Tuesday, 01 December 2015

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Carlisle United boss deserves half a yule log after victory

Carlisle United 3 Hartlepool 0: This can only be the smallest step back to health, the first sip of medicine from the spoon, but for many inside Brunton Park it was enough, for one day, to see Carlisle United doing their work well again.

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Consistency: Matty Robson has shone for Carlisle this season

It’s been a while, after all. At a time of year for reunions, United’s supporters were brought back into contact with the winning feeling at their own stadium. Heading off home to chat about a victory has not exactly been a familiar sensation among Carlisle’s fanbase in 2012/13.

In the wider picture, all this Boxing Day triumph proves is that United are superior to Hartlepool. This does not put them in an exclusive club. The poor souls from the north east, now winless in 22 games, are surely one of the worst teams League One has spat out for many years.

Against such feeble foes nobody can say for sure how strong United’s defence is when under pressure, or how devastating their attacking can be at full tilt and with the goalscoring Lee Miller back in harness. For the moment, it may be more instructive to listen to the sounds of pressure being eased, however slightly.

If this turns out to be the day that Carlisle got a big and lasting emotional boost, just by taking a free swing at a weakling, then that will be a more important return than the 3-0 scoreline. Miller, gripped in a bearhug by Greg Abbott upon his 84th minute substitution, will be the emblem for any better times at Brunton Park, while Matty Robson, who had a hand in all three goals, recorded a big personal triumph against his old employers here.

As ever, though, the strongest sentiments of the day were expressed by the manager. Once he had blown his cheeks out after a first win in five, we in the press room were treated to an insight into Christmas Day chez Abbott, which did not sound like a day of party hats and giggles.

“It was a long day,” said Abbott of his December 25 at home. “I know you are supposed to try and relax with your family, but every 10 minutes I couldn’t get the game out of my mind. I was thinking about if we got beat, trying to convince myself we wouldn’t. Losing would have been a catastrophe.”

That disclosure, which followed Abbott’s insistence that these were the “toughest” circumstances of any game in his four-year reign, was a hint that Carlisle’s boss may have seen fate curling its finger at him. The sack? Nobody around Abbott spoke of it, and nor did he, but after six losses from seven a certain fear was surely there.

Winning yesterday therefore felt like a big moment for the much-criticised boss. “It’s the first year I’ve not had half a yule log after my Christmas dinner,” he continued. “If it’s still there, I’m going to have it tonight.” These festive thoughts were qualified by a message that “another 10 or 11” wins are needed before Brunton Park can be a place of permanent cheer again.

Only the foolish would leap to big conclusions today, but for one afternoon we could at least feast on the rare sight of Carlisle attacking, regularly, and not conceding. Yet this second clean sheet in 23 league games did not look like destiny when Jonathan Franks was rattling the bar after Pools had sliced United open in the fourth minute.

Nor did the visitors’ early neatness in their passing play encourage many Cumbrians on this rainy afternoon, but the Blues began to eat into enemy territory after that, with Miller offering some of his deft touches up front: the qualities Abbott and his team have lacked since August, often with desperate results.

After JP McGovern – one of many players visibly happier to have Miller back from his ankle injury – had tested Scott Flinders, it was then time for Robson to announce himself. A rampant day for the former Pools winger began properly in the 20th minute, when he shot ambitiously from the left and saw the ball strike Sam Collins and deflect cruelly past Flinders.

That lucky break for United was followed by a calf injury to Paul Thirlwell (Mark Beck replaced the captain) and an off-the-line clearance by Mike Edwards before fortune again turned the home team’s way.

At McGovern’s low-trajectory, 27th minute corner, headed into the sky by Miller at the near post, there followed slapstick as Flinders jumped and flapped, and eventually the ball fell for Robson to turn it home with his right foot.

Any early life was drained out of Hartlepool by these two quick goals, and Carlisle’s unusual feeling of superiority encouraged Robson further. Initially on the left of a front three, then a more orthodox winger once Beck had joined Miller up top, Robson blasted a further shot into a defender when beckoned to shoot for a (debatable) hat-trick by the home supporters.

Before the break, another tormenting Robson run past the right-back Jordan Richards almost put Beck in for number three. In the midfield, meanwhile, Brad Potts’ mobility and bite were showing up regularly as Liam Noble went on the prowl for more opportunities. Downfield, the line-leading bulk of Steve Howard was not making much of an impression for Pools as the familiar figures of Andy Monkhouse and Tony Sweeney struggled to outwit the Blues from the middle and wide.

