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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Carlisle Utd frustrated by Scunthorpe - but manager Abbott finds it hard to be critical

Carlisle United 0 Scunthorpe 0: For symbolism, nothing topped the moment in the 89th minute when Lubo Michalik swung his sledgehammer right foot at the ball from 20 yards out, and the masked face of Paul Reid thrust itself in the way.

Andy Welsh photo
Andy Welsh is stopped

Carlisle’s skill and craft had got them close, but not close enough, to a goal, so back they fell onto football’s most basic asset: the bloke who can kick the ball the hardest. Even that was not sufficient, thanks to Reid’s bravery, and from that moment on you knew how it was likely to finish.

This snapshot of United’s frustrating and potentially damaging afternoon said that the Blues tried, tried hard, but what they threw at Scunthorpe was not enough. Reid, who grew up down the road in Harraby and whose dad is a Carlisle season ticket holder, returned to his old club to lead a considerable rearguard display from the Iron, and when the garlands were handed out after this goalless duel the visiting centre-half topped the list of men to praise.

With Lee Miller frustrated in his hunt for honours, and then gingerly walking off in the 79th minute with the injury that has all of Carlisle waiting for news today, the day required a different hero. To United’s annoyance it was not a man in blue but a local lad who resembled a Phantom Of The Opera impersonator when he walked out for combat wearing his white face guard.

Miller’s groin gave way at around 4.35pm yesterday but United’s job was made more difficult, here, also because of a player who is defying pain. Conservative estimates say Reid has broken his nose half-a-dozen times over his career in different clubs’ defences (including United’s) but that did not stop the Cumbrian putting his head in the path of Michalik’s missile, or jumping out from behind the curtains to stop various other Carlisle attacks.

Rarely are unbeaten runs extended with this much worry. Carlisle’s sequences without defeat now read 17 at home, and nine games anywhere since March 3, but they ended Easter Monday by dropping down from the top six and without their most influential player, perhaps for the duration. Abbott was careful not to pre-judge a doctor’s verdict but his mood in the press room was not of a man who expects to take on Charlton this weekend with his arsenal fully loaded.

"It's frustrating, but I’ve found it very, very hard to be critical in that dressing room,” the manager insisted, once he had reported Miller’s predicament. “The effort and quality and determination those players have given me over the past six weeks, when we have played 10-11 games, has been fantastic. We just couldn’t find that extra bit of zest and energy.”

While Miller heads off for his scan, his team-mates get two days off to rest up before Thursday’s training, after which Carlisle must try to stop League One’s leaders throwing a promotion party at Brunton Park, while keeping themselves on Notts County’s tails. Goal difference being the only barrier to the play-off places with 450 minutes of the season still to go, United – who have a game in hand – gain nothing from pessimism at present, even if they have to advance without Miller, and even though the Magpies have a kinder run-in, on paper.

A lack of snap was Abbott’s diagnosis after this latest effort down on the grass. “Mentally and physically they are shattered,” he said of the players who started battle with a reshaped defence, with Michalik in for the injured Chris Chantler and Peter Murphy shifting across to left-back: a change that set up a sizeable battle between Michalik (and Danny Livesey) and Jon Parkin, the Iron loan striker who answers to the nickname ‘Beast’.

In the first minute, Michalik got his foot in front of Parkin to win the opening 50-50. Carlisle spent the rest of the early phases looking for other small victories, once Jimmy Ryan had missed with a couple of sighters from outside the box for Alan Knill’s men. Scunthorpe, themselves unbeaten in nine on their journey away from relegation trouble, looked crisp and confident in possession but United’s hard-working midfield soon had Abbott’s men on the offensive.

Francois Zoko, for whom this was not a spectacular day, had a couple of goes from the fringe of the area, but to no avail. An attractive passing move then earned the Blues a corner, but Livesey, at the back stick, couldn’t quite profit from the scramble. Nor could James Berrett, a couple of minutes on, when some ingenuity from Liam Noble and JP McGovern put the midfielder scampering through from the right.

It probably required Berrett to wrap his left foot around the ball, but instead the nine-goal man went with his right and pulled the chance wide. Carlisle were not to know that such clear openings would be scarce, from then on.

For the rest of the first half we watched Reid wage strong aerial combat with Miller, Tom Taiwo pass and tackle with impressive precision, and Jock Waugh, the referee, stitch together too many picky and questionable decisions to mention. His first clanger, from this view, was not to book Jamie Reckord when the Iron left-back slid in on McGovern with a foot raised.

