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Thursday, 23 October 2014

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Walsall expose Carlisle Utd shortcomings on chilly night at Brunton Park

Carlisle United 0 Walsall 3: Carlisle’s hardened criminals, as Greg Abbott likes to call his players, will be doing serious time if they have many more nights like this, when an abysmal performance got the punishment it deserved from Will Grigg, Walsall’s hat-trick hero.

Carlisle Utd photo
Frank Simek, left and JP McGovern

So are we off there again, back to the bad old days? Has one 90-minute showing dismantled the theory that United, in early 2013, had become a more solid unit than they were in late 2012, the period that this game echoed?

With many of the teams below them in League One rising up last night, the gap between Carlisle and the bottom four is now reduced to six points. This is the danger when you spend most of February not winning, let alone being obliterated at home in front of 3,266 shivering fans.

Honestly, United’s shortcomings chilled the bone last night. Walsall, with their dashing front players, including the deadly Grigg, were enviably good: a team of journeymen thriving in each other’s company.

Carlisle were so bereft by comparison that you began to fear a stagger back into serious relegation trouble, unless this display shocks them back into life. After finding some overdue competitiveness in the new year the Blues have quietly mislaid the winning touch.

Four games have now passed by without a three-point return. And to think they started the month with an away win at the league leaders (Tranmere). Now, they have harvested two measly points from games against Scunthorpe, Portsmouth, MK Dons and Dean Smith’s hungry pack, who could have doubled their goals total last night with more accurate finishing.

It was as though the Saddlers had been hand-picked to display the qualities United came without: a committed, ball-winning midfield and a mobile, pacy attacking force of Grigg, Jamie Paterson, Craig Westcarr and the outstanding Febian Brandy, so often a frustrating customer down the years but a fleet-footed menace here.

Their movement, their imagination with and without the ball, gave Carlisle problems they simply could not solve. At the other end it was desperately sterile, with Lee Miller having the poorest game of his United career and many others joining him on the road to nowhere.

After the game Miller personally confronted the theory that his toiling is a result of an expiring contract and a long gaze towards an expected summer departure. Abbott, who this defeat pushed back onto the ropes, also joined the defence of a player who has until now been spared any criticism since moving here in August 2011.

Both are entitled to do so: the not-trying allegation is the worst any pro can hear. But equally they will know that such a personal and collective decline is fertile ground for theories and suspicions, many of which may be wrong, but which can only be shut down properly by good performances, strong actions.

To watch their most important player struggle even with the basics last night – finding the nearest blue shirt, keeping the ball under close control – was hard to bear. It is because Miller has been so good for much of his time at Carlisle that these difficulties stand out. It would, though, be wrong to make this a one-man story.

The problems last night spread to all areas, from the moment in the second minute when the gifted Paterson caught Carlisle cold by switching play sharply to Brandy. James Chambers burst onto his cushioned pass, Mark Gillespie sent him flying and Grigg made short work of the penalty.

A small crowd was already deflated, unable to build up any hope that United, with Dave Symington a popular inclusion on the left wing, might start the game in command. That privilege was enjoyed by the visitors, for whom Brandy almost profited from a free header at an Andy Taylor free-kick, before Carlisle settled into a dreary habit of losing possession under pressure and allowing the Saddlers to break.

From several such moments, often deep in Walsall’s half, Paterson, Grigg and Westcarr all troubled United’s defence with shots and crosses. Carlisle eventually found a little purpose, with Liam Noble and Rory Loy shooting from 25 yards, but a more familiar sight was of the pint-sized Brandy speeding away from Noble, linking with Paterson, and feeding Sam Mantom for a shot which Gillespie parried.

These attacks were conducted with confidence and certainty. United’s forays were hopeful at best. Symington was a stranger to possession for too long while all around their midfield and attack there was nothing to inspire, nothing to lift things from the one-paced plod.

In the second half Brandy was quickly to the fore again, cutting in with a shot Sean O’Hanlon blocked. Paterson then met the same barrier after one more gliding run. Westcarr was then denied, by Gillespie, after turning Livesey. Grigg next: shooting over after another slicing move.

