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Monday, 21 April 2014

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Craig Curran breaks goal duck as Carlisle Utd make history at Hillsborough

Sheffield Wednesday 0 Carlisle United 1: When Alan Irvine ordered the widening and lengthening of Hillsborough’s pitch in pre-season, it was presumably not his intention to create a few additional square yards for teams like Carlisle United to bring down the third tier’s aristocrats on their own manor.

Craig Curran photo
Craig Curran

The summer plans drawn up by Sheffield Wednesday’s manager did not take into account the possibility that United would take their big-stadium addiction into West Yorkshire’s most evocative arena and add another historic conquest onto a list of previous league and cup triumphs at such places as Carrow Road, Elland Road and the City Ground.

After the illustrious likes of Norwich, Leeds and Nottingham Forest, Wednesday are the latest giants to lower themselves into League One for a corrective season before rising again. That’s the theory, anyway. A month into the campaign and a couple of blips have already emerged on the Owls’ flightpath.

One is their own state of financial anxiety, which saw them dally with administration last week until their bank offered short-term help. The other is the willingness of opponents like United to bring their competitive appetite to town and leave with a large notch on their tomahawk.

Around 70 minutes into this top-table tussle, Irvine’s counterpart, Greg Abbott, was observed whipping off his monogrammed jacket, as though Carlisle’s boss was about to pitch himself into the Blues’ bid to close out the most outstanding league victory of his reign. In reality, Carlisle’s manager was simply relieving the rising temperature by the dugouts. Inside the boundaries of the oversized pitch, his players were making cooler work of protecting the lead they had earned through Craig Curran’s 36th minute fizzer.

Abbott, who had been pipped to August’s manager of the month prize by Saturday’s rival, had no need to perspire unduly, for this win was no act of larceny which required an almighty rearguard struggle to keep the hosts at the gates. Curran’s duck-smashing goal was, in fact, the minimum United merited from their consummate first half performance. After the break, even as Wednesday lifted their tempo, the best scoring opportunities continued to fall Carlisle’s way.

On a day when Wednesdayite activists petitioned home fans to jeer the Hillsborough board over the club’s money trouble (an invitation which was not accepted with any great vigour), it might seem too simplistic to describe this result as United’s crossing of a giant cash divide.

Yet that theory still held at times like the 61st minute, when Irvine withdrew the Republic of Ireland striker Clinton Morrison – who presumably takes home more than the minimum wage – and replaced him with Paul Heffernan, a player Carlisle thought they had bagged in the summer until Wednesday marched in with a few extra readies.

Still, though, they couldn’t find their way around or through Abbott’s assembly of free transfers and loanees, whose tight team ethic was visible at all stages here but never more so than the moment Curran drove his maiden goal past Nicky Weaver and set off on a victory gallop towards the 2,000 travelling support, pursued by red jerseys.

After six sweat-soaked but goalless outings for his new club, this was a fine day for Curran to retrieve the finishing skills that first erupted at Tranmere a few years back, before the frontman was consigned to the flanks down by the Wirral. During United’s unbeaten start to this campaign, the 21-year-old has earned dressing room acclaim for his selfless efforts at the front of Abbott’s team, but now Curran may have nailed a few terrace concerns that he was destined to be a scoreless toiler who required other players to do the striker’s top task.

“Nobody can work as hard as Craig without getting on the scoresheet, and if he keeps adding goals to his game he will go to another level,” said Abbott, whose post-match intention was to praise the corporate effort but could not resist a couple more personal salutes: to Lubo Michalik, “colossal” on his second Carlisle outing in defence, and to Paul Thirlwell, who marshalled United’s midfield for 89 minutes with a knee injury which might now eject him from the team.

The captain’s pained plummet after 40 seconds provided an instant delay to matters; when the game resumed, United absorbed 15 minutes of erratic home pressure before imposing themselves on their hosts. An early bombardment led to Marcus Tudgay hammering a shot across goal, before Carlisle responded through Gary Madine, who arrowed onto Francois Zoko’s through ball and was denied by Weaver’s legs.

Early on, Wednesday worked the ball briskly across the pitch but found few openings, other than the 15th minute cross from Tommy Spurr which found Chris Sedgwick, whose far-post blast was superbly repelled by Sean McDaid, and then the 22nd minute volley from Morrison which bashed against Michalik’s giant frame.

