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Monday, 21 April 2014

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Carlisle Utd hang on at Huddersfield to book Wembley final place

Huddersfield Town 3 Carlisle United 0 (agg 3-4): Yorkshire is the home county of English sport’s greatest comeback but as of today there remains no football feat to rival Headingley, 1981.

With two headed goals in an excruciating second half, Alan Lee was about to be recast as Bob Willis in blue-and-white stripes. Then he flunked one, final chance, and the miracle never came.

Unlike cricket’s Willis, Huddersfield’s number nine missed the target with his last delivery. This foaming corner of White Rose county expected the net to bulge for the fourth time when Gary Roberts’ cross bounced Lee’s way in the 84th minute.

The ball leapt off the turf and Lee thrust his body forward, but instead of reducing Carlisle United’s four-goal lead to confetti the striker thudded the chance into an advertising board. Eleven complicated minutes later and the Blues had claimed their place at Wembley. Rarely do 3-0 defeats feel this good.

The reckoning says that pressure came down like an anvil on Lee at that critical moment. So much for the pre-match insistence from Lee Clark, the Terriers manager, that all the evening’s stresses would be felt inside Cumbrian heads. How else to explain why the experienced line-leader got his angles wrong at the moment history was calling him forward?

With its unglamorous sponsors and tiny crowds in the early rounds, the Football League Trophy (current backers: Johnstone’s Paint) is the least blood-stirring of all the English cups. Until players catch a glimpse of Wembley, that is. Then, normally composed professionals start doing odd things.

In the case of Carlisle, whose melodrama addiction routinely kicks in at the competition’s northern final stage, this led their sweating troops to swing hastily at clearance after clearance last night, only to see the ball being bombed back into their penalty area seconds later. For Lee, it meant that the golden opportunity to take this tie to a shoot-out went unclaimed.

A broader view requires us to acknowledge that this wasn’t an evening devoid of heroes in Carlisle jerseys.

Without Adam Collin’s skilful goalkeeping, for instance, League One’s northern clubs would be dispatching Huddersfield to the capital to take on Brentford, not the young men in red shirts who converged in relief at full-time.

And in the red-eyed recollections of yesterday’s tortuous events it should be recorded that United – however theatrically – saw off one of the third division’s big beasts in a two-legged tie for the right to contest a trophy at the national stadium. The reason they were able to see the job through is that they shredded Clark’s expensive team at Brunton Park last month with rare and magnificent style.

Conclusion: the Blues deserve to be there and don’t need to apologise for their manner of victory.

Abbott staggered out of the Galpharm offering words of contrition to loitering fans for the banquet of anxieties his team had served up, but the manager has guided the Blues through another fearfully difficult cup tie and is entitled to wear his Wembley rosette with pride.

It’s doubtful whether Abbott and United’s magnificently boisterous followers were deceived by the opening half-hour last night.

Strangely uneventful, with Lubo Michalik, Peter Murphy and new signing Gary Borrowdale dealing with most of the hosts’ attacking raids, the early stages were a misleading guide to what was to follow.

Such was Carlisle’s relative comfort that it took 30 minutes for Clark’s men to fashion a shot on target. When it came, it whistled into Collin’s net via the right boot of Pilkington, who had swept onto a Joey Gudjonsson pass after Lee had held off Michalik.

United had their goalkeeper to thank for protecting their advantage against further assaults before the break.

One slicing move put Roberts away down the left, but Collin read the winger’s cross. Then, a Roberts free-kick led to a scramble from which Peter Clarke back-heeled towards goal, only for Collin to tip the shot wide with superb reflexes.

Carlisle, whose first-half forays had yielded a Francois Zoko air-shot and a Borrowdale free-kick, required a greater presence around the toiling full debutant striker Rory Loy in order to release some of the steam.

At the start of the second half, with Zoko carrying the ball more confidently, they got it, and so nearly killed the tie.

Craig Curran, charging in from the right, earned a corner with a deflected drive. James Berrett’s set-piece was met by Michalik’s foot, and the certain goal that awaited Curran at close range was denied by Scott Arfield on the line.

