Carlisle Utd come back from the dead in dramatic play-off first leg

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Carlisle Utd 3 Exeter City 3: Deep breath, three more days, and then we go again. And who can say how it will end, this already dramatic, absurd, wildly flawed and stupidly compelling play-off semi-final?

Who would put a penny on the outcome after seeing this much action, this many errors and yet also this much character from Carlisle United and Exeter City over 95 minutes?

Six goals was barely the half of it. The offside flag incorrectly denied at least one more, the post another, while there were enough scrapes, near-misses, blunders and chances to fill several weeks, never mind one contest.

Whoever wins at St James’ Park on Thursday will probably stagger into Wembley exhausted. That also goes for the fans. Expect everything and more. Except clean-sheets, perhaps.

It was, as we really should have expected, a typically Carlisle play-off tie. Keith Curle’s team went behind, came back, went behind, conceded again, then scored twice in two minutes. Exeter had one wrongly chalked off, had another one debatably disallowed, hit the woodwork with the last kick, and then Brunton Park’s torn emotions were pieced back together for a chorus of “Carlisle we love you” after the final whistle.

No refunds will have been sought by the 9,708 who watched. If entertainment is your thing, Sunday night at Carlisle’s old ground was the place. If defending floats your boat, try somewhere else. So often this season we have wondered if their conceding habits would kill off a promising campaign.

Then they go and save it all with some fresh attacking – and, here, an incredible stroke of luck, when John O’Sullivan swerved a cross into Exeter’s net to make it 3-2 and set the stage for another goal from a sub, Shaun Miller, moments later.

In the sun, before it all began, it had all seemed so calm. The best grounds team in League Two had put on their best colours for the cameras and the occasion while United’s ground was surrounded by Sky’s trucks and scaffolding, gantries and cameras. Although the expected five figures wasn’t quite reached in the stands, Carlisle’s attempt at making it third time lucky in Football League play-offs still had a big and eager audience.

In the absence of Jabo Ibehre – injury kept him out in the end – Carlisle’s idea was to use Jamie Proctor as their kingpin up front and have Reggie Lambe raiding in support, as James Bailey joined the midfield. It was, though, a scrappy opening, Ollie Watkins having an early shot blocked for Exeter as United struggled to hit Proctor with balls over the top.

It is not the first play-off first leg to lack early fluency, but Carlisle’s attempts to unsettle Exeter needed improvement. A couple of counter-attacks were absorbed and then the visitors troubled United with a wicked low cross from Pierce Sweeney, and then the opener, as Sweeney’s throw down the right found Watkins, who had broken clear from Luke Joyce, and then Joel Grant’s header was strong enough to beat Mark Gillespie’s attempted save.

It was a tame way to fall behind, not that conceding first against Exeter is uncommon to the Blues. Bobby Olejnik, promoted in goal by Paul Tisdale for the slightly smaller Christy Pym (presumably to meet United’s set-piece and long-throw threat), then produced an alarming fumble which nearly let Proctor in. But you could sense a certain tetchiness in the crowd as Carlisle’s other, mundane attacking ideas failed to outwit Tisdale’s defence.

Curle, though, then acted, sending Lambe to the right and bringing Jamie Devitt infield. This gave the Blues vital extra pace down a side they then attacked with gusto. One fine Lambe cross looked ideal for Proctor but some valiant defending by Troy Brown prevented the equaliser.

A galloping break on the half-hour then saw Joyce turn and pass to the raiding Lambe, who had to break his stride to receive the ball before curling it narrowly wide.

Curle will have been encouraged to see his change improve United as it did, and it was from further Lambe-inspired pressure that they levelled. First the Bermudan was fouled and a Danny Grainger free-kick was put behind. The corner was cleared and Lambe had a shot blocked. Then Nicky Adams fizzed it over from the right and Brunton Park erupted as it found the net, via Jordan Moore-Taylor.

One wondered, already, how many more twists this tie would have, as Carlisle went close again through Bailey’s 20-yard shot. United were now breaking up Exeter’s passing with a little more vigour and the Grecians became frustrated as they came towards Carlisle’s box without any joy.

United then snapped into them deep in their own territory as Devitt, Proctor and Lambe almost profited from a good interception. Yet, as at St James’ Park last Saturday, Carlisle contrived to end a strong spell by conceding another, right on half-time.

Exeter forced a corner, which was cleared, but when Grant and Watkins then combined, and Grant ran at the defence from the left, his lay-off found Ryan Harley in space. The midfielder’s clipped finish took a deflection, and again Gillespie’s attempted save was not strong enough.

Two very nearly became three early in the second half, David Wheeler drawing a tip-over from Gillespie. But United remained far too brittle and, as a Blues break failed down the right, Grant – a growing menace on the left – found space and then Wheeler in helpful space.

His finish across Gillespie exposed an ongoing lack of security in both midfield and defence – and also opened up a worrying gap which would be the greatest test yet of Carlisle’s well-known comeback skills.

Curle threw O’Sullivan and Miller on from the bench, and the latter almost grabbed a goal within seconds, denied by Olejnik as he tried to round the keeper. Miller had also been introduced in place of Raynes, a striker for a defender and a switch to 3-5-2.

An offside flag – wrongly raised, it turned out – then spared the Blues further woe, as Watkins smashed a Grant cross high into the net. It was a reprieve their floundering defensive efforts barely deserved – yet then came the most absurd double twist.

First, O’Sullivan, who had injected some direct running and purpose on the right, picked the ball up near the right flank and saw his deep delivery swerve back towards goal, dipping over Olejnik and finding the net: the most meaningful Carlisle goalscoring cross since Les O’Neill at Chelsea in 1974, perhaps.

That one put them top of the entire country; this one kept them alive in the fourth tier. And then, with a sudden gust behind them, they struck again: Adams crossing, Miller heading home and Curle turning to face the previously aggrieved but newly jubilant Paddock with a Cheshire-cat grin.

This insane spectacle was now back to bubbling life. Exeter forced a free-kick in United’s danger zone but this time Curle’s men repelled it. Adams then scampered forward and drew an anxious Grecians block.

There was no denying that United’s changes, including Miller’s movement up front, had made them a much more useful unit going forward. Again, you were torn between praising their comeback character, cursing the mess they had got themselves in to start with, and also wondering if there would be yet more to thrill or torment us.

Reuben Reid, on for Craig Woodman, drew a parry from Gillespie as Exeter searched for one more cutting moment. They nearly found it when Reid then went through to score, but the flag went up again. Gillespie superbly denied Harley when it seemed certain he would hand Tisdale an advantage to take on their plane home. Then, with the last kick, Jake Taylor hit the post.

Manic, and breathless right to the end. As it will be on Thursday. As it always seems to be with Carlisle, now and forever.

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sjt   , Monday, 15 May, 2017 at 4:53PM
Ive said it before,the defence is a shambles,either the players cant understand what Curle says,as nobody else has a clue what he says,or the player are useless?which is it?
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