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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Adam Clayton returns to haunt Carlisle Utd with late winner

MK Dons 3 Carlisle United 2: Those of us in the story-telling business are being spoiled rotten by Carlisle United just now.

Carlisle Utd photo
MK Dons players react towards Zoko at the final whistle

A week after Peter Murphy handed us the tale of the season at Wembley, a former Brunton Park hero timed his return from baffling obscurity to coincide with the Blues’ next fixture.

If Adam Clayton had wished to remind the world that he remains a relevant performer at this or any other level, he could scarcely have picked a better moment than the 94th minute of a free-flowing contest with his old club.

In backpedalling from a winning position thanks to some neglectful defending, United prepared the ground for Clayton, who has spent most of 2010/11 failing to press on from last season’s high-quality loan performances for the Blues.

Dispatched from Leeds to Milton Keynes this spring in search of competitive bite, the midfielder – a substitute here – duly strode onto a Dean Lewington cross, converted the easiest goal of his life and then disappeared under a commotion of Dons players, including the goalkeeper, David Martin, who galloped from his penalty box to the opposite end of the pitch to join in the fun.

After reminding Carlisle spectators that they, and Wembley hero Murphy, do not necessarily have the best Jackanory tales every week, Clayton popped up in the press box to face a salvo of questions. After so much time absent from meaningful combat, the 22-year-old was content with the bargain.

“Ideally I wouldn’t have wanted to do that to Carlisle,” said Clayton, who later confessed he missed watching his old colleagues lift the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on Sunday because he was taking his mother out to dinner on Mother’s Day. “But now it’s happened, it’s a nice feeling.” Because Clayton’s winner was taken at the home end we were unable to validate his pre-match pledge not to over-celebrate in front of the travelling supporters.

At close of play, though, the former Manchester City prospect struck a decent balance between respect for old colleagues, and justifiable glee at an overdue personal re-emergence with a goal that refuelled the Dons’ promotion push, after two winless outings for Karl Robinson’s troops.

Clayton’s was undeniably the headline act on this hot April afternoon. To find the source of this comeback victory, though, it’s necessary to look further back. In minute 81, Carlisle suffered the most appalling marking malfunction of their season to allow Angelo Balanta a simple headed equaliser from a Peter Leven free-kick.

That slapdash moment gave the Dons enough encouragement to make their final surges and explains more plainly why Carlisle hit the skids in the town of grids than some other circulating theories, such as Greg Abbott’s decision to whip off James Berrett from a position of relative strength, and United’s failure to guard the flanks adequately during the final, defining minutes.

Abbott argued that, by replacing the penalty-scoring midfielder Berrett with the striker Paddy Madden with the teams locked at 2-2, he was making a bold punt at winning the game. The result says the gamble went the way of so many betting slips on Grand National day, but the organisational failure which led to Balanta’s goal cannot so easily be pinned on the manager without certain men in red shirts scarpering from responsibility.

Perhaps we should have anticipated a couple of late eruptions, since this fixture is traditionally one for the goal addicts. In six skirmishes these opponents have now coughed up 31 of them, with Carlisle winning four of those high-scoring affairs and the Dons two.

The result of this one was United’s post-Wembley descent to 14th: precisely the position they occupied at the end of last season, when Clayton was running his influence through Abbott’s team (he could have been back this year, had Carlisle and Leeds been able to agree terms for a winter loan deal). The desire to improve on that mid-table resting place is Carlisle’s main motivation from now until May 8, and was visible at most stages here as United looked fresh and keen in the wake of their trophy-lifting party.

With Francois Zoko free from a calf injury and Liam Noble replacing the stricken Ben Marshall, United faced up to their ball-playing opponents with decent zip. Early on, the Dons’ Keanu Marsh-Brown, who is named after Hollywood’s Keanu Reeves, displayed speed to reach a Lewington pass and bash a shot against Murphy’s head.

United’s midfielders then sought to apply pressure to their hosts’ patient passing game and this hustling brought half-chances for Craig Curran, twice, and Noble, who slid a good chance across goal and beyond the reach of the sliding Berrett.

From their next break, though, MK Dons found the first gaping gap in Carlisle’s rearguard, as a left-sided cross reached Daniel Powell, and the forward controlled and drilled the ball low past Adam Collin. Fifteen minutes later, United summoned a sweet response, when Noble accepted the ball in space and thwacked his first career goal past Martin from 30 yards.