The chase swiftly resumed downfield. Gudjonsson sneaked onto a Roberts cross and belted a makeable chance over the bar. By the dugouts, Abbott entered into a lengthy chat with Scott Mathieson, the fourth official, and then turned to the away bench and punched his palm.

In the 64th minute, Jamie McCombe ballooned another opportunity from close range.

Then the tie was detonated by a Roberts corner which Lee met with an emphatic scoring header.

Nerves duly attacked Abbott’s men – other, seemingly, than Collin, who showed alertness to claw away a dangerous Roberts cross from the left.

Carlisle’s clearances and misdirected passes were by now allowing Huddersfield to increase the frequency of their raids, and after a theatrical Lee tumble under a Borrowdale challenge (no penalty, despite the appeals) they struck again. Collin pushed a Roberts shot over the bar, Pilkington bent over the resulting corner and Lee headed home.

The scent of a fourth, tie-levelling goal was now in Yorkshire nostrils.

We were then treated to Lee’s perplexing miss and then a fresh fusillade of crosses which United somehow repelled, as Derek Mountfield, hero of Carlisle’s first Wembley mission in 1995, looked on anxiously from his radio berth.

Finally, in the 93rd minute, Ben Marshall emerged with the ball and launched a cutting counter-attack which ended with an athletic save by Nick Colgan, a United corner, and the draining away of crucial time.

A few more hoofs back and forth and it was done.

Scenes from a nerve-ripping victory: Paul Thirlwell, the injured Carlisle captain, walked onto the pitch and pumped the hands of his colleagues.

Chairman Andrew Jenkins sought out Zoko and wrapped the Ivorian in a bearhug.

Inflatable bananas bounced around the away seats as Abbott finally left the scene, flanked by managing director John Nixon, a TV camera tracking their steps.

“It was like the Alamo out there,” said Carlisle’s boss once the smoke had cleared.

Redemption for last season’s slump against Southampton under the arch now beckons the manager, whose inconsistent, injury-bashed troops have dispatched six-figure cup riches into the Brunton Park account for the second year on the trot. In cold financial terms Huddersfield were less in need of the Wembley booty, bankrolled as they are by Dean Hoyle’s greeting-card millions.

But don’t doubt that this outcome will have taken a bite out of the Terriers, whose chairman presumably had something suitable in stock for United’s relieved thousands to send to his number nine: To Alan Lee, with sympathy and thanks.

ADAM COLLIN - Always likely to be a key player, the goalkeeper saved superbly and caught bravely to help United through.

FRANK SIMEK - Came under sustained pressure from Roberts in the second half, the American cleared some important lines.

GARY BORROWDALE - The debutant with the Cumbrian surname is now well-acquainted with Carlisle’s taste for crazy drama.

PETER MURPHY - Back at centre-half, he was one of United’s most impressive outfield players, often calm in the siege.

LUBO MICHALIK - Tackled, blocked and headed as if his life depended on it as Huddersfield piled forward.

JAMES BERRETT - Rarely had time to put his foot on the ball, but worked hard in tough circumstances.

LIAM NOBLE - Pressure sometimes got to him, at other times he showed composure in possession.

BEN MARSHALL - Got through more defensive work than usual, almost claimed a little glory with late chance.

CRAIG CURRAN - Deployed on the right, he ran himself into the ground but should have scored in second half.

FRANCOIS ZOKO - On the few occasions he could run at the home defence, had them worried.

RORY LOY - Difficult full debut full of selfless running, he did his bit for the cause.

Subs: Matty Robson (for Loy 66) – Joined the defensive effort; Tom Taiwo (for Zoko 85) – Battled to the end. Not used: Tony Caig, Danny Livesey, Paddy Madden. Booked: Noble.

Huddersfield: Colgan, Peltier, Kilbane, McCombe, P Clarke, Kay (Cadamarteri 57), Arfield, Gudjonsson, Roberts, Pilkington, Lee. Not used: Bennett, Novak, Atkinson, Chippendale.

Goals: Pilkington 30, Lee 70, 81 Booked: Roberts.

Ref: Steve Tanner (Somerset).

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