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Thursday, 18 September 2014

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Carlisle Utd stage stunning comeback against Oldham Athletic

Carlisle United 3 Oldham Athletic 3: The previous two times Francois Zoko made it onto a football pitch he should have been sent off. This time he was nearly carried off by a horde of grateful team-mates and supporters after operating at a different, happier extreme.

Francois Zoko photo
Zoko celebrates with team-mates including keeper Adam Collin, who had come up for the free-kick

What he does next is anybody’s guess, but it’s safe to bet it won’t be mundane. In a game that defied anyone to lose interest for more than a few seconds, Carlisle’s Ivorian enigma scored one classy goal then, in the 95th minute, back-heeled another in on the goalline to level up a ridiculously entertaining contest.

Possibly the only man in United’s squad capable of making a tap-in look elaborate, Zoko is not a man of grey areas.

Before Saturday’s rescue mission his last goal at Brunton Park had been an overhead kick against Hartlepool, in February. Here he returned from a month of benchwarming exile to make spectacular amends for his recent drift.

His contribution to this classic Brunton Park melodrama had Greg Abbott reaching for his French phrasebook in a manner that would have done Del Boy Trotter proud. “Il aime moi,” offered Carlisle’s manager, gesturing to Zoko in the media room. “Maintenant.”

Translation: “He loves me. Now.” Quite what point Abbott was making here is unclear but the feeling was undeniably mutual when taken to the masses. United’s ground has not heard Zoko’s name saluted in song for many a week but affection poured his way at full-time here.

An interval replacement for Tom Taiwo, Zoko’s goals at the start and end of the second half might be looked upon as the African’s rejoining of a party which was starting to look like it was going on without him.

Carlisle’s number 13, a regular starter last season, was said by some inside Brunton Park to be in the advanced stages of a grump, as he struggled to adjust to life in the ranks.

Abbott, in as many words, confirmed that Zoko had taken his recent demotion badly. “He says he’s not enjoying himself when he’s not in the team,” said the Blues boss. “He’s 28 and he wants to play.”

Any player who cites his age in a selection chat with his manager is passing on a very specific message. Theories that Zoko has been in a funk since being dropped were supported when he took a needless hack at a Wetheriggs United player in a 9-0 Cumberland Cup victory, and then went in hard on Charlton’s Paul Hayes during a brief outing in Carlisle’s last away game: both challenges fortunate not to be greeted by a flash of red.

This, though, was a much healthier response to disappointment. The 48th minute goal that gave Carlisle a second inroad into Oldham’s 3-0 lead was a peach: a gliding run and a deft finish across Alex Cisak, the Latics goalkeeper. Then, with another flourish, he put himself back at the centre of matters to earn his team a point. “The first goal was sheer brilliance,” said Abbott. “His second goal was Francois.”

Where it takes Zoko next remains to be seen. Where this result takes Carlisle is into a training ground seminar on plugging leaks at the back and an equally important bout of backslapping for their addiction to scoring.

United have shipped 16 goals in eight league games at home: the second most generous record in the division (Preston, with 18, have the worst). United have also scored three times in three of their last four games: a tribute both to their attacking potency and, in this case, their refusal to go under.

The difficulty is knowing where to begin with all this. At the start is probably the easiest place. A first half that ended with Oldham in clear supremacy began as a disciplined, hard-working duel with both teams pinging the ball around nicely without much by way of penetration. How misleading.

Peter Murphy’s brace of early headers to thwart Shefki Kuqi in the box confirmed the versatile defender’s alertness, but it took another 20 minutes for much of a pattern to establish itself. Oldham’s midfield three and their elusive runners either side of the line-leading Kuqi (Robbie Simpson and Chris Taylor) slowly began to cause Carlisle a few problems, with David Mellor’s surges from left-back another growing issue.

Then, there were the offerings of Andy Haines. A rapidly unpopular figure for some mind-boggling decisions, the Tyne & Wear ref got his own strange day off and running by penalising Lee Miller for a challenge in the Carlisle box on Simpson, when it seemed to most observers that clean contact had been made with the ball.

No matter: Kuqi, with a shimmy, dispatched the spot-kick, and Carlisle duly got the jitters. James Berrett coughed up cheap possession and allowed Dean Furman to feed Simpson for another shot which Adam Collin repelled. Rory Loy tried to provoke a response, skinning Nathan Clarke and crossing against the bar, but after Cisak had then saved a Liam Noble curler, United lapsed again.

As before, a debatable challenge (Danny Livesey on Simpson) heralded the second goal. Mellor’s dangerous free-kick followed, and Tom Adeyemi’s slow-motion header looped over the scrambling Collin.

