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Friday, 18 April 2014

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League champions Norwich are no match for Carlisle Utd

Norwich City 0 Carlisle United 2: Last-day drama wasn’t supposed to intrude on Norwich City’s coronation.

Carlisle Utd action photo
Gary Madine challenges Norwich's Gary Dohert

While the anxieties of promotion and relegation battles filled other League One arenas, the Norfolk congregation filed into Carrow Road expecting a final, routine victory against one of the division’s also-rans before the pots could be handed out.

Instead, Carlisle United rolled up in one of their more anarchic moods and shredded the script, or “burnt Delia Smith’s pies”, to borrow Greg Abbott’s pre-game metaphor of choice. Watched by a jaunty gathering of travelling fans – some of whom were dressed in chefs’ whites in homage to Norwich’s majority shareholder – the Cumbrians served up some highly nutritious fare against the third tier’s best side.

Unburdened by the fretfulness that they usually lug around with them on the season’s closing afternoon, Carlisle scored twice in the first seven minutes against Paul Lambert’s champs and could have had three more by half-time. Drunk on their freedom in the splashing rain, Abbott’s men then concluded their business for 2009/10 with a clean sheet against an attacking unit which has scythed down most opponents on their way back to the Championship.

In the General Election week when Carlisle turned blue, the city’s football team slipped into their red change colours and tore into the yellows with something bordering on abandon. In no time at all they were a couple of goals ahead, through Gary Madine’s clipped finish after 56 seconds and then an Ian Harte free-kick which apparently flicked off one of Jason Price’s afro curls.

The goal of the season debate could proceed without making room for United’s final strike of 09/10. Not that Price was troubled by that minor squabble. The Millwall loanee, who now returns to aid the Lions’ play-off campaign, was simply content to tug at his giant barnet on his way back to the centre-circle, by way of indication to Harte that he had made scoring contact with the defender’s set-piece.

Carlisle’s storming of Norwich’s 26,000 ground had the effect of popping a few of the party inflatables before home supporters retrieved their voice for the post-match medal ceremony. “Going up, up, up,” they sang, to which the tempting response was, “so you should be, with all those resources”. Money doesn’t guarantee everything, so Lambert still deserves ample credit for his single-minded pursuit of honours in East Anglia. But how Abbott would love a modest portion of the Scot’s financial strength.

For one enjoyable day, the cash chasm was bridged. In so doing, some of United’s performers gave their reputations a healthy shine. With the first minute not yet through, the rapidly-improving Madine chested down a high ball, allowing Price to send Ben Marshall on a purposeful run at the backpedalling home defence, before the Stoke prospect returned it to the galloping Madine for a nerveless finish.

Minutes after Russell Martin slammed Norwich’s first meaningful shot narrowly wide, Carlisle then took their startling second, when Harte’s reliable left-foot bent over a free-kick from deep and Price’s mane did the rest. Fraser Forster, the superb Newcastle loan goalkeeper who deferred only to the sidelined Cumbrian Grant Holt in the Canaries’ player of the year awards, was reduced to confusion by Harte’s whipped delivery and Price’s leap.

What followed was a mainly stress-free game of pinball as Norwich tried to snap back at United, who themselves continued on their own enterprising way, spreading the ball rapidly an accurately across the greased pitch. In the 12th minute, Chris Martin cushioned a pass through for Korey Smith, who rounded the advancing Adam Collin but then shot weakly towards the target, allowing Harte to intercept and then evade Oli Johnson with an audacious goalline manoeuvre.

Gary Doherty and Jens Berthel Askou both failed to capitalise on a corner, and then Carlisle came again. First, Forster made a hash of an attempt to clear an Adam Clayton pass but the lurking Price couldn’t steer his resulting shot past Berthel Askou. Then Madine hunted the ball down on the right and fed Marshall – operating at the tip of a midfield diamond – whose low missile struck Doherty and bounced to safety. Then Russell Martin tried to chest a hanging David Raven cross back to Forster, only for Price to race in and poke the ball a fraction over the bar.

