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Sunday, 26 October 2014

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What does future hold for Carlisle Utd and in-demand boss Greg Abbott?

One of Greg Abbott’s best lines was about the hazardousness of his profession: “Management is like dodging an oncoming train,” said Carlisle’s leader. Now, after three-and-a-half years of swerving, might his own train be coming in?

Greg Abbott photo
Greg Abbott

Sometimes when covering a football team a notion can quickly become self-fulfilling. There is not yet enough material out there to suggest Abbott will definitely be decamping for Humberside this summer.

Chances are he will be gesturing and barking from his technical area down in front of the Paddock, as usual, when next season starts on August 18. But the smoke signals emanating from Hull City cannot be ignored completely.

At the very least, the Tigers are intrigued by Abbott and what he can offer. This information comes from enough sources in that part of the country to be taken as reliable. It therefore raises the possibility that Carlisle’s longest-serving manager for 27 years might not be at Brunton Park for the distant duration.

That long-service figure is worthy of inspection. No manager has kept the gaffer’s chair warm at Carlisle this long since Bob Stokoe vacated it for the second of three times in August 1985. For durability alone Abbott has surpassed 17 different regimes since Stokoe temporarily stepped down on health grounds in that summer of ’85, after five years in charge.

Sometimes a reign ends because a better offer comes in. Hence the departures of a few who might have lasted for an era, like Mick Wadsworth and Paul Simpson. But no boss can hope to prolong a tenure, at the very least, without giving his employers good reason. United’s directors may not appear trigger-happy but had results gone south for long enough under Abbott they would surely not have shied from acting.

They all do, in the end. With Abbott they have not felt the need, partly down to their own patience and partly down to the man’s own ability to be at his most pugnacious when the worries crowd in. Three times over his three-and-a-half years Abbott has boxed himself out of a corner but now, at last, his personal outlook is sunnier.

If his prospects are now bright, it must follow that Carlisle have progressed on his watch. And they have. Abbott no longer appears the drowning man of 2008/09, flailing desperately for solutions, picking pointless battles and walking out of “that Millwall game” with a thousand-yard stare, even though Carlisle did stay up on a closing day of improbable drama.

From that bleak time Abbott has embarked on a long, windswept journey in from the cold. He is much more comfortable both in his position and in his managerial skin. It would be wrong to say he has conquered every doubter across Carlisle’s fanbase but along the way he has gathered up significant support and admiration. You could now walk into a pub in the Great Border City and not have to look far to find someone willing to argue his case.

This is the result of a mission undertaken in stages, which has placed the Blues 20th, 14th, 12th and eighth: a sequence which states, accurately, that United have recovered their self-esteem since the enforced handover from John Ward, a manager with whom the former assistant Abbott did not happily dovetail.

Football does not always readily dish out patience but United’s directors are entitled to feel satisfied that they did not bullet the boss during his three wobbles (at the end of 08/09; after an autumn slide the following season; and after a bleak September last year, when fans and even some closer to him were starting to voice their doubts). Had Abbott delivered the play-offs last term it would have been the ultimate vindication but even whilst failing on that quest it was not hard to see the improvements blazing away in front of you.

The country’s tenth longest-serving boss has now had time to surround himself with his own people and allow them to spread their influence. Graham Kavanagh is now ingrained as his No2 and this appears a feisty relationship underpinned by trust, unlike the arranged Ward-Abbott marriage. Around the rest of his backroom, loyalty abounds. A club ticking along on small resources is strongest this way.

At the midpoint of United’s play-off push, Abbott attempted to summon Carlisle’s historic “siege” spirit, complete with castle references. At other stages he has talked about the “family” he has fostered inside Brunton Park’s four walls. It might not quite be us-against-the-world but unity is a dominant theme now at Abbott’s United. Consider the way his team took so many points from losing positions last term. That would not have happened with cliques and factions.

Doubters and rogue elements have been purged. An extension of this is his sometime unwillingness to entertain tricky questioning. Abbott’s devotion to the unity principle extends to a belief that even the media must sign up to his religion. In this field he has mellowed considerably but inquisitors still remain at risk of a bite if a method or a motivation is challenged. Like many modern managers, he is less receptive to day-to-day discourse with hacks than previous-era leaders, who did not have official websites to filter their thoughts and moods.