Then, alarmingly, it was 3-0. Taylor made an intelligent run into the corner, fed the raiding Mellor, and the defender’s cross found Kuqi, dropping off, in generous space. The Finn controlled and then smashed the ball high past Collin. Moments later it was nearly four, when Simpson attacked a gap and crossed for Adeyemi, who scuffed a presentable chance at the keeper.

Carlisle’s day was skidding rapidly into the gutter, much as it had on the opening day, when Notts County also took three first-half goals. After a home penalty shout went unheeded by Haines, Taiwo joined in the fun by fouling Taylor and receiving the booking that bans him from next weekend’s Exeter trip.

Then, finally, some light: a corner in stoppage time, earned by JP McGovern, delivered by Berrett and buried by the firm head of Lee Miller, despite Kieran Lee’s presence on the line.

This was welcome relief, and offered United a realistic chance of further repairing the damage, with Tuesday’s second-half stormer against Sheffield Wednesday fresh in the mind. Zoko entered the fray in a central attacking position alongside Miller, and in no time had made it 3-2 after slipping onto Berrett’s smooth pass and motoring through a rare gap which had opened between Paul Dickov’s black-shirted defenders.

This goal cut the deficit, stoked Carlisle's fire and, crucially, came early enough so that Abbott's re-invigorated troops didn’t have to get too risky, too early, in their subsequent attacks. These, nonetheless, came with gusto, as Loy’s pace and purpose began to worry Lee. One surge from the Scot ended with a shot that skimmed millimetres wide, while Zoko started to turn the previously secure Jean-Yves M’voto with regularity.

McGovern, on the right, offered bursts of quality as Carlisle swept forward with breathtaking vigour, taking their corner count to 11 as Dickov’s reeling players slotted into time-wasting mode. Noble, too, supplied some imagination around the Oldham box. As the rain eased and the pursuit continued, Abbott cast off his coat. Then the visitors, briefly, cast off their shackles, as sub Filipe Morais almost served Taylor with a clinching fourth and then M’voto got under a header after a Collin flap.

United’s search for an equaliser got increasingly fraught as time passed. From one cleared corner, James Tavernier hoofed a volley onto Warwick Road. Morais then shot high after a counter-attack, before Carlisle worked further half-chances for Loy (who shot wide) and Noble (who headed at Cisak).

Then, as time ticked on,the finale came, as M’voto fouled Miller and Collin got the nod to gallop forward to contest Tavernier’s high free-kick, which first fell to Berrett. The midfielder hit the post, Peter Murphy slammed the rebound across goal, and Zoko applied the final decoration.

Back on home territory, Collin still had to palm over a Simpson header in the 96th minute before United could relax; not that Abbott was in much of a mood for that. “We have to work out how we ended up three goals down in the first place,” said the breathless manager.

“But the determination of the players was vital. And it’s got us a win. A draw, sorry, a draw.” A few thousand exhausted supporters, and a certain substitute, knew how he felt.

ADAM COLLIN – Stranded for Oldham’s second, but offered nuisance value for equaliser and saved superbly at death.

JAMES TAVERNIER – Caused problems by Taylor early on, was much more solid after the break.

PETER MURPHY – After Oldham's goal blitz, he offered quality on the ball both at left-back and centre-half after Robson’s arrival.

DANNY LIVESEY – Helped keep steady heads after the first-half blows, and was on commanding form in second half.

LUBO MICHALIK – Was eluded by Kuqi and co early on but got steadier as game progressed.

TOM TAIWO – Competed honestly during first-half difficulties but sacrificed at break and booking means he misses next game.

JAMES BERRETT – Set up United’s first two goals and almost scored their third on a day of hard-working involvement from the midfielder.

LIAM NOBLE – Always looked to use the ball brightly and helped keep Carlisle going right to the end.

JP MCGOVERN – Produced many moments of quality to help the fightback and looks adept in tight spaces.

RORY LOY – Pace and drive down the left got Carlisle back on the front foot and was a whisker away from another goal.

LEE MILLER – Unlucky to be penalised for Oldham opener, he responded with a crucial header and then engaged centre-halves to good effect.

Subs: Francois Zoko (for Taiwo 46) – Match-saving contribution; Matty Robson (for Livesey 71) – Slotted back in. Not used: Paul Thirlwell, Craig Curran, Jeremy Helan

Goals: Miller 45; Zoko 48, 90

Booked: Taiwo, Berrett

Oldham: Cisak, Lee, Mellor, M’Voto, Clarke, Furman, Adeyemi, Wesolowski (Morais 53), Taylor, Simpson, Kuqi. Subs: Gerrard, Black, Diamond, Smith.

Goals: Kuqi 22 pen, 38; Adeyemi 33

Booked: Wesolowski, Simpson, Furman, M’voto

Ref: Andy Haines (Tyne & Wear)

Crowd: 4,803

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