Tuesday, 01 December 2015

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Carlisle Utd up to second after a ‘1-0 classic’ encounter with Notts County

Carlisle United 1 Notts County 0: By the end of proceedings, Greg Abbott wore the exhausted expression of a man who had just completed the Great Cumbrian Run a day early.

Carlisle Utd action photo
Frank Simek closely marks former Carlisle player Karl Hawley

His counterpart, Craig Short, meanwhile, must have been pining for the tranquility of his previous job as a sailing instructor on Windermere.

If 1-0 is truly supposed to be every manager’s favourite scoreline, that information was not shared with the opposing dugout generals on Saturday, when Brunton Park should have been renamed Anxiety Central until the entertainment closed.

Entertainment for the spectator, that is. Down by the white lines of United’s pitch, Abbott was turning into the bottle-kicking dervish of previous campaigns, while the grey-suited Short set a high standard in exasperated gesturing.

Every manager likes to be regarded as a cool-headed statesman of the technical area. This term has seen Abbott generally exercising greater control over his touchline temper. Here, though, was a pair of ‘gaffers’ out there on the wild emotional frontier.

“It was a 1-0 classic – an absolutely fantastic game of football where both managers went through the mill,” said Abbott, wiping his brow. “And I actually feel sympathy for Craig.” While Short lugged a bagful of frustrations back to Robin Hood country, Abbott thanked Gary Madine’s opportunism for United’s leap to second in the League One table.

The reason the Blues were able to hit such daunting heights is that they stayed upbeat in the face of some testing Notts County pressure, rode a surf of decent fortune and then snaffled a goal which will only bolster Madine’s reputation as a penalty-box predator.

The 20-year-old’s sixth of the season was one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it finishes with which cold-blooded strikers are able to decide the tightest of games. Madine, though, later squandered a much simpler chance, guaranteeing Abbott “ten minutes of hell” as the Blues toiled to get the points in the can.

The truth that will have been clattering around Short’s brain all weekend is that, for all his team’s own progressive forward play – with the former United line-leader Karl Hawley prominent – Madine was the only player capable of forcing the ball into the net. The Magpies are the world’s oldest club, so nobody at Meadow Lane can claim naïve ignorance over what happens when you don’t capitalise on heavy pressure.

Once, the woodwork thwarted County, when Mike Edwards’ 56th-minute header hit the post. Occasionally Short’s frontmen were wasteful. At various other stages, they were denied by the last-ditch diligence of Abbott’s rear men, such as Frank Simek (who cleared a Craig Westcarr shot off the line), Adam Collin (who saved splendidly from Kevin Smith) and Sean McDaid (who produced two breathtaking blocks to keep Carlisle’s target intact).

United have not assembled League One’s defensive record, and stacked up six clean sheets from 11 games, by chance. If this game was sometimes an enjoyable exhibition of Francois Zoko’s attacking dynamism, it was more frequently a showcase for some tougher qualities further back. Peter Murphy, for one, scattered the years with his best centre-half performance in recent memory to combat the persistence and skill of Hawley, Westcarr and others.

Hawley’s first run-out at Brunton Park since his 2007 departure was one for the nostalgists and students of mutual respect. The 28-year-old, handed a rare start in Lee Hughes’ absence, traded applause with the occupants of the Main Stand then spent 82 minutes shifting and sliding around Carlisle’s defence before he was substituted to generous acclaim.

All that was missing from his comeback was the headline-claiming goal. In the seventh minute a fine opportunity caught him cold, as Hawley spooned a John Thompson cross over the bar. Carlisle duly responded with a few bursts and shots from the recalled Zoko as the game hit a decent tempo.

County, matching United’s midfield diamond strategy, went close through John Spicer, who dipped a shot onto the top of the net. Carlisle raced back at their guests, but Craig Curran’s miscontrol killed a promising chance after Zoko had darted down the left. The Cumbrians had not, otherwise, found their best rhythm by this point and a strong period for the visitors led to a chance for Smith which McDaid bravely repelled, a Smith cross which Westcarr glanced wide, a Spicer volley which Collin parried, and a teaser of a cross from the same man which Ben Davies was unable to convert.

