Grainger holds nerve and Proctor pounces to keep Carlisle Utd's dream alive
Exeter City 2 Carlisle United 3: By Carlisle United's standards, it was all rather dull. They kept the ball near the byline, smuggled a corner and a throw-in from Exeter City, and before the home side could get it anywhere near the away team's half, the final whistle blew.
This is not how we had expected it to end. Where was the almighty injury-time skirmish in the Blues' six-yard box? The last, frightful chance that would have given our hearts one more flutter?
It was nowhere, because, after 45-and-a-bit games in a volatile, enthralling season, United were actually ending it with a little swagger. Not enough for olés, as the clock ticked down. But still a cameo of control and certainty that was quite out of keeping with what we had seen before.
The madness, the mayhem: that had already been there, in spades. In keeping with traditions of last-day Carlisle cliffhangers, we saw them go behind twice, equalise twice with their first penalties since November, and then win the game - and a play-off place - with a goal from that sometimes maligned Keith Curle route, the long throw.
Jamie Proctor's winning header in the 76th minute may, if the coming weeks bend their way, go down as the most important goal in Carlisle's recent history. It will be followed in that regard by Danny Grainger's nerveless spot-kicks that kept Curle's team alive at St James' Park.
This is what it comes down to, on afternoons like this. Stomach. Heart. Will. And the ability to see straight lines when all seems tangled. Grainger, facing 12-yard shots to prevent his local club from a final-day failure, put both away as though they were training-ground attempts.
Imagine if one had gone awry. Imagine how it would have felt for the Cumbrian leader of this persistent team to have cost United their big chance?
The thought did not appear to cross Grainger's mind. This is also what leadership is about. United are still there, still in the hunt, because their captain rejected all other possibilities. The first was leathered high down the middle. The second, to make it 2-2, was clipped into the top left corner. A few minutes after the latter, Tom Miller heaved the ball into play from the right, and Proctor guided it home.
The away end, naturally, erupted when referee Stephen Martin later signalled full-time. Players in blue shirts launched themselves towards jubilant supporters with grins as wide as Devon. Hands were clasped, photos were taken. Even a few cynical lips in the press box started to tremble. Momentum, that useful play-off strength, may now be with the Blues as they size Exeter up again in six days' time.
Another epic no doubt awaits. This was certainly one. United's 735 fans, some dressed as airline pilots, came to see their team soar. They were then given cause to wonder if this season, which promised so much by halfway, was about to crash land at the last.
Exeter began with the comfort of a side already assured of their top-seven place. Paul Tisdale's attacking three set Carlisle a challenge in movement and anticipation. This challenge broke the Blues when, in the ninth minute, Ollie Watkins switched play, David Wheeler got it through to Reuben Reid, and the striker strolled into gaping space to beat Mark Gillespie.
United, defensively, were in a muddle. The only salvation was the thought that so much of the game remained; time enough for more plot twists. Carlisle struggled to make the ball stick in the opening stages as the elusive Watkins tested Gillespie, and then almost fed Reid again.
Dropping off the front line, sweeping across United's shape: it was easy to see why Watkins has drawn glowing reviews this season. Carlisle had to change the script, find some life, and thankfully they did midway through, as Proctor and Jabo Ibehre rediscovered each other's wavelength. On 23 minutes the latter fed the former, and Proctor's shot spun off Pierce Sweeney and skimmed the top of the crossbar.
Their presence, in tandem, helped Carlisle attack better as a unit, and while they survived one great scare, Gillespie saving from Reid on the break, they applied enough pressure to make Exeter stumble. Proctor, eyeing Nicky Adams' cross, was forced over by Jordan Moore-Taylor at the back post, and Grainger did his thing from the spot.
The cluster of players from which that penalty came included Ethan Ampadu, a dreadlocked, 16-year-old midfielder with an enviable future. He was Tisdale's only concession to the fringes of his team. The rest was full of first-team regulars. One, Ryan Harley, saw a shot deflected into the side-netting as Exeter came again. As the atmosphere grew to match the tension, Miller looped a header under the home crossbar, only to see it nodded clear.
Carlisle's response, in truth, had been reassuring. Their defending, alas, was not - and it felt like an ancient flaw was resurfacing when, with seconds to go before half-time, an inswinging corner was glanced on and Moore-Taylor somehow found himself behind Macaulay Gillesphey to dispatch a diving header.
This was a miserable moment for those behind the net. Would the goals-against habit ultimately cost the Blues? Refreshingly, no. Curle, also, refused to settle for a hard-luck story. At the break he made a tactical change, bringing on James Bailey for Gillesphey and shifting 3-5-2 into 4-4-2.
He also, it is believed, threw a few sharp words around the dressing room, designed to provoke Proctor and Ibehre in particular into more dangerous life. It had the desired effect on the whole team, in fact, for the second 45 minutes were dogged and convincing from United.
A tentative spell of pressure built into a wave approaching the hour mark. Crosses and throws landed like shells in Exeter's domain. Bailey recycled the ball usefully around the box and while Adams grew in threat, Miller, on his recall, also became a real presence on the right.
Ibehre, Miller, Proctor, Bailey and Adams all had realistic efforts in the space of three minutes. Jamie Devitt, fed by Adams, then slotted the ball agonisingly across goal. Next, Michael Raynes was denied by Christy Pym. Grainger bailed United out with a sliding block at the other end, before Ibehre clutched his hamstring and had to go off.
United's hopes could have faded with the loss of their recent talisman. Instead they were further revived. Ibehre's replacement, Shaun Miller, had an effort blocked, while Bailey almost picked out the arriving Luke Joyce. Tisdale then gave Harley and Lloyd James the rest of the afternoon off, and his double substitution did little to hold Carlisle back.
Duly they returned, and engineered the crucial moments. First, Proctor turned into the box, was tripped, and Grainger lifted his ninth of the season into the Grecians' net. Four minutes later: the jackpot, as Miller's latest launch found Proctor in space.
The net billowed and, after the celebratory pile-on, there were chances to make the new-found lead extra safe. Pym, though, telegraphed Proctor's dink, while Shaun Miller saw his right-sided attempt deflected behind.
The pattern, though, remained good enough: Carlisle on the attack, far away from danger. The only real scares came when Exeter got a free-kick, and handball cries went up as it entered United's box, likewise from a resulting corner. Yet those, and the rest of what Watkins and Reid had to offer, passed by.
And then, after the jubilation, after the pilots' hats had been transferred to certain players, you pondered the sweet madness of it all. Twenty-four teams, 46 games, 4,140 minutes, and one solitary goal ends up the cigarette paper between misery and hope. And it's still not over. What further chaos now awaits?