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Thursday, 24 April 2014

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Carlton's brace seals away-day win for Carlisle

Bristol Rovers 2 Carlisle United 3: Scorelines don’t always tell the story – take Carlisle United’s 3-2 win over Bristol Rovers on Saturday.

Carlisle action photo
United's Danny Carlton celebrates with Paul Thirlwell

The final result suggests a swagger that was never there in the Blues’ performance at the Memorial Stadium.

That’s taking nothing away from United’s opening day victory; it just says everything about the way they were forced to roll up their sleeves and dig deep to grind out a win.

John Ward’s men could not have had a tougher opening assignment than a return to the scene of last December’s 3-0 mauling in the West Country.

Yet this was a performance of real drive, desire and collective self belief as Uniuted took the three poibts the hard way by going a goal own, being forced to withstand some intense pressure from a big, powerful Rovers attack on a slippery surface where every error was going to be punished.

But the road to another possible shot at promotion to the Championship will be paved with gritty performances like this for Carlisle, who showed no lingering after-effects of last season’s play-off heartbreak.

United may not have set the transfer market alight over the summer, but on the evidence of Saturday’s gutsy display, the foundations look pretty strong, and new keeper Ben Williams, who has the unenviable task of filling the gap left by Keiren Westwood, made a comfortable debut.

But the afternoon belonged to Danny Carlton, arguably United’s fourth-choice striker, who lit up a gloomy, rain-soaked afternoon in the West Country with two quality goals – his first for Carlisle in a competitive game since his move from Morecambe 12 months ago.

Only Carlton knows the frustration of having to wait in the shadows for a first-team chance, and his heart must have sank at last month’s return of Michael Bridges, which would surely push him further down the pecking order – and maybe even through the Brunton Park exit.

Rather than sulk, the young frontman got his head down and grafted.

Three goals in pre-season forced him into Ward’s thinking and, with the United gaffer harbouring concerns over Bridges’ fitness, Carlton seized his chance on Saturday.

With Bridges left sheltering from the torrential rain on the bench, Carlton was doing a pretty good impression of a natural born finisher.

His goals – United’s equaliser to make it 1-1 and then to give them a 3-1 lead - came at crucial times as the former non-league player proved he could handle the heat of battle.

Managers can only dream about being spoilt for choice for strikers, and Carlton’s display will have left Ward searching for the paracetamol in preparation for the selection headache that awaits him once Bridges returns to full fitness.

All the concerns and anxieties which followed a pre-season, which ranged from forgettable to lamentable with a defeat to Workington Reds the real low point, must have weighed heavily on the minds of the 391 fans who made the six-hour journey from Cumbria.

The wounds of last season’s 3-0 hammering at the Memorial Stadium were also still undoubtedly raw, and there was little to suggest that it was going to be anything less than a tough afternoon in a hard-fought first half.

But United were quick to test the home side as they went in search of an early goal, with Carlton bringing a good save out of Rovers keeper Steve Phillips after he did well to shake off his marker before attempting a cross-cum-shot.

Last season’s 17-goal top scorer had a disappointing opening game by his high standards, but still caused problems with an angled drive which went wide.

Despite United’s promising start, it was Rovers who took the lead.

Paul Thirlwell, who was handed the skipper’s armband once again for the new season, was penalised for a foul on Jeff Hughes.

Hughes took the free kick himself and it was only partially cleared as far as Craig Disley, who sent over a great cross for Rickie Lambert to nod home.

The pace of Disley and the power and aerial threat of Lambert combined to create a potent strikeforce, which had a dynamism and a directness about it, giving Carlisle defenders Peter Murphy and Danny Livesey an uncomfortable afternoon.

However, United retained their composure and were soon back on level terms.

Rovers failed to react to a short corner and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson sent over an inviting cross for the unmarked Carlton to head the equaliser.

Bridge-Wilkinson then set up Simon Hackney, who beat the home keeper with a curling effort which ricocheted off the post and then trickled across the face of goal. His reaction, head in hands, said it all.

At the other end, Williams seemed unflappable on his debut even with the burly frame of Lambert bearing down on him, and got down comfortably to block a header from the Rovers striker, before batting away a stinging effort from the same player less than 60 seconds later.

United then drove a dagger into the hearts of the home side in first half injury time when Bridge-Wilkinson gave them the psychological boost of going in at half-time in the lead.

Hackney’s left-wing corner was cleared only to the edge of the box, where Bridge-Wilkinson was waiting, with time and space, to blast a left-footed drive into the roof of the net.

Instantly, Rovers responded but Williams flung himself to his left to turn Hughes’ effort round the post.

The second half lacked the entertainment of the first, with the United attack struggling to get into their stride, but the collection of three points rendered everything else meaningless.

Graham was hooked midway through the second half in favour of right winger Cleveland Taylor, with Scott Dobie switching to a central striking role alongside Carlton, but United continued to threaten only sporadically in the second half.

Rovers desperately searched for a route back into the game, and twice in the space of two minutes young United left-back Evan Horwood nearly cost his side an equaliser.

First sub Andy Williams barged past Horwood only to see his effort curl round the post.

Then Williams again out-smarted Horwood, before cutting the ball back to Lambert, whose effort was deflected wide by Murphy’s chest.

It looked a matter of time before Rovers salvaged something – but then up popped Carlton to finish off a classic route one goal in the clinical style of a seasoned striker.

Murphy’s long punt out of defence nearly covered four postcodes as it made its way to Dobie who cleverly flicked the ball on for Carlton to fire home a cracking shot from just outside the area.

The United defence, which battled manfully all afternoon, made a rare lapse in stoppage time to enable Williams to fire home.

Thankfully for United, it was only a late consolation, as the three points deservedly returned to Cumbria.

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