United, heavily reliant on Simek’s crosses from deep and Zoko’s occasional flourishes, appeared less threatening than the Magpies, who were pushing at their hosts from different angles through the nimble Davies and the penetrating runs of Westcarr. One such dash opened the second half, as Westcarr was brilliantly fed by Hawley, forced wide by Collin and then denied from a sharp angle by the retreating Simek.

Carlisle’s best creative efforts were getting them nowhere, frankly. Abbott recognised the malaise, swapped Oliver Norwood for Matty Robson and switched to 4-4-2. United now had different lines of attack but were still battling to keep County at the gates, as Hawley shot and forced a corner, and Edwards hit the frame with his header.

More visiting forays led to Collin beating away a Smith blast and McDaid doing likewise from the same player. Yet it was during this yellow-shirted surge that Carlisle suddenly emerged with their goal. Robson dropped his shoulder and tore away from Thompson, and saw his cross evade Zoko but clipped in by the arriving Madine.

Brunton Park’s first league goal since August 17 was nearly followed by an instant second, as Zoko traded passes with Curran but couldn’t beat Rob Burch from the right. The Blues then slotted back into protection mode as Curran, defending diligently, slid to tackle Davies, conceded a questionable free-kick, and watched Abbott take a right-footed swing at a plastic water bottle.

A Zoko transgression brought another theatrical outburst from Carlisle’s boss, whose assistant, Graham Kavanagh, was absent from the touchline after undergoing a knee operation 24 hours earlier. Abetted instead by Dennis Booth, Abbott was then pitched into his tormenting final phase as Robson skinned two opponents and rolled a cross to Madine, only for the frontman to side-foot wide from a golden position.

Zoko, who was near his eye-catching best here, did plenty to release the steam by leading some more counter-attacks deep into County territory, before McDaid concluded a doughty personal performance by forcing away a Westcarr cross in injury-time.

“That sheer will and determination not to concede is what makes or breaks football matches,” said Abbott, once the smoke had cleared. “We might not possess the best players in this league, but man-for-man we’ve got some of the biggest hearts.” Such was the man’s own cardiac throb through every stage of this arduous affair, his first drink on Saturday evening probably went down in a single gulp.

ADAM COLLIN – Other than one first-half flap, the goalkeeper stayed watchful and strong, and saved superbly from Smith.

FRANK SIMEK – Crucial clearance denied Westcarr, the American crossed well and battled gamely against tricky opponents.

SEAN MCDAID – The gusty heartbeat of this victory. Umpteen brave blocks on one of his strongest United displays.

JAMES CHESTER – A classy presence in the middle of Carlisle’s back four, the loanee always defended confidently against Hawley and co.

PETER MURPHY – Sharp, solid and used the ball positively. Clearly embracing his chance to claim a regular starting place.

OLIVER NORWOOD – Put in some decent challenges but struggled to create and was sacrificed for Robson.

TOM TAIWO – Passing went astray before break but he was the hard-working foundation of many second-half attacks.

JAMES BERRETT – Industrious effort from the ex-Huddersfield man, who was more impressive in defence than attack.

FRANCOIS ZOKO – County struggled to contain the ebullient Ivorian. A performance full of pace and imagination.

CRAIG CURRAN – Control deserted him in good first-half position, the toiling striker ensured Carlisle defended from the front.

GARY MADINE – Buried a fine striker’s goal to win the game, could easily have doubled his tally.

Subs: Matty Robson (for Norwood 55) – Match-turning impact.  Not used: Tony Caig, Kevan Hurst, Jason Price, Ben Marshall, Tony Kane, Ben McKenna.

Goals: Madine 68

Notts County: Burch, Thompson, Harley, Pearce, Edwards, Spicer, Ravenhill, Davies, Westcarr, Smith (Rodgers 74), Hawley (Jervis 82). Not used: Lee, Chilvers, Hubbins, Nelson, Whiteley.

Booked: Smith

Ref: Michael Naylor (South Yorkshire)

Crowd: 5,599


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