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Saturday, 19 April 2014

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Exhausted Carlisle Utd toil in end-of-season sun

Carlisle United 1 Oldham 2: A smile briefly broke out on Graham Kavanagh’s face as the Carlisle United player-coach received the standard press conference full-toss: what “positives” could the Blues draw from this end-of-season slog in the sun?

Carlisle Utd action photo
Carlisle score

Here was Kavanagh’s response: “The lads kept going to the end and we could have got something out of the game. But there weren’t a great deal of positives. It was disappointing.”

How’s that for clarity? Sometimes it’s possible to fill entire notebooks with a manager or coach’s attempt to reclassify 90 minutes of dirge as a fiesta of entertainment, with the suggestion that we just weren’t watching it in the right way. So thanks can head Kavanagh’s way for telling us what we actually saw: that Carlisle didn’t play especially well, and that their defeat to Oldham wasn’t exactly one for the end-of-season highlights reel.

There were indeed times on Saturday, when the Latics’ retro captain Sean Gregan was sending the ball so far into the ether you felt it might return with a coating of volcanic ash, that you wished that this campaign would hurry along to its conclusion. An uneven pitch, Oldham’s combative game plan and a general lethargy were the main mitigating factors put forward by Kavanagh for United’s own failure to hit their straps in 2009/10’s penultimate home game.

“The players are physically exhausted,” added the 36-year-old, who at one stage in proceedings made a personal plea to supporters to provide a more vocal backing, an appeal he later repeated in the media room. “We are asking them to give their all week after week and that’s what they continue to do. They are an extremely honest bunch of players and I won’t have anybody criticising them for a lack of desire and effort.”

The defence of fatigue certainly deserves a hearing, even if it cannot completely exonerate those who made it onto the pitch and turned in this uninspiring display. United’s injury-damaged finale to this season has now reached the point when even the replacements are having to be replaced (Tom Aldred, the young defender, went down with a groin strain on the eve of this contest). With umpteen other bodies already sidelined, Carlisle are so far away from full-strength it is untrue.

At least this roll of misfortune had its counterpoint on Saturday with David Raven making his happy return to the first-team after six months absent. Danny Livesey’s presence among the substitutes also improved the public mood, even if the centre-half will do well to see much competitive action before this season is through in less than three weeks’ time.

When the reckoning comes, after the final engagement at Norwich on May 8, it will be advisable to spend little time dwelling on this unappealing skirmish, in which Oldham displayed sufficient opportunism to get three priceless survival points in the can against a remodelled United team who made a couple of errors too many and failed to take enough presence and imagination into the Latics’ territory until the closing 20 minutes, when they finally discovered some urgency.

The first 45 minutes was among the most dreary this season has produced. Its goalless conclusion flattered both United and Dave Penney’s mundane collective. As Carlisle struggled to offer Gary Madine some plausible support in his lone centre-forward role, and the Latics failed to make many suggestions that they might penetrate Greg Abbott’s back line, only half-chances rolled along.

Ben Marshall’s pace and persistence down the left was a rare highlight for United, who were denied in the 13th minute by an offside flag when Adam Clayton played Madine through. At the other end, Danny Whitaker had an early blast blocked, Raven impressively snuffed out a Lewis Guy run, and then Deane Smalley failed to profit from a poor Richard Keogh pass.

Brunton Park’s frustrated audience briefly perked up when an offside flag was raised in error and ignored by Danny McDermid, the referee, as Clayton sneaked beyond Oldham’s defence to be thwarted by the visiting goalkeeper, Darryl Flahavan. The reminder for Carlisle to remain alert in their own half came on the stroke of the break, when Guy, from Penrith, ran to the byline and drew an important clearance from Evan Horwood, with Pawel Abbott lurking.

