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Thursday, 17 April 2014

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Carlisle Utd boss not too blue after another late goal

Plymouth Argyle 1 Carlisle United 1: Greg Abbott’s claim that he is presiding over a formidable team spirit at Carlisle United is currently being subjected to an examination by fate.

Francois Zoko photo
Francois Zoko, right

Twice in five days have the Blues now been required to absorb the indignity of a last-minute goal, at the end of a performance laced with serious encouragement.

First, the cruel concession against Huddersfield in the Carling Cup. Now this last-kick finale, 389 miles from home. That is plenty to stomach in the opening fortnight of the season, yet the Blues appear to be wearing their disappointments lightly just now.

Cheer Up Peter Reid, the ditty that now fires Plymouth Argyle into battle, was about to get another airing until Rory Patterson found his way to United’s target in the depths of injury time in Devon. Many more endings like this and the song will need to be rewritten for Carlisle’s manager.

Not yet, though. “There isn’t much wrong with what we did in the game,” said Abbott. “We’re disappointed about how it finished but we take it on the chin.” Since United’s leader has met most of the tactical challenges he has been set so far in 2010/11, fortune has instead obliged him to flick to the chapter on Coping with Disappointment in his manager’s handbook.

The most strong-willed dressing room in the last four years at Brunton Park (such is Abbott’s own assessment of his remodelled squad’s esprit de corps) is now asked to show it can withstand the psychological sledgehammer of losing a cup tie and then two League One points in the final seconds of respective battles.

The most audible response to this so far from manager and players has been one of enthusiasm about the quality of Carlisle’s performances, regardless of the painful conclusions. Often this is a political tactic to divert the eye from the flaws responsible for such stoppage-time setbacks. On this occasion, however, United are entitled to speak long and loud about their own excellence.

Saturday’s display, for instance, was one of increasing diligence and confidence, topped off with Ian Harte’s headed goal in the middle of the second half. What caught the eye most clearly was the way Abbott’s midfielders forced Plymouth’s own middle men into so many futile corners. It was tactical asphyxiation, cutting off oxygen to Reid’s strikers. The way Paul Thirlwell, Tom Taiwo and James Berrett hunted down possession from unlikely positions may not have been football at its most attractive but it was unquestionably the defining feature of this tussle on the south coast.

Another triumph for the diamond formation, then, until Patterson’s 94th minute missile, which looked nowhere near the agenda whilst the home team was making dithering and unimaginative pursuit of a goal to strike out Harte’s second in successive league games.

Harte and James Chester, screened by those midfield scavengers, had stamped all over Plymouth’s best attacking efforts from minute 1 to 93. That’s why the equaliser stung, even if Reid had, in fairness, attempted to force the issue by planting the big defender Bondz N’Gala among Carlisle’s back line for the closing stages, whilst aiming speculative balls into Cumbrian territory.

That Argyle were reduced to such a rudimentary scheme to avoid a fifth consecutive defeat at the venue known locally as the ‘Theatre of Greens’ speaks highly of Carlisle’s own discipline, in a tight duel which did not quite engage the senses in the way their previous two had. What was served up for the 7,782 audience – including 312 admirable travelling supporters – was not a banquet of attacking flair but an exhibition of lower-league toil, tactical jousting and uncertain probing whenever the ball advanced towards either penalty box.

If the early pace was forced by the hosts, who tried to spread play across Home Park’s acres as frequently as possible, it was duly matched by Carlisle’s own competitive snap, which threw up early half-chances for Chester and Craig Curran, both of which were dealt with by David Button, the Argyle goalkeeper.

Rory Fallon, the New Zealand World Cup striker, failed with a couple of attempts at the other end, while the darting Onismor Bhasera fleetingly troubled United with some left-wing crosses and then a dash to the left of the box which ended in a depressing tumble under a Frank Simek challenge which was correctly disregarded by the referee, Roger East.