Noble, whose distribution and positional play were enabling him to set many of the midfield terms, has been threatening such a strike since he arrived at Carlisle from Sunderland. It perked United up and led to more attacks from which Curran headed wide and Zoko overran the ball from a decent position.

The Dons, without their injured talisman Sam Baldock, were becalmed, their supporters unable to summon much in the way of fervour from their padded seats in this luxurious arena. Down by the technical areas, promotion stress briefly led Robinson into an enraged rant at linesman Billy Smallwood after a throw-in decision, before meaty fourth official Marvin Thompson strode across to demand calm.

With Clayton on for the injured Danny Woodards, the hosts opened the second half with a gliding run and pass from Luke Chadwick which Rowan Vine couldn’t force past Collin at the near post. There then followed a rather scrappy phase, when free-kicks were traded and the occasional wing bursts of Marsh-Brown were dealt with by Abbott’s defence, with Clayton an innocuous, deep midfield presence and United’s own middle men scampering to decent effect.

One such dash, from Berrett, resulted in Carlisle claiming the lead. Curran won a header with Gleeson and Berrett drove forward to feed Zoko, whose rapid change of direction capitalised on Sean O’Hanlon’s risky challenge and earned the penalty which Berrett lasered into the bottom corner.

Robinson then threw on Balanta and Jabo Ibehre, who planted his awkward presence in United territory but without, it seemed, lasting effect.

Then, unexpectedly, Marsh-Brown drew a foul from Lubo Michalik, Leven threw over the free-kick and Balanta – one of the Dons frontmen tutored by Robbie Fowler on the training ground this week – wandered into an acre of space to head home.

At this point Abbott swapped Berrett for Madden, but the best remaining attacks belonged to the emboldened hosts, other than one Zoko pass which Madden fired wide. With the home audience now engaged, Clayton belted one close from distance, Ibehre went close with a scissors-kick and then, finally, Lewington emerged in space down the left and his perfect, low centre was devoured by Clayton.

Full-time was followed by an angry exchange between Zoko and Gleeson, while a steward’s interception of Noble as he made to shake hands with a travelling fan led to a protest from Abbott, who was later more intent on praising his players’ post-Wembley attitude rather than unpicking the mental knots that led his team to ship three avoidable goals.

Five consecutive league defeats on the road isn’t the ideal stat to be lugging down to Leyton Orient tomorrow, and the hope is that it can be zapped with a little deadlier finishing, a return to the rearguard defiance that they took to the national stadium, and much less of the generosity granted to Clayton on the day his career came back to life.

ADAM COLLIN – Made one decent save from Vine early in second half, but wasn’t sufficiently protected for Dons’ goals.

FRANK SIMEK – Got involved in attacks to decent effect, could have done with more help in shutting down danger down Carlisle’s right.

MATTY ROBSON – Mixed fortunes both in defence and attack, as the Dons made some inroads down his wing.

LUBO MICHALIK – Appeared solid for most of the game and dominated in the air, but couldn’t hold off the hosts at the death.

PETER MURPHY – Use of the ball was good and kept Vine quiet, but defenders had more to deal with when Ibehre was introduced.

PAUL THIRLWELL – Put in some vital defensive work to halt several home attacks, the captain’s contribution was good.

TOM TAIWO – For all his effort in helping United win many of the midfield battles, he didn’t seem at his best.

JAMES BERRETT – Composed in possession and deadly from the spot, amid an industrious midfield display.

LIAM NOBLE – Dispatched a peach of a debut goal and most of his contributions were bright and of quality.

FRANCOIS ZOKO – Quick feet earned United their penalty and didn’t appear affected by injury.

CRAIG CURRAN – Full of willing and chased down lost causes, but couldn’t put any of his chances away.

Subs: Paddy Madden (for Berrett 83) – Energetic but lacked final touch. Not used: Mark Gillespie, Danny Livesey, Rory Loy, Nahki Wells, Ryan Bowman, Ben McKenna.

Goals: Noble 29, Berrett 69 pen

Booked: Robson, Simek, Murphy

MK Dons: Martin, Woodards (Clayton 39), Lewington, O’Hanlon, Doumbe, Gleeson, Leven, Chadwick (Balanta 70), Powell, Marsh-Brown, Vine (Ibehre 63).

Not used: Searle, Guy, Chicksen, Flanagan.

Goals: Powell 13, Balanta 81, Clayton 90

Booked: Leven

Ref: Andy D’Urso (Essex)

Crowd: 10,795

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