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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

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Emphatic win sends Carlisle Utd to top of League One table

Carlisle United 4 MK Dons 1: Karl Robinson wasn’t the only manager to have cartoon steam jetting from his ears on Saturday afternoon.

Carlisle Utd action photo
FA Cup heroes: Scorers Gary Madine and Francois Zoko

The only difference was that MK Dons’ bottle-booting boss displayed his anger in front of a few thousand spectators, while Greg Abbott concealed his half-time rage from public view.

No, that isn’t a misprint. Abbott’s response to Carlisle United’s two-goal interval lead during their latest undressing of their Buckinghamshire visitors was to condemn his players in the home changing room for their stodgy first-half performance.

From this we can conclude that the Blues must be developing at some pace if their leader feels able to voice his dissatisfaction at a 45-minute spell which yields a 2-0 advantage.

Reports of Abbott’s noisy quest for perfectionism are encouraging. It suggests Carlisle’s manager won’t be reclining in the dugout at Colchester this Friday with a Montecristo hanging from his lips, just because his team have ascended League One after three matches.

Even as he upbraided his team at the midpoint of Saturday’s triumph, however, he must still have known that United’s command of matters was by then almost complete. The reason for this was his counterpart’s emotional collapse in the moments after Francois Zoko had lasered in the opening goal for the Cumbrians.

In his slim-fitting sweater and fashionable shirt, Robinson – at 29 the League’s youngest ‘gaffer’ – resembled the very model of the modern manager until the moment Mark Haywood, the referee, declined to show Ian Harte a card of any colour for a 39th minute tangle with the Dons striker, Jermaine Easter. At this point, Robinson morphed into Joe Kinnear: all old-school fury, exasperated gestures and official-berating, as his self-control took a hike.

It was the most theatrical touchline performance Carlisle’s ground has seen for many a month. It culminated in Robinson taking a right-footed swing at a drinks container following Zoko’s scoring volley (which came three minutes after the Harte-Easter set-to) and then being ordered into the stand by Haywood, who ignored Abbott’s own pleas for leniency towards his enraged opposite number. “I asked the officials to keep Karl down by the pitch,” confirmed Abbott, who himself fell foul of authority three times last term. “He was frustrated, but kicking a bottle doesn’t make much difference to anything.”

This incident and others may have had Cumbrian supporters checking the world wasn’t completely off its axis two days ago. A manager gets dispatched into the Main Stand, and it isn’t Abbott? Carlisle rattle in four goals and Harte isn’t among their scorers, but Tom Taiwo is? A team sits atop the third division and it isn’t one of their 23 rivals, but the Blues themselves?

At least we had the reliable presence of MK Dons to lend a feeling of familiarity to this strange occasion. From their last four encounters with the club that nicked Wimbledon’s identity, United have taken an eye-watering 16 goals, and 12 points. When Abbott’s team were making merry in the early stages of the second half, it seemed like a facsimile of last February’s 5-0 victory was at hand, until their goals eventually dried up and Peter Leven thumped in a consolation for the visitors.

“We ran out comfortable winners, but it wasn’t always easy,” said Abbott, expanding on his half-time eruption. “It was a rowdy dressing room because I wasn’t at all pleased with the first half-hour. Maybe I’m being too critical, but we are always looking for ways to be better.”

His assessment of the grinding early exchanges is valid. Rarely in the first half did it seem that five goals were about to be served up for a 5,205 audience that included the Football League chairman, Greg Clarke. Until Zoko detonated the game at 3.42pm, it was a tale of earnest defending and sporadic attacking whilst Dietmar Hamann, the Dons’ illustrious player-coach, parked his reputation in the centre-circle.

In the main, however, it was players other than the illustrious German who defined the game. Zoko, looking stronger and sharper than at Plymouth last weekend, showed nimble feet in the sixth minute to evade Stephen Gleeson down the left and serve up a couple of half-chances for Gary Madine. The tormenting of Gleeson would duly become one of the afternoon’s principle themes.

Later, as the midfield scuffling increased, the Dons emerged with a scoring opportunity of their own. United surrendered possession near the visitors’ box, allowing Robinson’s men to launch a rapid response. After Angelo Balanta’s cross was cut out by Harte, Dean Lewington returned the ball with a speculative shot that sailed over Adam Collin and rapped the underside of the crossbar, before Collin saved Easter’s point-blank follow-up with his legs.

