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Thursday, 17 April 2014

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Inspired Peter Murphy gives Carlisle Utd manager selection headache

Carlisle United 2 Tranmere Rovers 0: Two goals, two fluffed penalties and one resounding question emerged from this rainy night’s entertainment at Brunton Park: how much more does Peter Murphy now have to do to complete his journey back in from the cold extremes of Greg Abbott’s thoughts?

Peter Murphy photo
Peter Murphy, right and Gary Madine

Murphy’s match-clinching header in the 50th minute topped off the defender’s best personal performance for many months – maybe even a couple of years. This was the slapping down of a clearly-worded message onto Abbott’s table and no mistake.

For most of the manager’s tenure, Carlisle’s longest-serving pro has slogged away in the half-forgotten margins. Since an injury plague pressed him back into service this autumn the Irishman has steadily glued back together his reputation for defensive reliability.

Last night, in his seventh consecutive start, he was United’s stand-out player by a nose and soon enough the Blues’ manager shall have to make the trickiest of calls. With James Chester on the brink of fitness, Lubo Michalik sturdily back in the fold and Danny Livesey some distance down recovery’s road, we will soon be presented with Abbott’s preferred centre-half pairing from this capable quartet.

On the most recent evidence, Murphy is entitled to hope that he will emerge from this lip-smacking selection poser with his place in the team secure. His first league goal since April 2008 was the garnish on a wholesome rearguard performance in which the 30-year-old was the game-reading, ball-playing counterpoint to the giant Michalik and his meat-and-potatoes defending.

Murphy’s textbook header, following James Berrett’s thumping opener, enabled Carlisle to accelerate away from the spot-kick melodrama of the first 36 minutes here. Ian Thomas-Moore and Gary Madine’s matching misfortune will doubtless gnaw away at two generally reliable finishers.

Madine’s second miss in successive games may disqualify him from stepping up when United are next awarded a penalty, and Abbott will today set about repairing the young striker’s confidence dent through the medium of rough humour (“we’ll hammer him in training,” said the manager). But Carlisle’s leader can also reflect with satisfaction that his team have claimed four points from two demanding fixtures despite consecutive dead-ball failures from 12 yards.

United’s injury-propelled drift from second place to 10th has been calmly halted and put into reverse thanks to Saturday’s fightback at Bristol Rovers and now this two-goal triumph, in which the Cumbrians were always the game’s more enterprising force beyond a second-half squall, when Les Parry’s off-colour visitors threatened to snaffle a consolation goal.

Enigmatic finishing from Thomas-Moore and Enoch Showunmi killed that idea, along with plenty of obduracy from Murphy, Michalik and their colleagues. “We have hit a team who scored eight in their last two games, and we have kept a clean sheet and made enough chances to make it more convincing,” summarised Abbott.

Carlisle’s victory was, in fact, the second of the evening’s successes. The first was the triumph recorded by their pitch over the desperate November elements. While lesser League One surfaces buckled under the northern deluge (both Rochdale and Hartlepool saw their games abandoned shortly after kick-off), United’s was a tribute to effective drainage and skilful greenkeeping.

On the greased turf, Abbott’s reshaped team (with Francois Zoko and Ben Marshall recalled) flew against their recent pattern by making the most lively start of the two sides. A brisk start saw Marshall spin inside from the right wing and warm Peter Gulacsi’s hands with a left-footed drive, and then Murphy attacked a training-ground Berrett corner and drew a fine tip-over from Tranmere’s Hungarian goalkeeper.

In a stop-start game, interrupted by the fussy officiating of Eddie Ilderton, Carlisle seemed surer of their ground, as the visitors made occasional attempts to construct attacks around the meaty frame of Showunmi. It was therefore to widespread alarm when, after Zoko had boomed a volley just over, Tranmere surged downfield and created the game’s first platinum scoring chance.

First, the under-served 17-year-old dynamo Dale Jennings fastened onto a bouncing ball, jetted past Frank Simek and drew a block from Michalik. Seconds later, John Welsh hurtled to ground under a Murphy slide in the area. United fiercely opposed Mr Ilderton’s penalty decision, and felt vindicated when Collin plunged expertly to his left to repel Thomas-Moore’s shot.

