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Monday, 24 November 2014

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One-year-old Bobby shows how it's done on day of high emotion at Brunton Park

Carlisle United 4 Exeter City 1: The finishing was, in the main, sublime, but it was the sheer appetite for goals which impressed the most. The shots kept coming, each as accurate as the last, all greeted to noisy acclaim. One was less sure of his touch than the others, but that will come with experience. At one year old, Bobby Miller has time in his corner.

Lee Miller photo
Lee Miller and son Bobby

Two stories converged at Brunton Park on Saturday; one sporting, one human. Human first. Around the 14th minute of the first half, Carlisle United’s supporters in the Warwick Road End sparked up in song. The same number of minutes later and they were still turning out the same refrain: “There’s only one Lee Miller.”

Television talent-show contestants struggle to hold a tune as well as those Warwick songsmiths did for that stirring spell. Then came half-time, and the surely unprecedented spectacle of a bereaved 28-year-old man walking on to Carlisle’s pitch with one son in his arms, and his other two dribbling footballs across the grass, pinging passes to each other, before they cut through the jets of two sprinklers to take aim at the vacant net.

This sight, which was met with stadium-wide applause, told us several things. One is that United must sign up Miller’s older sons, Aaron and Lennon, at the double. Strikers of the future, both (and tiny Bobby has the right genes, too).

More profoundly it enabled us to conclude that football is at its best at the worst of times.

This was a community rounding together to try and help one person feel a little less lonely as he begins his grieving process. The warmth shown by Carlisle’s supporters to Miller at the end of the week when his wife, Donna, died of a brain tumour, took different forms. Before the game it emerged that an online whip-round had raised more than £200 for Miller to donate to his preferred charity, the Teenage Cancer Trust. Then came the singing, and then the heartwarming, heartbreaking vision of the striker and his boys stepping out in front of 6,029 pairs of eyes with their tragedy so appallingly recent.

The most traumatic week of several lives thus ended with a public kickabout which moved plenty in this old stadium to tears. “My boys have just turned to me and said it’s been the best day ever,” wrote Miller, later, in a tweet. “Thanks everybody for making it special.”

There is no handbook for mourning, no method of coping which we are entitled to say is better. Carlisle’s centre-forward, whose announcement of Donna’s death on Twitter provoked a flood of sympathy, plainly appreciates the kindness of strangers. An awful four days for the 28-year-old concluded with something that made him smile, gave him a little strength. That, by an extravagant margin, was the best result of the afternoon.

The football? That might have seemed extraordinarily trivial, but what Miller’s team-mates produced before and after his poignant cameo appeared to boost his spirits, too.

“Well done boys, great result!!,” began his online comments on Saturday night.

A week ago Carlisle’s supporters were grumbling about the loss of Miller, the team's most important player, to a groin injury. That concern has since drifted into insignificance, but in the cold context of their profession, United finally found a way to proceed in his absence. Saturday was not an easy day to place meaning on the act of kicking and heading a ball but what the Blues did, they did well.

The upshot of their four-goal showing on Brunton Park's last game of the season proper is that Greg Abbott’s team can now advance upon Boundary Park, Oldham, in five days’ time, with their campaign still relevant. This club, addicted to last-day drama, would settle for nothing less.

With 90 minutes remaining the permutations are now basic. To elevate themselves into the top six, Carlisle must win, and Stevenage (who drew 2-2 at Sheffield United) and Notts County (improbable 4-3 winners at Wycombe) must not. The man who thinks he can predict what will happen next is invited to step forward.

The penultimate day of the race had begun stylishly. United had a new kit, their pitch bore some end-of-season flourishes by their award-winning groundsman, David Mitchell, and by the away dugout stood football’s most dapper manager. Pre-match, the eye sped between Carlisle’s new ‘French Blue’ shirt with its striking red sash, and Paul Tisdale’s latest garb, which can best be described as teacher-chic: blue jacket, with elbow pads. Then the game began and the action produced more colourful splashes.

In the first minute, United nearly scored, when Liam Noble went close from 25 yards. In the second minute, Exeter – needing victory to prolong their League One stay – went closer, when Daniel Nardiello ran into space and lobbed Adam Collin, hitting both post and bar before Danny Livesey hoofed clear.

With a draw irrelevant to both teams, this was never going to be a ponderous production. Carlisle, with Andy Welsh and JP McGovern recalled as orthodox wingers and Matty Robson also restored at left-back, were happy to sacrifice a little defensive rigour for their cause. Sharply, they started working the ball wide in search of opportunities and two were quickly served up, by McGovern and Welsh. But both were headed straight to Lenny Pidgeley, Exeter’s former Carlisle keeper, by Francois Zoko.

A moment on and Noble stepped into the action, meeting Welsh’s pass with a clipped shot which flew over Pidgeley and rattled his crossbar. Noble, whose ripe language on Twitter a few days earlier has put him under FA investigation, was patrolling midfield hungrily, but United were not always imposing full authority on Tisdale’s hopeful team. One blast from Nardiello was parried by Collin and rolled just beyond Liam Sercombe’s reach, before Jordan Cook, Alan Gow and Zoko traded more chances.