United’s opportunism and zeal was engaging. Norwich’s attempt to retrieve the game then settled on the twisting limbs of Wes Hoolahan, the dynamic midfielder who was back from injury. Not at his best but still a live threat, the Irishman served up a headed chance which Russell Martin couldn’t convert, and then, before the break, Paul Thirlwell displayed Carlisle’s concern at Hoolahan’s game-turning potential by scything him down with a bookable challenge.

But the anticipated Canaries revival still didn’t come. After the break, Collin got his fingertips to a Darel Russell shot. Madine twice tested Forster, and then Raven put in the sort of expertly-timed challenge on Hoolahan that might replay through Abbott’s mind when he considers the out-of-contract defender’s future today.

Half-chances, many of them pummelled into orbit by the off-colour Chris Martin, defined the patchy closing stages, which eventually descended into exhibition football when Lambert substituted Forster, thereby granting his loan keeper a standing ovation, before Abbott matched his counterpart by sending on Mark Gillespie for his senior debut in injury-time.

Let the record show that the young man dealt with his first, brief test capably. Gillespie got his teenage frame behind a fizzing Adam Drury cross in the game’s dying moments, before the rest of Abbott’s team finished a pleasing day’s work by tossing a few of their shirts into the appreciative travelling audience, and then strolling off to a generous ovation from the home support.

You looked at those individual gestures from certain players and wondered how many of them were permanent farewells. Those matters ought to become clearer today, while Norwich reflect on the tickertape party which followed the final whistle and which didn’t require one of Delia’s infamous wine-assisted speeches to get it going.

With their climb back out of Carlisle’s division, the age of desperation has passed at this substantial club. Relatively speaking, the same may also be said of United, who finish an inconsistent but improved term in 14th place and with enough of a base from which they can propel themselves further next year.

However you appraise their efforts over the past nine months, the memory of the way they spiked the punch at Norwich’s shindig will certainly endure, until it all begins again in August.

This closing victory can only be written off as meaningless if you are prepared to dismiss the spectacle of the Cumbrians cleaning up against a team who were otherwise far too good for League One.

ADAM COLLIN – Made a couple of good saves and punched well, one of his better recent performances.

DAVID RAVEN – A sharp defensive display, he contributed plenty on what could be his last United appearance.

EVAN HORWOOD – Another whose future is under the microscope, Horwood’s all-round performance was of good quality.

RICHARD KEOGH – Led United’s aerial defensive effort and made some alert interceptions to keep Martin and co quiet.

IAN HARTE – A picture of class for much of the game, his goalline dribble past Johnson in the first half showed remarkable nerve.

MARC BRIDGE-WILKINSON – Called into the side late after Taiwo’s withdrawal, he used the ball tidily throughout.

PAUL THIRLWELL – As United attacked at pace, their captain’s distribution was excellent and he competed strongly in midfield.

BEN MARSHALL – Given a more roving brief than before, the teenager was a regular threat to the champions.

ADAM CLAYTON – United look a better side when Clayton is in it, and the Man City loanee signed off with another quality effort.

JASON PRICE – Whether he got the final touch for United’s second or not, the Millwall man posed Norwich regular problems.

GARY MADINE – Has clearly raised his game in recent weeks. Strong and threatening, this was perhaps his best display yet.

Subs: Scott Dobie (for Price 63) – Lively effort; Joe Anyinsah (for Marshall 85) – Welcome return; Mark Gillespie (for Collin 90) – Late debut. Not used: Ryan Bowman, Steven Swinglehurst, Tony Kane, Graham Kavanagh

Goals: Madine 1, Price 7

Booked: Thirlwell

Norwich: Forster (Rudd 88), R Martin, Drury, Doherty, Berthel-Askou, Russell, Lappin (Hughes 69), Smith, Hoolahan, C Martin, Johnson (McNamee 73). Not used: Gill, McVeigh, Rose, McDonald.

Ref: Andrew Penn (West Midlands)

Crowd: 25,181

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