Tranmere briefly came again, as Joss Labadie curled a deflected attempt close, but United retrieved their range soon enough and 12 minutes after the visitors’ failed penalty, they earned their own. Simek retrieved the ball after a darting run into enemy territory, then Zoko fell to earth under Ian Goodison’s challenge. Another questionable call was followed by a spot-kick of little conviction, as Madine’s shot was comfortably dealt with by Gulacsi.

Brunton Park howled its frustration, but such was United’s spirit of enterprise that they did manage to take the lead shortly afterwards.

Tom Taiwo did the spadework, battling his way through midfield congestion, before feeding Simek. The ball was worked, via Berrett, to the dashing Marshall, and when the Stoke loanee’s low cross was deftly backheeled into space by Zoko, Berrett applied the walloping finish.

Here was a small rebuke to the idea that Zoko’s easy-on-the-eye football does not always come with a clinical conclusion. The Ivorian’s flick displayed canny awareness and further fuelled United’s charge, which resumed five minutes after the restart when Berrett bent a brace of corners into the area and saw the second of which dispatched by the rising Murphy.

This heralded not a victory canter, but a slight slackening of United’s grip around the Wirral throat. When Parry’s side did discover some vibrancy, however, their finishing was wretched. On the hour, young Jennings sent an ambitious drive wildly wide, then Collin dealt solidly with a Marlon Broomes attempt.

Carlisle’s keeper then sped from his line to intercept a pass which was bound for Showunmi, before the giant Nigerian swiped wastefully at a Jennings centre. As Tranmere at last gave some plausible support to Showunmi from left and right, United remained in containment mode, with Zoko blocking a Labadie attempt and Collin defying Aaron Cresswell from distance, either side of a shocking slice from the becalmed Thomas-Moore, who has known many better days than this against the Cumbrians.

These reprieves roused Carlisle into a final burst, but Mike Grella was unable to profit after exchanging passes with the substitute Craig Curran, and then Marshall’s left-footed missile bounced off Gulacsi’s legs in injury-time, by which point the young winger had amply vindicated Abbott’s pre-match view that his most dangerous form was returning after an early-season lull.

Carlisle’s own standing as a points-gathering force in League One was also enhanced here, as they bounced up to eighth after their first win in four attempts, in front of a season’s-lowest league crowd of 3,744. An easing injury-list entitles Abbott to believe that the upward journey will continue, including the negotiation of cup contests against Tipton and Crewe in the next seven days.

Expect Murphy to be at the core of what United do in the immediate future, maybe beyond. One particularly zestful first-half tackle on Showunmi from the Dubliner came loaded with meaning. Unless the eye deceived through the deluge, it didn’t look much like the act of a stop-gap.

ADAM COLLIN - Showed his penalty expertise once again, and stayed alert when Tranmere threatened.

FRANK SIMEK - Outflanked at times by the rapid Jennings, but made some decent attacking contributions.

MATTY ROBSON - Defended wholeheartedly and galloped forward when he could – a good night’s work.

LUBO MICHALIK - No-nonsense as usual, the Slovakian formed a strong central partnership with Murphy.

PETER MURPHY - Clinching goal capped an impressive display. Murphy was sharp and solid throughout.

TOM TAIWO - Hard-working performance, the midfielder ensured Carlisle stayed competitive in the midfield contest.

JAMES BERRETT - Impressive finish to put United ahead, supplied Murphy’s header and was full of industry all night.

FRANCOIS ZOKO - Moment of inspiration set up first goal, was dangerous on the ball and often worried visiting defenders.

BEN MARSHALL - Looks to be getting back to his confident best. Winger was always positive and creative.

MIKE GRELLA - Not at his most eyecatching, the American produced a few bursts of class late in the game.

GARY MADINE - Weak penalty and limited attacking impact, not his most confident display.

Subs: Craig Curran (for Zoko 78) – Battling effort. 6. Not used: Tony Caig, Kevan Hurst, Tony Kane, Andy Cook, Ben McKenna, Corry Evans.

Goals: Berrett 42, Murphy 50.

Booked: Murphy, Marshall.

Tranmere: Gulacsi, Cathalina (Akins 56), Cresswell, Broomes, Goodison, Welsh, Blanchard, Labadie, Jennings, Thomas-Moore, Showunmi. Not used: Collister, Fraughan, Darville, McGurk, Morrow, Grandison.

Booked: Goodison, Cathalina.

Ref: Eddie Ilderton (Tyne & Wear).

Crowd: 3,744.

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