It was possible, at this stage, to wonder whether United’s constructive play down the flanks – McGovern was in particularly creative mood – was going to get the finishing it deserved. The wondering then stopped, as Zoko leapt on Steve Tully’s miscontrol and then drove infield to swap crafty passes with Cook, before drilling past Pidgeley.

Having so painstakingly earned the lead, Carlisle then relinquished it within seconds. Exeter attacked down the left, Billy Jones crossed, and the ball made its way to Sercombe, who battered home at the back post. “That was sloppy – really annoying,” said Abbott.

Yet the game remained open and free. Nardiello shot close, Pidgeley denied Welsh, and then Cook got things back in Carlisle’s favour, sprinting on to Livesey’s long ball (as Frank Simek walked back from an offside position), beating the wandering Pidgeley to the bounce and then lofting it home from a tricky angle.

On its own this was a fine way for the Sunderland man to sign off from his 93-day loan, but there remained more work to be done. In the second half, Scot Bennett quickly eluded Zoko and Noble before Lubo Michalik extended a long leg. Downfield, Cook dropped his shoulder and shot wide, and then Exeter’s task became mountainous, as Zoko laid-off McGovern’s cross for Noble to pocket, clinically, after a sweeping attack.

From here, there was little option for the visitors to become even more gung-ho. Soon their desperate enterprise yielded a penalty, when the off-colour Collin upended Gow. But Nardiello’s shot came bouncing back off the bar, after which Carlisle nearly scored their fourth, through Noble.

Exeter came again, increasingly frantic. Sercombe had an air-shot, James Dunne went wide from 25 yards, then some dithering from Collin led to a cross which Nardiello couldn’t convert. Berrett then suffered a knee knock and came off, replaced by Tom Taiwo. At the Waterworks End, groans went up as Collin shoved a Gow shot into Nardiello’s scoring path, but the offside flag intervened. Fortune having conclusively abandoned Tisdale’s men, Carlisle then took a vindictive fourth, as Zoko nicked McGovern’s pass away from a defender and humiliated Troy Archibald-Henville before scoring, left-footed, from the edge of the box.

United’s Ivorian, the star of an agent-produced promotional video on YouTube, then performed a little jig. One for the cameras? Perhaps. The final acts, meanwhile, saw Steve Perryman, Exeter’s director of football, appear in the technical area to support the sinking Tisdale, as Collin saved from David Noble and the Grecians squandered several corners before Fred Graham’s whistle confirmed their relegation.

Unusually, full-time brought no pitch invasion, as United’s public pleas and warnings were heeded. This allowed Exeter to take their leave to sympathetic home applause before Carlisle’s coaches and players – some with their offspring – reappeared for a half-lap of honour. Midway through this little ceremony, a couple of youngsters broke away from the group and made for the Warwick Road End, where more pot-shots ensued. Their old man was close behind; and a few thousand others were, once again, behind him.

ADAM COLLIN - After his recent fine form, this was an off-colour day for the Cumbrian, but the Blues’ finishing got him off the hook.

FRANK SIMEK - Made some useful early attacking forays and crosses, just about secure at the back.

MATTY ROBSON - Could have done more to prevent equaliser but recalled left-back was otherwise sharp and industrious.

DANNY LIVESEY - Skipper was the pick of the back four due to his sensible, no-frills defending.

LUBO MICHALIK - Strong at times, but lost control of Exeter’s frontmen at others. Not as impressive as at Hillsborough.

JAMES BERRETT - A competitive midfield showing, put himself about and used ball well enough until injury forced him off.

LIAM NOBLE - A bright spark all game, he nearly scored early on and then did find the net with a crisp finish.

ANDY WELSH - On a rare start, the winger crossed well and almost got on end of other deliveries. A useful return.

JP MCGOVERN - Close to his best, the wide man was composed on the ball and his distribution was full of quality.

JORDAN COOK - A lively effort included a superb opportunist goal; better finishing could have earned him more.

FRANCOIS ZOKO - Unsuccessful in the air but clinical on the ground. Two well-taken goals and lots of attacking intent.

Subs: Tom Taiwo (for Berrett 64) – Threw himself into the contest; Paul Thirlwell (for Welsh 74) – Steady return; Peter Murphy (for Noble 83) – Helped see off late threat. Not used: Paddy Madden, Mark Beck.

Goals: Zoko 35, 77; Cook 42, Noble 51

Exeter City: Pidgeley, Tully, Jones, Baldwin (Duffy 69), Archibald-Henville, Dunne, Noble, Sercombe, Bennett (Frear 64), Gow, Nardiello (O’Flynn 86). Not used: Krysiak, Fortune

Goal: Sercombe 36

Ref: Fred Graham (Essex)

Crowd: 6,029

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