowledged in the 72 hours since his team collapsed for the latest time this season, at home to Leyton Orient. So those who expect or wish Carlisle’s manager to go leaping off this latest ledge would be foolish to wager strongly on it happening.

United have known few bosses more adept at slipping the straitjacket. An about-turn, starting against Doncaster tonight, does not look a tempting bet, based on form, but it would not be the first time, not by a street.

When Abbott knows situations are at their worst – and he himself believes the current woes have no equal in all his time in charge – it is as though the coaching qualification certificates come down from the wall and get shoved into the drawer for a short while.

United’s boss does not plot, or manage, or calculate his way out of trouble. He fights. Abbott is not a leader by philosophy or design, not when things are as obviously on the line as they are tonight. “Over dead bodies,” he tends to say, observing the world mounting a campaign to bring him down and going back to his oldest instincts to deal with the matter.

Tin-hat Tuesday, as this might be called, will doubtless be the same. A couple of months ago in these pages Abbott shed intimate light on his upbringing in Coventry: an era when fighting, on and off the football pitch, was a common feature. The way United’s manager told his tale, he reached as far as he did in football by being feistier and more aggressive than many other boys.

Against Millwall (2009), Southend (2009) and Stevenage (2011) Abbott has most clearly been that black-eyed youngster again. Those are the three occasions when his position has been in the most serious peril over his near four-year reign. On all three he was the winner.

None of those games was a picnic. The relegation-defying Millwall win on the last day of 2008/09 was the most comfortable victory of the trio but its circumstances meant it could never be a stress-free day, even though Carlisle led from the seventh minute.

In these recent years of up-and-down fortunes at Brunton Park there has been no more revealing photograph than that taken by Stuart Walker, of this parish, as the final whistle blew on that draining day. Abbott, gripped by Dennis Booth in a bearhug, stares off into an entirely different place.

The look is of a man who knows how close he has been to the abyss. Reviving that memory today may help us place United’s present problems in perspective. Nothing that happens tonight would be as bad as the alternative outcome of that May afternoon: the deep drop into League Two. No team, however bad, sinks in November, with so much time available for renewal.

But yes – these are still old reflections and Carlisle’s issues are certainly troubling as they prepare for their 19th match of this League One campaign. A grumbling fanbase is also pointing its finger at boardroom and an injury-reduced dressing room but don’t expect anybody in those domains to elbow their way past Abbott to take the flak if it goes wrong against Dean Saunders’ form team this evening.

Rightly or wrongly this is Abbott’s crisis, as it also was when a 3-1 cuffing at Yeovil sent him to the brink in October 2009, before Joe Anyinsah popped in a late winner in the next game (against Southend). Abbott, helped by Vincent Pericard, duly rose away from danger and learned to do a hard job better.

See also last September, when the first of three damaging injuries to Lee Miller sabotaged the team at Chesterfield, leading to a 4-1 defeat and calls for Abbott’s head – calls he quietened with a stiff, defensive but proud 1-0 victory against Stevenage the following weekend.

From that point, better times also flowed, with Miller soon restored and entertainment back on the weekly menu. That cycle of fun has since spun itself out and here we are again, staring down at the boss and wondering how it might go.

This newest debacle – surely the right word, when you concede four goals in three different home games in the space of 36 days – feels different, somehow. On the terraces and seats a greater disquiet seems to be around. This may be the lowest point of public faith in Carlisle United FC since Paul Simpson started pulling the team up by its bootlaces in 2003.

None of the crises since then have been fun times but they didn’t feel quite so much like part of a long decline, which many paying supporters feel they are now investing in every time they rotate a turnstile at Brunton Park.

‘Who is going to provide the spark?’ they ask. Where is the catalyst, the man or men who will watch this fall and do something to break it? Who are the authority figures in boots or suits who care enough to save United, in its current hollow form, from itself?

Put that way and it feels wrong simply to be fretting about how it may turn out for one person, one position. But one of football’s oldest laws is that the manager gets it in the neck first. So the spotlight cannot help but throw itself onto Abbott, who, notably, referred to his four-year record on Saturday night.

You know things aren’t well when the leader has to brandish his CV in self-defence. It means results can’t do the job for him. In lieu of wins and clean-sheets we are invited to consider two trips to Wembley in 2010 and 2011, successive years of league position improvement and some decent operating profits (until this year), which actually suggests that Abbott, without a great deal to spend, has bailed out his quiet paymasters more than once since his appointment.

These achievements have certainly strengthened his cause in the good times and the bad, helped extend his relatively long run in charge and built him up a decent degree of support in some corners of the fanbase. But management is an unforgiving mistress. A few poor defeats, with signs that old problems (ie the defence) have not been healed, and belief drops faster than Felix Baumgartner.

Abbott’s historical reluctance to buckle is highlighted by the fact that only one man’s tenure has come apart completely since the bankrupt days of Roddy Collins, last decade. John Ward is Abbott’s predecessor and 2008 remains the last time a Carlisle boss left office, bitterly.

By the end of Ward’s year-long stint his command over a fractured dressing room was essentially gone. Sources say Abbott retains a much tighter grip on his playing staff, even after Saturday’s shambles. Unity around the manager is still there. Rebels are not pouring out in all directions.

That gives him hope, along with his survival instincts at times like this. Some will cringe at the thought of United hosting yet another fraught episode tonight, others will stay cheerful and try to wish the Blues back into the light. The rest will have their bloodsport. Only one guarantee: it won’t be pretty.

Have your say

A quick check of the fixtures list reveals the following.

There are five more league games before the end of the year. Four of them are against teams currently lower than us in the table.

Perhaps a simple twist of fate, as Dylan once sang? Will this lucky turn of events be an opportunity than might result in greater confidence going into 2013?

Posted by Iain on 22 November 2012 at 15:06

We need to make the changes in defence and give Mcginty/Bugno the nod and also play the 3 musketeers i.e potts,beck,Symington as they have come on and looked fresh. Some of the household names are in need of a breather also other teams in league 1 know how some of them play so a few new fresh faces out there is a good idea. We are in a relegation battle so at least we have something to play for as opposed to boring mid table stuff.

Posted by Andrew Barnes on 22 November 2012 at 12:24

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