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Thursday, 18 December 2014

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Lee Miller gives his all but Carlisle Utd's problems at the other end remain

Shrewsbury 2 Carlisle United 1: The Last Chance Saloon, the place Greg Abbott said his defensive players were in 24 hours before this latest defeat, must be run by the most forgiving landlord in the world. No offence is too great, no mishap too damaging.

Lee Miller photo
Lee Miller

Back in they come for another session, with all sins forgiven. Carlisle now sit a precarious two points above the relegation zone, after managing to turn what should have been a victory parade into another loss, and still the rearguard survives without any emergency action.

Unless you count the swapping of goalkeepers two days ago (Mark Gillespie replaced Adam Collin between the posts) the back four gets by without any dramatic overhaul, and here we are, 22 matches in, with an appalling 43 goals shed – the latest two on a day when Abbott really should have been blowing his cheeks out after a win.

“We know there is probably a deficiency,” said Abbott, speaking of his team’s kamikaze attempts to protect their goal. Kindness surely inserted the “probably” into that sentence. Many fans would also like to replace his last word with something more damning.

“It will get better the longer the ball is up the other end,” continued Carlisle’s beleaguered boss, who has now presided over six defeats from seven games, the latest despite the ahead-of-schedule return of Lee Miller.

In the eyes of many, especially Abbott’s, the healed striker is the great redeemer of this faltering team. In his 88-minute comeback performance on Saturday you could feel relief spreading into all corners of the United operation. But game one of this one-man salvation bid still ended with no points.

It would be insane to say that the centre-forward was functioning on all cylinders here. Out since August, and restored in haste before he had built up match-fitness, he could not hope to be. But many of his line-leading attributes were certainly on show, and yet still the ball got into United’s half enough for them to tot up another defeat.

The problem screams out, even with the team’s best player back in harness, just as many fans feared it would. And here is the chill for those who think the improvements a semi-fit Miller brought to Carlisle’s play on Saturday will now see them automatically rocket up League One: this was Shrewsbury’s second win in 11 matches. If United can play well and lose against such limited opponents, where do they turn for the points that will heal their season?

Postcard entries are now invited to the question of how many teams soar, from Christmas onwards, after making such a poor fist of the first half of their campaign. This loss, from the first of four successive games against the drop-zone teams, may have appeared cruel to Abbott’s eyes, but it now increases the pressure on the Blues to bank wins against Scunthorpe, Hartlepool and Bury.

They really ought to have cashed in here. This relegation battle will now be fought on the principle that, no matter how many problems you have, another team might be even weaker. On Saturday Carlisle confronted one of their division’s lightweights, and made them look that way for much of the game, yet found that familiar path to defeat all the same.

Without any form or visible confidence heading into this critical period, Abbott made three changes, opening up without a single one of this season’s promising 18-year-olds (Frank Simek for Brad Potts was the latest swap, as Miller replaced Danny Cadamarteri) and lined up his most experienced starting XI of term.

Even whilst watching his warm-up runs and shuttles, you found your fingers crossing themselves, for fear of more bad luck striking down the big Scot. When Miller’s name was read out over the public address system Carlisle’s travelling fans cheered it like a goal. To start with, United seemed to feed off this good-news story and began the game vibrantly.

Within 30 seconds Matty Robson was tormenting a foul out of Connor Goldson down the left, with Joe Garner twice shooting close in the following minutes. Miller parked his presence among Graham Turner’s centre-halves while Liam Noble and JP McGovern looked hungrily for gaps.

For a time it was as it used to be, with Carlisle using their attacking fulcrum and outmanoeuvring the foe with flicks and darting runs. In the 13th minute a Simek cross was clipped just wide by Miller at the near post. Shrewsbury, by contrast, looked ideas-free and impotent.

You know what comes next. From a standing start, the hosts suddenly scored. Luke Rodgers, dropping off the forward line, accepted a pass and moved it to the right, where Jon Taylor was able to gallop at Chris Chantler. A moment later and the winger had cracked a stunning, rising shot past Gillespie.

“They don’t come much better than that,” enthused the Tannoy man, and you feared what this strike would do to United’s brittle poise. Unlike at Brunton Park, though, there was no instant collapse, and with their attacking platform still sturdy, they soon punched out a tidy equaliser for Noble, who shot sweetly across Chris Weale after some deft footwork by Chantler.

Abbott, 49 last Friday, responded to this by turning and squeezing Graham Kavanagh so hard in a bearhug that you briefly feared for his assistant’s breathing capabilities. As Noble bounded over to perform a dance for Kavanagh, it looked like fun was finally back in town.

Not so fast. The half actually ended on a better note for the hosts, as Taylor tested Gillespie at the near post and Matt Richards stepped past two challenges and shot over. But Carlisle, with Garner dropping into spaces behind Miller, still looked to have the most dangerous tools.