Half-time was greeted by the happiest crowd the old stadium has known for weeks. A few minutes into the second period and we were taken even further back in time, with jolly songs aimed at Abbott from fans in the Warwick Road End. The manager, without his ill assistant Graham Kavanagh (goalkeeping coach Tony Caig was deputy for the day) waved at them as Flinders parried a Noble shot and Evan Horwood, Pools’ former Carlisle left-back, went grumpily into ref Mark Halsey’s notebook.

As the second period went on United’s victory only looked more certain. Robson resumed his humiliation of Richards, almost setting up Beck again, as did McGovern. A couple of half-chances for Monkhouse and Charlie Wyke passed by without bothering Mark Gillespie, and then came the moment United had waited nearly nine months to see.

Robson, inevitably, was the architect, taking the ball from Chris Chantler and motoring past Richards. His cross was devoured by Miller at close range and the Scot’s first goal since his memorable March winner against Huddersfield was celebrated with abandon at the Warwick Road End.

At this merry moment nobody will have begrudged Miller a second of his joy (nor even the generous man-of-the-match vote, which should really have gone to Robson). Before the end, a pair of debutants – Josh Todd and Sean McGinty – were allowed to join in the fun, the latter replacing Chantler after the left-back had sprinted across to stop Wyke running clean through.

The ankle complaint reported by Chantler as he left the pitch, along with Thirlwell’s injury, meant this could not be written up as a perfect day. Chantler’s enforced removal actually prevented Abbott from sending on Rory Loy for a sentimental comeback appearance, exactly a year after he broke his leg at Deepdale.

But, for once down Warwick Road, this was a day of more pluses than minuses, however unwise it would be to bet the house on a sudden surge up the table. Certainly, more evidence will be needed; the queue to face Hartlepool will snake around the block as long as they stay in this state of disrepair.

At least Carlisle, who have too often this season looked at home among the poor men of their division, did not pass up their own opportunity when it came along.

MARK GILLESPIE - United were mainly on the attack, reducing Gillespie’s duties against League One’s worst team. When called upon the keeper was secure with his saves and catches.

FRANK SIMEK - Made some useful overlapping runs to support McGovern down the right. Once or twice his final ball was not precise but defensively he did all that was needed.

CHRIS CHANTLER - Looked sharp all game and made one telling interception to prevent Wyke claiming a consolation. Often looked to feed the rampant Robson and Abbott will hope his ankle niggle isn’t serious.

MIKE EDWARDS - Before the opening goal there were a couple of difficult moments for Edwards as Pools almost opened United up. Once Blues got on top he did enough to cope with visiting frontmen.

DANNY LIVESEY - One slip nearly let Wyke in, but otherwise was secure enough at the back. Competed well in the air and put in the blocks and tackles that were required.

PAUL THIRLWELL - Only made it to the 22nd minute before calf problem cut short his afternoon. Unable to have much impact on matters before he had to be replaced by Beck.

BRAD POTTS - Added some bite to United’s midfield and he was mostly sensible on the ball. Did not stand out as much as in other games but still a decent afternoon’s work from the teenager.

LIAM NOBLE - Is enjoying a bright spell of form, and after an industrious first half the midfielder was one of Carlisle’s main creative influences, linking play well and attacking positively.

MATTY ROBSON - United’s star man enjoyed a lucky break for the opener, but finished the second well and laid the third on for Miller. Had right-back Richards on toast and enjoyed a very satisfying day against home-town club.

JP MCGOVERN - Looks a much more confident customer with Miller in attack. Linked up well with his countryman and gave United a good outlet down the right, with Simek in support.

LEE MILLER - With his hold-up and link play he was, as usual, a class above most players, and after bringing the best out of his team-mates, scored a welcome comeback goal to clinch the win.

Subs: Mark Beck (for Thirlwell 22) – Couldn’t quite finish off chances; Josh Todd (for Miller 84) – Late debut for another teen; Sean McGinty (for Chantler 90) – Injury-time introduction. Not used: Adam Collin, Andy Welsh, Rory Loy, Dave Symington.

Goals: Collins og 20, Robson 27, Miller 74.

Hartlepool United: Flinders, Richards, Horwood, Collins, Hartley, Sweeney, Humphreys, Monkhouse (Poole 74), Franks, Wyke, Howard (James 82). Not used: McHugh, Walton, Luscombe, Murray, Holden.

Booked: Horwood.

Ref: Mark Halsey (Hertfordshire).

Crowd: 5,380 (447 Hartlepool fans).


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