But this is mainly presentation. Out on the grass, where it matters, there has been clear and often entertaining evidence that United are better and his management of them has become shrewder. Last season only two teams in League One (Colchester and Walsall) used fewer players than the Blues’ 28. Yes, the budget may be thinner but it wasn’t exactly bulging the season before, when Abbott’s loan player count hit double figures.

In 2011/12 he got better things out of fewer bodies, which speaks highly of his talent-spotting skills and his improved abilities with tracksuit on. Now there are not so many frantic plunges; the luring of Lee Miller, for instance, was more calculated than the end-of-window trolley dash for Richard Offiong in 2009. And the hypothetical recruits are now of a higher calibre; Ben Strevens and Danny Whitaker were among significant targets of the recent past, but who would drive those up to Brunton Park now?

The progress of other players also suggests Abbott has identified some of the right stuff. Rory Loy’s development both as a player and a professional who worked furiously hard to get the best out of himself highlights the long-term thinking behind that particular signing. Francois Zoko has been managed through his up-and-down moods and ended last season as one of Carlisle’s most influential players. Chris Chantler is a diamond find who many others did not dare to consider. The output from men like James Berrett and Adam Collin – another pair of budget additions – has been good.

The flops have been there but, generally, in shorter supply the longer Abbott has reigned. Craig Curran’s lack of finesse was highlighted by fans before Abbott was able to accept it as a lasting flaw. Ben Parker was a needless addition last season when Chantler looked worthier of the gamble at left-back. Whatever became of Stephen O’Halloran is a mystery of sorts, and Paddy Madden has distance to travel to justify all the faith he gets from the coaches’ room. But 11/12 was not a campaign of many passengers, unlike other terms.

Some of Carlisle’s play last year was authentically daring and tactically bright. Even when registering the concerns (over-reliance on Miller; a tendency, sometimes, to concede goals in bulk) you have to put this down as a happy development. Some managers aim to eliminate risk. United’s is happier to be bolder in a way he was not at the outset.

At times there are certainly grounds for saying the safe could still be guarded better. You would never wish for Carlisle to function like Stevenage when the sixth-placed finishers cross the halfway line, but the men from Hertfordshire could dish out some lessons in the collective art of defending. You don’t imagine that particular band of brothers indulging a form crash like Lubo Michalik’s, which began in late autumn and continued into February.

Faith in a big player is generally a trait to admire but if there was one selection matter which was allowed to drift last season it was that of the faltering Slovakian, who may not have been United’s sole deficiency during the leaky days but whose belated removal – and replacement by Danny Livesey – led to a tightening-up.

Another minor gripe is the regular playing of the “resources” card in interviews.

United have risen impressively on very little spending and parked themselves in League One for a good stretch, after the sometime darkness of the previous decade. Abbott craves, and deserves, acknowledgement for this. But fans do not necessarily want the club’s supposed poverty to be brandished so often, so publicly. Carlisle’s average gate was the 11th best in their division last season.

Stevenage’s was 22nd. On those bald figures it’s possible to say the Blues are above several teams they should not be, but also dominate a cluster that they should.

They are performing much better than average but aren’t sitting atop a mound of aristocrats.

Another reason, perhaps, for discussing the lack of funds is to give an outlet to his own professional exasperation. Carlisle can surely go a little further, since not much tweaking would have turned eighth into sixth last term, but big strides look hard without heavier backing.

In Abbott’s demeanour at times during the run-in it was possible to detect a man highly frustrated that he did not have deeper pockets in which to dip during transfer windows. This, unless the eyes and ears deceive, was the first sign that he was daydreaming about the day he can walk to a chairman and ask for a few hundred grand for the signing that makes all the difference.

Those fantasies wouldn’t be able to form unless he had grounds to think his ability could one day put him in such a position.

In ’09 that would have been presumptuous in the extreme but through his doggedness he has, over time, constructed a reputation worthy of serious examination.

We should know the result of the examining in Hull, soon. Then we might learn whether this is the platform where he gets off.

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