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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Jason Price strike earns Carlisle Utd home draw

Carlisle United 1 Walsall 1: The pessimistic wags around Brunton Park, who said that Greg Abbott’s speeding conviction was the only way United’s manager would achieve three points this weekend, turned out to be right.

Carlisle action photo
Jason Price

Yet this wasn’t an appropriate day for Carlisle’s followers to be digging their manual of frustrations out of the glove compartment.

Yes, there was something inevitable about the sight of Abbott popping up in the headlines for a 100mph M6 journey a couple of days after he was making speeches about “keeping our foot on the pedal”, with reference to the Blues’ closing League One games.

That was golden material for saloon bar comedians and journalists. In the cold context of a game of football, however, Abbott’s imagery held strong.

The most pleasing thing about United’s closing home fixture of 2009/10 was that there was no obvious deceleration from his cluster of exhausted players in game 59 of 60. Intensity was at an encouragingly high notch, hence the appreciative send-off they received from 5,000 supporters at the end.

There are worse ways to end an inconsistent but generally improved campaign than to have a good thrash under the May drizzle. And there have certainly been umpteen worse spectacles than this high-energy skirmish with Walsall.

After the Blues distilled their season down into one, 90-minute episode – the careless donation of a goal to the opposition, then a brisk and encouraging reply – they answered the curious question about what you do when you finish your home fixtures in 14th position, by embarking on a brief but well-received trot around the perimeter of Brunton Park’s wearing pitch.

“The appreciation the crowd showed us was lovely,” said Abbott. “That gives us optimism, energy and encouragement. It makes you feel a million times better.” It came because, even without sending their loyalists home with a victory, United still managed to dump the memory of their previous home slump against Oldham into a forgotten corner of this term.

Our last memory of the Cumbrians on their home ground this season is therefore a generally bright one, however little currency came with the point it tacked onto their total. “Now we can go to Norwich, hope Delia burns her pies and spoil their party,” smiled Abbott, looking on to next Saturday’s finale at Carrow Road, where Carlisle will intrude on the Canaries’ coronation.

United may themselves be considerable distance from those daunting heights, but Saturday at least suggested that the foundation is firm enough to construct better things next term.

Gary Madine, whose centre-forward play was the afternoon’s obvious highlight, may finally be about to deliver on his long-trailed potential, an impending court date notwithstanding. The summer loss of the loanees Adam Clayton, Ben Marshall and Jason Price must be adequately dealt with by Abbott, not to mention those out-of-contract legions, but this remained a day to say that the Blues have emphatically left behind last season’s collapse.

Among the flaws that certainly need zapped in 2010/11 is United’s habit of shedding avoidable goals. The latest came along after just two minutes here, when Price misplaced a headed pass to Clayton, Troy Deeney flicked it through to Darren Byfield, and Walsall’s experienced striker galloped clear of defensive attention to batter the shot through Adam Collin’s valiant attempted save.

Carlisle, with Richard Keogh and David Raven having switched to centre-half and right-back respectively, and Clayton operating on the right of midfield to accommodate Price’s recall, took some time to recover their composure after this early jolt and on 14 minutes, Keogh was ambushed by Byfield and was obliged to charge back to correct his error.

Eventually Abbott’s men perked up. The relentless Keogh got under a decent headed chance from a Clayton corner, then a wicked cross from Evan Horwood was claimed by the visiting goalkeeper Rene Gilmartin a fraction ahead of the flying Madine, who was starting to form an awkward squad with Price to unsettle Chris Hutchings’ back line.

It was this new double act that duly crafted United’s leveller just before the half-hour. Raven, who was faultless all game back in his old position, pinged in a decent ball from deep which was glanced on by Madine for Price, who sniffed out the chance with a well-timed run and then finished it off with enviable composure.

United’s rise duly continued with a curling Marshall shot which Gilmartin clawed away, and then a brace of further half-chances for Madine. Walsall’s discomfort was further visible when their captain, Jamie Vincent, almost troubled Gilmartin with a bizarre clearance which he attacked as if he was shooting for his own target.

The Saddlers, who have themselves been trotting along in mid-table for some weeks, emerged with renewed vigour for the second half and worried United with a low drive from Richard Taundry which fizzed just wide, and then a Julian Gray cross which Matt Richards neglected to attack in front of goal.

The idea that this was any kind of end-of-season exhibition game was then popped when Price and Manny Smith traded shoves and were booked, before Carlisle retrieved their earlier punch. Horwood, a growing presence, saw a cross flicked away from the rising Madine by Mark Hughes, and then Keogh had a far-post effort deflected wide after an Ian Harte free-kick forced a scramble.

At the other end, Collin dealt with a Byfield effort after the frontman had turned Harte, and Keogh repelled a blast from Walsall’s otherwise becalmed top scorer, Deeney. By now, Abbott had attempted to give the drama dial a final twist by bringing Marshall over to his favoured right flank, but all the game coughed up in the closing stages were an off-target Madine header, a wasted Smith effort and a spot of melodrama from Gray, whose lingering lace-tying after a dispute with Keogh in front of referee David Foster, as the Tyne & Wear official prepared to book both men, was not exactly lifted from the FA’s ‘Respect’ agenda.

The tiresome Gray’s antics aren’t worth much brain energy as we try to slot this untypical Cumbrian season into its correct place in recent history. With that in mind, and with their closing engagement at Norwich to go, Abbott recast himself as an end-of-term teacher: “If I was doing a school report on this season it would say that progress has been made, but there is still lots of improvement to do.”

That was a tidy enough way of appraising Brunton Park’s final afternoon of term, too, with a necessary nod to the manager’s brutally long injury list. It also said that certain repairs will undoubtedly be required when the Blues book in for their summer service. But at least we can say with some confidence that the vehicle is no longer at the roadside, belching smoke.

ADAM COLLIN - Did his best to keep out Byfield’s opener, went about his other duties steadily.

DAVID RAVEN - Returned to right-back with confidence, had a hand in the goal and looked solid throughout.

EVAN HORWOOD - Took on plenty of responsibility to keep United on the front foot down the left, an impressive showing.

RICHARD KEOGH - Back at centre-half, he put his usual effort into things and made some important interventions.

IAN HARTE - Composure on the ball impressed at times, and a couple of his set-pieces unsettled the Saddlers.

TOM TAIWO - Mixed bag of high-energy tackling and inconsistent passing, but he never let Hutchings’ midfielders settle.

PAUL THIRLWELL - Retained possession and spread play nicely in the first half, competed well thereafter.

ADAM CLAYTON - Unfamiliar wide role but he showed plenty of quality on the ball in his final Brunton Park outing.

BEN MARSHALL - Willingness to run at defenders always impresses and he engaged Walsall’s full-backs on both flanks.

JASON PRICE - Atoned for early mistake by tucking away his third United goal and boosting his case for a permanent move.

GARY MADINE - His most rounded performance yet as the teenager teamed up with Price to dangerous effect and led the line strongly.

Subs: Scott Dobie (for Marshall 68) - Lively down the right; Ryan Bowman (for Price 79) - Tried to force a winnert. Not used: Lenny Pidgeley, Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, Tom Aldred, Tony Kane, Steven Swinglehurst.

Goal: Price 29

Booked: Price, Keogh

Walsall: Gilmartin, Weston, Vincent, McDonald (Hughes 46), Smith, Jones (Till 84), Taundry, Richards, Gray, Byfield, Deeney. Not used: Ince, Bradley, O’Keefe, Westlake, Grigg.

Goal: Byfield 2

Booked: Smith, Gray

Ref: David Foster (Tyne & Wear)

Crowd: 5,114

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