It was around this time that Carlisle, hunting down possession with greater effect, started to emerge. One surge saw Tom Taiwo ride a tackle and pass up a decent shooting chance. Another saw Zoko find space but mishit his attempt. A flurry of corners followed, one of which saw Madine have a header cleared off the line, and then Zoko skinned two men, was hauled down by Sedgwick, and saw Berrett test Weaver with a vicious, inswinging free-kick.

United’s best spell needed a goal if the club’s first victory in these parts was to be achieved. It arrived memorably, when Curran accepted the ball from a throw-in on the left of the area, held off a defender, spun inside and fired the ball across Weaver into the bottom corner.

On other days, such a goal might provoke Wednesday into a brisk response. Not here. Michalik did step in once to deny the raiding Spurr, but the half closed with two more telling Carlisle surges: through Berrett, who tested Weaver with a snapshot, and Zoko, who galloped onto Madine’s header and forced another save from the keeper from a sharp angle.

After the break, the assumption that Wednesday would find their teeth was proved to be misguided. Frank Simek, the former Owl who was received warmly by home fans on his return to Hillsborough, opened the second half with a storming sliding tackle on Gary Teale. Weaver, befuddled by Carlisle’s superiority, then shanked a goal-kick out of play. Moments later, the keeper retrieved his composure to save superbly from Zoko’s glancing header, and then Darren Potter had to boot a miscued Darren Purse clearance off the line.

The game now settled into a pattern of unconvincing home pressure and spiky United counter-attacks. Tudgay miskicked a Teale corner from a decent position then, after a brace of Irvine substitutions, James Chester placed his skull in the way of a Potter volley. At the other end, Chester met a Berrett corner and dropped his header millimetres wide.

Then Carlisle slipped back into defensive mode as Giles Coke narrowly failed to find Teale at the near post, before Spurr arrowed a volley wide.

An off-target drive from James O’Connor, one of Wednesday’s subs, was the best of their remaining salvation attempts. A more realistic chance fell to Madine five minutes from time, when the striker profited from a Taiwo tackle, strode towards backpedalling defenders and forced Weaver into another desperate save.

United then closed out victory with minimal drama, enabling Abbott to reflect merrily on an unbeaten start which already looked encouraging at start of play, and now sees his team kept off the summit only by Peterborough’s superior goals tally. Carlisle’s manager would have bargained hard for half-a-dozen results like those achieved by his team, including tough draws at Plymouth and Colchester, a brace of convincing home wins and this stunning incursion into White Rose country.

Irvine, now struck by back-to-back defeats, must retrieve Yorkshire pride against a backcloth of financial concern and supporter revolt. Abbott, who currently presides over a happier camp, would doubtless like to unleash his team on Hillsborough’s giant surface more often. But money says he wouldn’t readily trade places with his dugout adversary this afternoon.

ADAM COLLIN - United’s superb defensive effort left him with little to do, but he was alert and strong when Wednesday piled crosses in.

FRANK SIMEK - Fine effort on his return to Hillsborough, Irvine’s wide men rarely got the better of the American.

SEAN MCDAID - Bright and wholehearted in defence and attack, McDaid contributed plenty to this victory.

LUBO MICHALIK - A colossal display from the Leeds loanee. Won umpteen aerial battles and was sharp to halt danger on the ground.

JAMES CHESTER - Responsible and solid performance, kept high-class opponents at bay and caused problems for Owls at corners.

PAUL THIRLWELL - Played through injury for most of the game, the captain battled superbly and linked United’s play well.

TOM TAIWO - Ran himself into the ground and tackled like a demon, also popped up in some good attacking positions.

JAMES BERRETT - Involved in plenty of Carlisle’s good work, and his set-pieces were of consistently high standard.

FRANCOIS ZOKO - Consistently threatening, the Ivorian gave Irvine’s defenders plenty of problems.

CRAIG CURRAN - Led the line well, used the ball sensibly and broke his duck in superb style.

GARY MADINE - Engaged defence throughout with his work-rate and quality, unlucky not to add to his goalscoring account.

Subs: Matty Robson (for Zoko 83) – Helped close game out; Ben Marshall (for Taiwo 88) - Late cameo. Not used: Tony Caig, Peter Murphy, Graham Kavanagh, Jason Price, Tony Kane.

Goal: Curran 36.

Sheff Wed: Weaver, Buxton, Spurr, Purse, Beevers, Potter, Coke, Teale (Miller 77), Sedgwick (O’Connor 63), Tudgay, Morrison (Heffernan 61). Not used: Jameson, Jones, Palmer, Otsemobor.

Booked: Sedgwick.

Ref: Chris Sarginson (Staffordshire).

Crowd: 20,282.

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