United, mounting occasional counter-attacks, drew the first half’s best chance in the 28th minute, when Krisztian Timar upended the charging Curran, and Button met Harte’s expert free-kick with a magnificent one-handed save. Later, Berrett put a half-volley down the keeper’s throat, while Carl Fletcher warmed Collin’s hands with an ambitious drive from distance.

Had United been able to attach some craft to their graft, they might have disappeared over the horizon. As it was, creativity remained at a low setting, with Francois Zoko having his quietest afternoon so far at the front of the diamond, although the Blues did press on with purpose from the start of the second half.

A succession of corners and crosses heralded Carlisle’s strongest spell, and the opening goal arrived shortly after Marc Bridge-Wilkinson had been summoned to replace Zoko. From another Berrett corner delivery, Curran made a flying challenge, Bridge-Wilkinson battered the bouncing ball into the turf, and Harte, showing admirable instinct, applied the headed finish.

That the centre-half has already nudged himself clear as Carlisle’s leading scorer after three games ought to surprise no observer who witnessed his deadly work last season.

Non-scoring centre-forwards ought to park themselves in front of footage of the former Leeds man’s finishing until the magic sinks in.

Further back, Harte resumed his day job with what seemed to be a high level of comfort, despite the sporadic buzzing of Patterson (a first-half replacement for Fallon), who stirred in the 83rd minute with a shot on the turn which drew a smart diving save from the under-worked Collin.

All other attacks attempted by Reid’s team reached an innocuous end: surprisingly, perhaps, for a side which last season was competing in the second tier. Finally, crushingly, they summoned a final surge which ended with the ball twice being heaved into Carlisle’s box, nodded on by N’Gala, touched back by Joe Mason and driven home by Patterson.

The Pilgrims’ boat duly came in, and maybe a few members of the local audience felt Carlisle were due this feeling 11 years after Jimmy Glass famously shot down the Green Army at Brunton Park. Devon is some distance to travel just to see a historical oddity balanced out, so Abbott is advised to swerve that interpretation of Saturday’s finale and remain on his own optimistic path.

“I am not having disappointment in the dressing room,” added the United boss. “Everything is going in the right direction.”

The simple hope from this point onwards is that he does not often have to lift so many positives out of so much pain.

ADAM COLLIN Made a couple of decent stops and dealt confidently with crosses; had little chance with Patterson’s leveler.

FRANK SIMEK The American was watchful and solid to limit the left-wing threat of Bhasera.

SEAN MCDAID Summerfield had minimal impact down Plymouth’s right, and McDaid can take credit for a combative display.

JAMES CHESTER Continues to impress with his ability to scent danger and deal with it effectively. A fine effort against his former club.

IAN HARTE Defended stoutly and scored a sniffer’s goal: the ex-Leeds man has started the season strongly.

PAUL THIRLWELL His usual disciplined effort in midfield to deny the Pilgrims time and space.

TOM TAIWO Threw himself into the contest and continually chipped away at Reid’s midfield ball-players.

JAMES BERRETT Worked endlessly for the cause and linked up some of United’s attacks impressively.

FRANCOIS ZOKO His quietest afternoon so far. Looked a little behind the pace of the game and was replaced in second half.

CRAIG CURRAN His terrific work-rate ensured United defended from the front on a day of few goalscoring chances.

GARY MADINE Led the line selflessly against accomplished defenders, his contribution shouldn’t go unnoticed.

Subs: Marc Bridge-Wilkinson (for Zoko 67) – Contributed to opener. 6. Not used: Tony Caig, Peter Murphy, Kevan Hurst, Matty Robson, Tony Kane, Ryan Bowman.

Goal: Harte 68.

Booked: Berrett.

Plymouth Argyle: Button, N’Gala, Molyneux, Timar, Arnason, Fletcher, Peterlin, Summerfield (Parrett 46), Bhasera, Fallon (Patterson 37), MacLean (Mason 62). Subs not used: Larrieu, Clark, Noone, Paterson.

Goal: Patterson 90.

Booked: Molyneux.

Ref: Roger East ( Wiltshire).

Crowd: 7,782 (312 Carlisle fans).

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