Nicky Adams' moment of magic keeps Carlisle Utd's dream alive
Carlisle United 2 Newport County 1: This, presumably, is why Carlisle United went for Nicky Adams in the first place: so that the quality would announce itself at the clutch moments, when the pressure is mounting, when only the best players in League Two come through.
Adams' winning goal against Newport was spectacular, but it was no lucky hit. Technically it was one of the most absorbing goals the Blues have scored this season and one dearly hopes it is the moment of magic that can now result in a play-off campaign, after all.
The praise can also rain down on Jabo Ibehre, who has scored five in five and in the process kept United's push truly alive. But Adams' curler was the moment Carlisle came back to the fullest life on a day many in the fanbase will have been approaching with trepidation.
Jamie Devitt played his part, in a deft one-two, but Adams raised the roof with the confident way he took on the shot and bent it beyond keeper Joe Day's reach.
It is endlessly curious that Adams, a prolific creator, has only three goals himself this season. But his timing here was impeccable. Newport have made a storming revival these past few weeks and were never going to bend the knee to a side several places higher when safety was in sight.
Especially after the Exiles took an early lead, it required United to go mining for their very best traits. Adams, who was excellent all game, vindicated Keith Curle's faith, his investment and his recent caution.
"I didn’t play Nicky last week because of the fatigue levels he had," Curle said. "He had come in and played 15 minutes [against Stevenage] after one day's training. We needed to get the confidence back in his movement patterns.
"Last week at Crawley, with how we thought the game was going to pan out, it wasn't right for Nicky to go on. I couldn’t afford to lose him. I know the ability and quality he's got, and that with a week's training under his belt, [he would be a] different animal."
That animal must now leave teethmarks in Exeter before United can start thinking of the play-offs. Ibehre, too, must keep on munching defences. His equalising finish here was pleasingly brutal and should he put one away at St James' Park in five days' time, a club record for scoring in six consecutive games will be equalled.
No matter who does the damage, Carlisle will probably still need another win, in Devon, to nail that top seven finish. But they will accept that bargain gladly compared with how differently Saturday could have turned out. At half-time they were 12th in the table and staring up Everest. An incredibly tight race for sixth and seventh positions then came helpfully back their way.
They were aided, it should be said, by the 45th-minute injury to Newport's fleet-footed right-winger Alex Samuel - a serious counter-attacking weapon. But so high had United's frustrations been stacked on their run of one win in 12 that they still deserve high praise for turning around a daunting situation.
They were the better side, it must be said; comfortably deserving of the points. Their success will also have received a small cheer in Hartlepool too, for it kept the Monkey Hangers on life-support at the foot of the table, two points adrift of Newport.
The complicated race higher up had brought Curle into a more involved role than normal in the warm-ups. On David Mitchell's award-winning pitch (featuring a few extra flourishes amid the green stripes) United's manager paused to give detailed pre-match instructions to Luke Joyce.
On a gusty day, United then made a breezy start, pressing their visitors well and making several lively inroads around their box. Joyce and Devitt were industrious in midfield, County were so unsettled that captain Joss Labadie passed cleanly out of play, and with all this in mind it was perfectly predictable that the first goal should go to Newport: a rare break down the right, Macaulay Gillesphey's trip on Samuel, Sean Rigg's free-kick, and a crashing Micky Demetriou header, which was apparently glanced into his path by Gary Liddle.
This 12th-minute strike appeared to fit Newport's counter-punching strategy like a glove. After four wins from five under Mike Flynn, their vocal fans anticipated survival with a week to spare. They nosed through for a couple more chances, Samuel shooting wide from an angle, and it took a good deal of persistence for Carlisle to regain their early fluency.
There seemed a certain disharmony when Ibehre fizzed a pass into Adams and saw it strike the winger's shin and go out of play, to the dismay of both. Yet Carlisle eventually forced their way back onto Newport and, after a series of corners, went very close through Jamie Proctor, who curled Reggie Lambe's pass against the underside of the bar.
Moments later, Ibehre tested Day with a header. The half then ended with Samuel leaving on a stretcher, and one wondered how Newport would be affected by his loss.
Enough for Carlisle to attack with a little more certainty, it seemed. Two minutes after the break, Adams picked out Proctor and Day saved superbly. As the visitors sat in numbers, another spate of pressure saw Adams volley wide and Joyce test the keeper - but then from their 10th corner, United finally cracked it.
Adams said he had spotted Day coming from his line for many of his previous deliveries. So he aimed this one deeper and Newport's No1 failed to get close. It duly broke for Ibehre and he rifled it in.
That sent relief around Brunton Park; what happened next was pure joy, as Adams and Devitt linked on the right before the PFA team of the year entrant did his thing. There was a celebratory pile-on by the dugouts and because Carlisle kept on attacking afterwards - Joyce warming Day's gloves, Proctor close with a header, Ibehre denied by the keeper - it took a while to register that we were now entering the traditionally jumpy time when the Blues try to see out a one-goal lead.
Truthfully, while the heart got a reasonable work-out, it was not the most anxious of finishes. United's defence were solid enough and while Flynn increased Newport's attacking presence by sending on Lenell John-Lewis, genuine threats to Mark Gillespie's goal were few.
The only serious scares came when Demetriou curled a free-kick around the wall and wide, and when Tom Owen-Evans drilled a lay-off past the post. Carlisle had other chances themselves and it was a comfort to see Ibehre and colleagues brazenly killing time in the attacking corner as four added minutes ticked by.
A lap of honour was then cheerily received, as fans began imagining one more Brunton Park date in 2016/17. Could they do it, after all? "Keep your pencil sharpened," Curle grinned. "I don’t think the headlines will be written just yet."