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Friday, 25 April 2014

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Leeds expose Carlisle Utd's lack of experience

Carlisle United 1 Leeds 3: In the absence of laser pens and mythical rule-bending, the best that the conspiracy theorists could manage last night was to suggest that Mark Halsey, the referee, diverted the points into Leeds United’s mitts through some partial decision-making on Brunton Park’s rutted turf.

Carlisle Utd action photo
Ben Marshall

In terms of explaining why one team won and another didn’t, it can be filed away with the unproven schemes imagined by Ken Bates to account for Leeds’ defeat here in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy a couple of months back.

United’s Yorkshire foes may well have been greater beneficiaries of Halsey’s calls than Carlisle here.

That feeling found its voice about 70 minutes into proceedings, at which point the Lancashire official learned that a courageous battle with cancer is no shield against the frustrations of a few thousand supporters who felt affronted by the number of times Halsey blew his whistle and pointed the way the visitors were attacking.

To finger Halsey for United’s 3-1 defeat would be insane, however.

Far better to recall the civilised applause that broke out upon the first sight of the 48-year-old when he appeared for his pre-match warm-up. And far more honourable to accept that Carlisle were then beaten by a better and more clinical side, who duly levered themselves back into second place in League One with just four games remaining.

Currently, United have so many injured bodies scattered through Brunton Park’s corridors that the challenge of confronting a promotion-thirsty Leeds team always looked a mighty one, particularly once Simon Grayson had performed the smart managerial move of lowering Jermaine Beckford and his form crash to the substitutes’ bench.

In Beckford’s prolific world, five games without scoring, a few weeks after submitting and then withdrawing a transfer request, represents a dangerous famine. In Saturday’s victory against Southend, the striker exchanged gestures with some members of Elland Road’s frustrated audience. In place of that Yorkshire soap opera last night we instead witnessed Luciano Becchio and Max Gradel running through an edgy Blues rearguard, an experience which will surely have accelerated the football education of Tom Aldred.

After three consummate performances on his introduction to senior football, Carlisle’s 19-year-old defender was catapulted so far out of his comfort zone last night that torch-carrying search parties were on standby to fetch him back.

This was the reducing effect of a losing contest against frontmen of Becchio and Gradel’s calibre, and Aldred – withdrawn in the second half by Greg Abbott – will surely return wiser and stronger.

Human error from a handful of United players (not just Aldred) explains this defeat, along with Leeds’ own urgency and ruthlessness and Carlisle’s lack of experienced numbers, a matter on which Abbott dwelt at close of play. “To win this kind of game against this type of opposition, we probably needed our big hitters to select from,” said the Blues manager.

Instead he sent out a team stuffed with youth, including Gary Madine as a lone centre-forward in place of the hamstrung Jason Price, in the hope that their enthusiasm might carry the evening.

Not tonight, boys. That was the thought bubble over Grayson’s head as his players parked themselves in Carlisle’s half and forced some early mistakes from their hosts. In the eighth minute, an Aldred slip gifted the ball to the raiding Gradel before the young defender raced back to redeem himself; from the resulting corner, a foul on Adam Collin wiped out Richard Naylor’s scoring header.

No such luck five minutes later. After an eye-catching passing move, Jonny Howson – the man who cut Carlisle out of the promotion race here two seasons back – was felled by Paul Thirlwell as he took aim 25 yards from goal. Robert Snodgrass’ curling free-kick was claimed by Collin, but the goalkeeper then allowed the ball to slither free, and Becchio pounced to score.

Donating goals to such daunting opponents is never the smartest idea. Emboldened, Grayson’s men could have nailed the game in the following minutes, when Becchio drilled wide from range and then fluffed a golden chance in front of goal after another Snodgrass dart.

Carlisle perked up with some positive surges from Richard Keogh and Ben Marshall on respective flanks, but couldn’t get enough convincing delivery and movement around Madine, who competed well against Leeds’ centre-half pairing of Naylor and Neil Collins. Leeds duly pressed on, as Collin kept out a Snodgrass set-piece, Horwood hacked away a Gradel cross and then Collin denied the same man from a tight angle.

Out of this visiting pressure came a brace of tetchy, bookable challenges – Adam Clayton on Howson, and Naylor on Madine – and from the latter came Carlisle’s remarkable equaliser. Ian Harte’s reliable left boot sent the free-kick into the heart of the Leeds area, and onto it steamed Keogh, who slammed his header past Shane Higgs and looked like he might lap Brunton Park twice on his celebration sprint.