Hope briefly flickered when Frank Simek put a fine cross onto Miller’s head and the striker drew a good diving stop from Aaron McCarey. But the flame soon went out again when Brandy served Grigg, who sidestepped O’Hanlon and slotted the ball across Gillespie for number two.

This low moment, in the 66th minute, saw some fans up sticks and head for home. Mark Beck, on for Loy, nearly hooked one in at close range, and then did force a shot home – the offside flag denied him – but United’s efforts continued to be shown up by Brandy, who one minute sped back to tackle another sub, Andy Welsh, in the box, and the next darted forward again with an attempt Gillespie blocked, the ball spinning for Grigg to complete his treble at the second attempt, with Simek the final, beaten man on the line.

So now it’s clear: this season is a damage-limitation exercise, nothing more. Put your house on Abbott, who had hoped 4-4-2 might unlock his squad’s creativity, setting out a much less expansive plan when United go to Notts County this weekend.

Things went so badly here, in fact, that the Blues boss may not dare be so open with his tactics again this term, which on its own shows what a pass we have reached.

The bargain now, surely, will be functional football in exchange for League One safety and then a summer of reflection, whatever that may entail.

As a sales pitch to the disaffected, it is hardly going to have many tills ringing. In a perfect world you would wave a wand and have them playing like Walsall, who have not been the envy of many teams for a while but appear to be upwardly mobile at last, under Smith. But “I’m not a magician” was one small part of Abbott’s long confessional to the media after his dressing-room debrief.

What a chamber that must have been at full-time. Being jealous of the team in ninth is not how anybody wished to feel last night, but here we are, and it is not likely to get a great deal better. All we can hope for now until April 27, beyond survival, is that it is not this bad, this hollow, this criminal every single week.

MARK GILLESPIE - Conceded the early penalty, did his best to atone with a few decent saves, kicking sometimes erratic but nowhere near the worst of Carlisle’s players.

FRANK SIMEK - Did some good work in the first half and seemed to have the fighting spirit United needed, but faded after the break as Walsall made inroads down the left.

JORDAN MUSTOE - At times the loanee showed glimpses of genuine quality. At others he let errors slip into his game and Brandy, when he came down Walsall’s right, was almost unplayable.

DANNY LIVESEY - Although turned once by Westcarr, Livesey was one of the few Blues players to confront the decline. The more serious problems were further up the pitch.

SEAN O’HANLON - Put in countless blocks at the last-ditch to prevent further goals. The centre-half gave his usual wholehearted display but was beaten comfortably by Grigg for Walsall’s second goal.

JAMES BERRETT - An enormously frustrating night for United’s midfielders and Berrett only threatened to get going on occasion, before Walsall’s middle men retrieved possession and created much more danger.

LIAM NOBLE - A couple of moments in the first half hinted at brighter things but by the end Noble had faded from the contest, and was too often outwitted by the Saddlers’ midfielders and forwards.

DAVE SYMINGTON - Not an enjoyable game for the teenager, who had little opportunity to run at his man and couldn’t deliver a quality end product. Improved when moved to the right but still a quiet night.

JP MCGOVERN - Other than some defensive work in support of Simek, McGovern made little mark on the game and was rarely able to trouble the Saddlers with his crossing ability.

RORY LOY - In bursts he was United’s only forward player to look threatening, but Walsall generally frustrated him and after tiring in second half he was subbed.

LEE MILLER - By his own admission, his poorest Carlisle display, with his normally reliable touch deserting him. Drew one good save from McCarey but this was a shadow of last season's talisman.

Subs: Mark Beck (for Loy 64) – Forced a couple of chances; Andy Welsh (for McGovern 75) – Unable to create anything; Danny Cadamarteri (for Miller 76) – Did all he could. Not used: Adam Collin, Peter Murphy, Paul Thirlwell, Brad Potts

Booked: Berrett

Walsall: McCarey, J Chambers (Holden 81), Taylor, Butler, Downing, Mantom, A Chambers, Paterson, Brandy (Baxendale 89), Westcarr (Featherstone 89), Grigg. Not used: Grof, Hemmings, Bowerman, Benning

Goals: Grigg 2 (pen), 66, 85

Ref: Paul Tierney (Lancashire)

Crowd: 3,266 (163 Walsall fans)

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