Later, Knill and his coaches went spare when Zoko appeared to control the ball with his arm near Carlisle’s box. The South Yorkshire ref’s popularity dipped further when he pulled back play for a Scunthorpe free-kick instead of playing an easy advantage, and he then irked Abbott by penalising Miller for a challenge on Cliff Byrne.

A Jordan Robertson foul on Zoko, awarded by Waugh, subsequently upset Knill so much that the Scunthorpe leader held his hand to his mouth, theatrically, in front of the Paddock.

More stoppages, triggered by players staying prone with head injuries, contributed to a stuttering spectacle instead of a flow. The action, mostly, was earnest and sweat-soaked on both sides but without a final flourish. Taiwo, Zoko, Michalik and Miller all competed for chances, Noble drilled a shot a fraction wide and a decent hit from Berrett spun off David Mirfin’s head and dipped narrowly over Sam Slocombe’s bar.

As Carlisle continued their search for gaps, Livesey and colleagues did their best to intercept the darting runs of Andy Barcham, who remained Scunthorpe’s most likely creator as the second half began. A pair of off-target shots from Byrne and Sam Togwell hinted at further dangerous offerings from the visitors, and United’s struggle for clarity downfield put Abbott deep in discussion with Graham Kavanagh in their technical area.

On the hour, Miller went to ground under Mirfin’s attention while leaping for a Noble cross. No penalty, insisted Mr Waugh, despite full-throated appeals, so Abbott then asked Jordan Cook and Andy Welsh (for Berrett and Zoko) to add some thrust from the bench.

But this was not a day for supersubs, either. Cook, last seen cutting down MK Dons to thrilling effect, made one early dart into the box but took the ball wide of the target and then delayed his pass to McGovern, whose cross was cleared. We then saw Miller go careering over a defender as he leapt for an aerial ball, and landing with a thump.

If this was the cause of his injury, it was sustained in the act of doing something which has earned United so much this campaign: taking on rivals in the air. Without Miller (Paddy Madden took his place), Carlisle made their final pursuit but couldn’t find the moment of inspiration or fortune required, despite a testing Madden cross which Byrne hacked away, various other inroads which the obdurate Reid blocked off, and a stream of corners from which Livesey, with a volley, went closest.

When Carlisle’s skipper then, unchallenged, headed hastily behind to concede an injury-time corner (a communication malfunction with Collin seemingly to blame), the glass-half-empty observers feared a calamitous ending. But it didn’t happen, despite a couple of final attempts from Robertson and Barcham.

A Scunthorpe goal here might have been too much to take after Miller’s sad trudge to the sidelines, so at least fate spared the Blues the indignity of defeat before the chase resumed, today, with added complications. Well, nobody ever promised it would be easy.

ADAM COLLIN – Few saves to make as Carlisle defended soundly, he wasas secure as required from crosses.

FRANK SIMEK – Timed some interceptions well and put his all into theattacking effort down the right.

PETER MURPHY – Handled the tricky Ryan well as he moved out toleft-back to accommodate Michalik’s return.

DANNY LIVESEY – Solid as usual to limit Scunthorpe’s danger, and wasoften a threat from corners.

LUBO MICHALIK – Got the job done on his return to the side, didn’t domuch wrong alongside Livesey.

TOM TAIWO – Another fine effort from the midfielder, whose tacklingand passing was sharp and strong. +

JAMES BERRETT – Made some useful runs from midfield but couldn’t quitefind the end product.

LIAM NOBLE – A few moments of inspiration and worked tirelessly,without making the killer pass or shot.

JP MCGOVERN – Looked to use the ball creatively from the right andsome deliveries deserved better.

FRANCOIS ZOKO – Couldn’t get into his stride as Scunthorpe defendedtightly, and was later replaced.

LEE MILLER – A bruising battle with Reid ended when the striker suffered a groin injury in the second half.

Subs: Jordan Cook (for Berrett 65) – Almost found a way through; Andy Welsh (for Zoko 65) – Tried to be positive down left; Paddy Madden (for Miller 79) – No late heroics. Not used: Mark Gillespie, Matty Robson.

Scunthorpe United: Slocombe, Byrne, Reckord, Mirfin, Reid, Togwell,Walker, Ryan, Barcham, Parkin (Duffy 72), Robertson. Not used: Lillis,Nolan, Gibbons, Jennings.

Ref: Jock Waugh (South Yorkshire)

Crowd: 6,555 (289 Scunthorpe fans)

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