Jubilation swept Carlisle’s stadium, but keeping Leeds at the gates for the rest of the evening still looked a considerable task. Before the first half was through, Snodgrass lifted an effort narrowly over the bar after Tom Taiwo had ducked under a Howson cross.

Then they tore from the traps at the start of the second half and reclaimed their lead, when Gradel displayed admirable balance amid a succession of challenges, fed Leigh Bromby in space on the right, and then positioned himself between United’s defenders to head freely past Collin.

Four minutes on, their advantage was further stretched, as Gradel tucked Becchio clear of Carlisle’s back line, the Argentine motored towards Collin’s target and drove the ball convincingly home at the Waterworks End.

Leeds’ fortitude and United’s struggle for clarity in the final third meant that Becchio’s second bullet ensured the game was dead. From this point on, half-chances were traded with reasonable frequency. For Carlisle, Clayton drew a save from Higgs with a shot from Scott Dobie’s cross, substitute Marc Bridge-Wilkinson screwed a dropping ball wide after Marshall’s run down the left, and Madine leapt to test the visiting keeper at the far post.

For Leeds, Becchio planted a hat-trick chance into Harte’s retreating frame before trading places with Beckford, who trotted off the bench for a leg-stretcher in the closing moments. By that point, David Raven had made his welcome return after six months absent, shoring up in the middle of United’s back four as Abbott took Aldred out of the furnace.

Leeds’ hot-tempered cup defeat in these parts two months ago was duly avenged, not that many more trees need to tumble to keep that story rumbling on. Abbott’s call for “no tension on the terraces” seemed to be heeded by rival supporters, although Carlisle’s chairman Andrew Jenkins did use his programme notes to take a forgivable pot-shot at Leeds’ “hierarchy” (translation: Bates) for the “childish, uncalled-for and unjustified criticism” that has flowed United’s way since that controversial evening.

Of all the competing noises off stage, it’s wiser to drift back to Aldred’s pre-match thoughts, when he described his fascinating introduction to first-team life as “a massive learning curve”. For Aldred and his fellow rookies, the graph just went vertical. Now Grayson has restored some order to a once-faltering promotion push, the same may also soon be true of Leeds.

ADAM COLLIN - Mistake led to Becchio’s opener and he didn’t radiate authority, although he made a couple of decent stops.

RICHARD KEOGH - United’s most enterprising player deserved his crowd-pleasing goal, and he was generally effective in defence.

EVAN HORWOOD - Cleared some important lines and tried to stretch Leeds down left in second half, with limited results.

TOM ALDRED - Given a difficult night by Becchio and Gradel, the teenager will learn plenty from the experience.

IAN HARTE - Good free-kick for Keogh’s leveller, but like his defensive colleagues he couldn’t get on top of Leeds’ frontmen.

TOM TAIWO - Competed as energetically as usual but wasn’t at his most effective in a losing cause.

PAUL THIRLWELL - Kept it simple but Leeds’ midfielders had the edge for most of the game.

ADAM CLAYTON - Got into things more after the break as United chased the game, but wasn’t on top form.

BEN MARSHALL - Always willing to run at his man and the 18-year-old was one of Carlisle’s more likely outlets.

SCOTT DOBIE - Didn’t get into the game enough to have a lasting impact, either down the right or later up front.

GARY MADINE - Led the line well enough against tough defenders and would have benefited from better support.

Subs: Marc Bridge-Wilkinson (for Thirlwell, 60) - Missed decent chance; David Raven (for Aldred 64) - Steady return; Ryan Bowman (for Dobie 80) - Got involved. Not used: Pidgeley, Kavanagh, Rothery, Kane.

Goals: Keogh 43

Booked: Clayton, Marshall

Leeds: Higgs, Bromby, Hughes, Naylor, Collins, Doyle, Kilkenny, Howson, Snodgrass, Gradel (Grella 88), Becchio (Beckford 88). Not used: Ankergren, McSheffrey, Parker, Lowry, Watt.

Goals: Becchio 13, 51; Gradel 47

Booked: Naylor

Referee: Mark Halsey (Lancashire)

Crowd: 8,728

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