And apart from one Paul Parry cross, which the stretching Taylor couldn’t convert, it was all United again as the second half unfolded. In the space of three minutes, the relentless Robson shot wide then bashed another at Weale, before Noble’s aim was too straight after a McGovern flick.

Miller, whose presence was always central to these raids, was then booked for a late slide on Goldson, but nobody imagined the sky would fall in again. As in the first half, Shrewsbury’s second came against the flow, as Rodgers’ hold-up play was followed by a rare, driving run by Marvin Morgan, and a deflected shot which the alert Parry volleyed in.

The athletic, erratic Morgan had caught United rather cold at that damaging point, and would do so again in the closing minutes, upping the pressure on Mike Edwards and curling over the bar in the 75th minute after more Rodgers industry.

Carlisle’s own approach to the closing spell was not to create chances through craft, but to hurl themselves at Shrewsbury often enough to make them buckle. With Dave Symington off the bench and Mark Beck on for Garner (whose 93-day loan is now up), the tactic almost worked, but a Miller volley from Symington’s cross fizzed just over, then the tiring Miller and Beck had further shots blocked.

Injury-time saw Danny Livesey stationed as a third target-man but the hosts survived this trial by feet and inches, and the full-time whistle saw Abbott walk on to the pitch to applaud the away supporters before turning for the tunnel, shaking his head, his eyes to the floor.

Later he declared his disbelief at this “undeserved” outcome but must know that his team cannot hope to score three goals per week to win a game. This is the standard they are usually setting themselves, to a growing chorus of irritation; much of it aimed at Abbott.

On the boss proceeds, with ever more shrapnel wounds. This troubling spectacle now resumes in five days’ time at Glanford Park. There, as at every other ground from now on, the manager who dismissed accurate pre-match reports of Miller’s return as the work of a “comic” will require his No14 to play like Roy of the Rovers, on steroids.

MARK GILLESPIE - Recalled, at Collin’s expense, the 20-year-old keeper was not exactly under siege, yet still had to pick the ball out of his net twice. But Gillespie did little wrong and made one good stop from Taylor before the break.

FRANK SIMEK - During United’s bright spells he was a persistent, attacking full-back, and almost served Miller with a comeback goal. But at the back it was a mixed bag and Parry got to the winning goal first.

CHRIS CHANTLER - Taylor outdid him for the spectacular opener but Chantler’s nimble feet set up Noble’s leveller. After the break he linked brightly with Robson but had to battle to stop Morgan and Taylor causing havoc.

DANNY LIVESEY - Tried to impose himself at centre-half and looked to be doing so strongly for most of the game. But Rodgers dropped off him enough times to give Shrewsbury the attacks they needed to get their goals.

MIKE EDWARDS - Along with Livesey, the no-nonsense approach seemed to be working, as Edwards got in headers and clearances without fuss. But was later stretched by Morgan and the Shrews man damaged United when it mattered.

PAUL THIRLWELL - Had to put his foot in and his industry helped United dominate the early stages. Was often to the fore in midfield and the captain kept urging his team-mates on.

LIAM NOBLE - Brought United level with a fine finish and tried to be bright whenever he had the ball. Couldn’t finish off another promising attack after the break, minutes before the Shrews got their winner.

MATTY ROBSON - United’s most lively threat, Robson caused left-back Goldson plenty of problems with his pace, and was twice close to scoring in second half. Crossing not always accurate but didn’t leave much in the tank.

JP MCGOVERN - As expected, he looked brighter for Miller’s return and showed some crafty touches down the right. But nothing came of his best creative work and was later replaced by Symington.

JOE GARNER - Was a major part of Carlisle’s best attacking spells, dropping off Miller and hunting down chances. Looked to be on the brink of a goal but faded later and was replaced by Beck.

LEE MILLER - By the end he looked shattered but even though not match-fit, Miller brought some familiar qualities to Carlisle’s play. Twice close to a goal and Abbott is banking on his influence rising.

Subs: Dave Symington (for McGovern 77) – Cross almost gave Miller a goal; Mark Beck (for Garner 85) – Couple of late attempts; Danny Cadamarteri (for Miller 88) – Couldn’t be the late hero. Not used: Adam Collin, Andy Welsh, Brad Potts, Valentin Gjokaj.

Goals: Noble 33

Booked: Miller

Shrewsbury: Weale, Grandison, Gayle, Jones, Goldson, Richards, Parry (Purdie 83), Taylor, Wildig, Morgan, Rodgers (Bradshaw 90). Not used: Anyon, Jacobson, Hall, Doble, Woods.

Goals: Taylor 22, Parry 64

Crowd: 5,260 (326 Carlisle fans)

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