As Haywood’s decision-making continually irked both Robinson and Graham Kavanagh on United’s bench, the Blues pressed on with chances for James Berrett and Craig Curran. Then, suddenly, the temperature leapt: Easter collapsed, citing a flying elbow from Harte. Haywood and his assistant took a more lenient view of the challenge than the Dons contingent. Robinson was like a pan about to foam over. Then the game resumed, and Carlisle scored.

First, Zoko earned a corner down the left. Berrett’s delivery was deep, Madine’s climb was strong, and Zoko swivelled to dispatch the ball high into the net for his maiden goal in English football.

We then witnessed Robinson’s pantomime explosion, before Carlisle swiftly made it two: an expert finish by Berrett, who had ghosted behind Woodards to convert another Madine flick.

Cue Abbott’s own interval outburst, heralding United’s most impressive phase of the game. Seven minutes after the restart, the ebullient Zoko twisted his frame into an elaborate bicycle kick but failed to connect with the ball. No matter: from United’s next attack, Berrett fed Zoko, who tore past Gleeson and rattled the upright, and then the Ivorian motored back to the byline, saw his cut-back rear up for Madine, and the teenager finished nervelessly on the volley.

Hamann, by now an irrelevance, was duly withdrawn, but United simply resumed their rampage and scored their fourth on the hour. Zoko, again, was its catalyst, with a brilliant burst to keep the ball in play down the left and then weave into the box. His cross took Madine to a tight angle on the right of the target, so the 19-year-old supplied the raiding Taiwo, and the midfielder’s battered drive found the top corner via a defending body for his second goal in Carlisle’s colours.

Dons’ belated response came via Leven’s 30-yarder, which fizzed past Collin’s dive. Lewis Guy, their Cumbrian sub, almost did the same a few minutes later as Robinson’s replacements finally brought some presence to their play. But United’s defenders had enough in the tank to dismiss their other serious attempts, with Collin saving sharply from Sam Baldock in the last minute.

By then, United could have enhanced their supremacy through Curran, Zoko and the substitute Matty Robson, but four ripples of the Dons’ net was sufficient to park their flag on League One’s summit for the first time since August 16, 2008, when John Ward was in charge.

That season, a brisk start soon gave way to a wretched battle for survival, so Abbott doesn’t need to plunge too deeply into the archives for history’s lesson against complacency. Forty-three more games await, starting with Friday’s jaunt to Colchester: now managed, as luck would have it, by Ward, who you suspect will warm to the challenge of tipping his old employers from the top.

Abbott’s predecessor, unlike Karl Robinson, is one of football’s more benign leaders, so it can be assumed that our entertainment will be confined to the grass in Essex in four days’ time.

Instead of touchline tremors, we will make do with some more quality output from United’s players – even if they need their boss to close the dressing room door behind him and become Mr Angry first.

ADAM COLLIN - Pulled off crucial save from Easter and was solid afterwards; could do little to prevent Leven’s fine goal.

FRANK SIMEK - Tested by the fleet-footed Balanta, the American got stronger as the game went on.

SEAN MCDAID - Pulled out of a position a couple of times but the left-back used the ball well and put in some important challenges.

JAMES CHESTER - Alert at the back to ensure the dangerous duo of Baldock and Easter got little joy in front of goal.

IAN HARTE - Involved in the flashpoint that fired up United, was steady in his other defensive work.

PAUL THIRLWELL - Continues to look at home in the diamond midfield system, tackled well and passed tidily.

TOM TAIWO - His usual wholehearted effort, topped off with his second goal for the Blues.

JAMES BERRETT - Quiet in the early stages but took his debut goal well and was one of United’s most influential players after break.

FRANCOIS ZOKO - Looked much sharper and dangerous. Scored one, had a hand in two and worried Dons with his persistence.

CRAIG CURRAN - Couldn’t make the most of a couple of chances, but could not have worked harder for the cause.

GARY MADINE - One of his most rounded performances for United to celebrate his new contract. Three assists and a nicely-taken goal.

Subs: Matty Robson (for Berrett 76) - Looked lively. 6; Marc Bridge-Wilkinson (for Zoko 87) - Late introduction. 6. Not used: Tony Caig, Peter Murphy, Kevan Hurst, Tony Kane, Ryan Bowman.

Goals: Zoko 42, Berrett 45, Madine 55, Taiwo 61

Booked: Curran

MK Dons: Martin, Gleeson (Doumbe 62), Lewington, Woodards, O’Hanlon, Hamann (Guy 56), Leven, Chadwick, Balanta (Ibehre 56), Baldock, Easter. Subs not used: Searle, Carrington, Howell, Chicksen.

Goal: Leven 64

Ref: Mark Haywood (West Yorkshire)

Crowd: 5,205

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