The need for drama’s dial to be given a sharp twist was clear at the onset of the second period. It was Oldham, in their fluorescent yellow kit, who took up the challenge. With one early burst, Adam Collin had to push away a long-range Abbott drive. Minutes later, they pounced for the opening goal, when a Clayton pass was cut out, Smalley devoured dozens of yards down the right, and a pass that seemed to be mis-hit nevertheless reached Guy, who got between defence and goalkeeper to turn the chance home.

United’s manager chose this moment to introduce Scott Dobie (left out initially for Marc Bridge-Wilkinson) as a second striker. But less than 10 minutes later, after Keogh had been denied a penalty after tumbling under Gregan’s challenge, Carlisle’s problems deepened when they again surrendered possession, Guy fed Smalley, the wide man twisted and crossed, and Collin’s inadequate parry was snaffled by Dale Stephens.

Carlisle’s fans voiced their dismay, but it was at this point that the Blues finally perked up. Five minutes after Stephens’ strike, Ian Harte picked out Madine with a long pass and the under-served teenager drew a sharp tip-over from Flahavan. Then Clayton curled over the corner and the improving Madine was able to head in his third goal since the end of March.

Cue that closing 20-minute raid, when United finally broke away from their frustrated moorings. One pleasing move ended with Clayton feeding the raiding Keogh, with Gregan finally booting away the right-back’s cross.

Then the Manchester City loanee picked out Dobie with a dream of a pass, but the Cumbrian sub shot hastily wide from a golden position. Later, another Dobie effort from an angle was dealt with by Gregan, the 36-year-old stopper who has been on the field for every minute of Oldham’s troubling season and may not have completed a single silky pass in all that time, but who can take pride in the way his team-mates followed his uncomplicated lead in toughing out the points they so desperately needed here.

The fact United are ending their season without such desperation, having banked more points at a much earlier stage than they managed a year ago, always needs recording, even when you’re staring at non-events like this. Madine’s rise, Marshall’s vibrancy and Raven’s return meant the game itself was not completely drained of “positives”, either.

But that’s a million miles from suggesting it was one for the memory bank, and Kavanagh didn’t insult our intelligence by claiming that it was. The simple hope is that next Saturday’s opportunity to take some retribution down to Southampton, United’s Wembley conquerors, will put some colour back into what’s left of their campaign.

ADAM COLLIN - Does not appear at his most confident, could have dealt better with Latics’ second goal.

RICHARD KEOGH - Not as ebullient as usual, although a couple of good runs almost led to a goal and penalty.

EVAN HORWOOD - Given a few problems by Smalley in second half, the left-back did his best to help United’s recovery.

DAVID RAVEN - Welcome sight in the team after so long on the sidelines, defended steadily but couldn’t prevent Latics’ goals.

IAN HARTE - Composed effort in first half, less secure after the break as Oldham counter-attacked to win the game.

TOM TAIWO - In a tough midfield contest Taiwo competed without being at his match-turning best.

PAUL THIRLWELL - Did the basics well enough but had negligible impact on proceedings and was eventually replaced.

ADAM CLAYTON - Often frustrated in his creative efforts but made a handful of excellent passes.

MARC BRIDGE-WILKINSON - Not at home on the right wing, plenty of effort but little end product.

BEN MARSHALL - Always lively and the 19-year-old did his best to make something happen for the Blues.

GARY MADINE - Decent line-leading effort and confirmed his improvement with another goal.

Subs: Scott Dobie (for Thirlwell 56) - Great chance to level; Ryan Bowman (for Bridge-Wilkinson 69) - Right-wing role. Not used: Lenny Pidgeley, Danny Livesey, Graham Kavanagh, Gavin Rothery, Tony Kane.

Goal: Madine 69

Oldham: Flahavan, Marrow (Black 38), Lee, Hazell, Gregan, Stephens, Whitaker, Smalley, Furman, Abbott (Eaves 79), Guy (Worthington 79). Not used: Brill, Aljofree, Brooke, Millar.

Goals: Guy 55, Stephens 64

Booked: Furman

Ref: Danny McDermid (Middlesex)

Crowd: 4,884

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