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Friday, 18 April 2014

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Carlisle United stung by late Peterborough equaliser

Carlisle Utd 3 Peterborough 3: Memo to Cumbria Constabulary: gather your finest law-enforcing minds around a table and brainstorm as many ways of getting up Graham Kavanagh’s nose as possible. Carlisle United’s season, no less, may depend on your efforts.

Carlisle action photo
v Peterborough: Ben Alnwick

“I got done for speeding on the M6,” confided the loan midfielder in the wake of the campaign’s most breathless 90 minutes. “I was half-an-hour late getting here, and I got done by a mobile unit.

“So I was fuming going into the game.”

You’ll appreciate the need, then, to keep Kavanagh’s temper topped up, since it is on his experience and drive (unavoidable pun) that United will eventually plot a route through their current anxieties. On Saturday, in an uproarious League One collision which ought to have ended with twice the eventual tally of goals, the Dubliner was exceptional.

In the 51st minute, he decorated a sustained and classy effort with what ought to have been the game’s winner - and would have been, but for a feisty Peterborough comeback which brought Darren Ferguson’s doughty troops into contact with Carlisle’s continually-generous defence.

Don’t be deceived by the apparent cruelty of Craig Mackail-Smith’s 94th-minute equaliser. That brutal blow could have been landed umpteen times sooner against a United side who, in fairness, might equally have been out of sight themselves.

Peer back at this head-spinner of a third-tier match and you note down the following, in summary: exuberant Carlisle attacking, prompted by Kavanagh’s wisdom; an encouraging thirst for combat against a conspicuously talented Peterborough team; an eyecatcher of a goalkeeping display from the debutant, Ben Alnwick; and the defensive dry rot which isn’t going anywhere and, as a result, is tipping excessive pressure onto the forward ranks of John Ward’s team.

“We’ve got to be better,” acknowledged Ward of his embattled rearguard. “It’s a long time now since we’ve had that clean sheet.” Eleven games, to be precise, have passed since Carlisle kept the back door bolted for an hour and a half.

“We can’t rely on lady luck,” added the manager, which just about nailed it - but with that firm statement from Ward also came a need to reconsider the composition of a back four which still refuses to fuse together as a forbidding unit. United’s manager granted Ben Williams decent time to chase mistakes from his system, before losing patience and summoning Alnwick from Tottenham.

Does he now contemplate alterations to his defensive personnel who have together been given plenty of games in which to convince and, to be blunt, failed?

It almost offends the spirit to keep thumping away at this point when there is the tale of a stunning match to commit to print. So let’s log those concerns about Carlisle’s weaknesses, and now get on with the sequence of dramatic events.

It started, alarmingly, with an unexpected fumble by Joe Lewis, Peterborough’s goalkeeper who was summoned into the England squad only five months ago.

The talented custodian retrieved that situation in the second minute, but it did nothing to discourage Carlisle’s surprisingly urgent early attacking.

There were opportunities for Danny Graham - saved by Lewis after Simon Hackney’s cute pass - and the recalled Danny Carlton (cleared off the line by Russell Martin), and bundles more pressure which eventually told in the 20th minute.

Evan Horwood and Kavanagh made encouraging progress down the left, Hackney’s cross was superbly chested into Graham’s path by Carlton, and the big striker made neat work of the scoring chance.

It was decent reward for United’s vigour, but with their crisp passing and bustling movement, Peterborough quickly emerged as a live threat. Mackail-Smith and George Boyd were their most obvious threats, but it was the defender Charlie Lee who nudged them back into the game in the 34th minute, beating the tumbling David Raven to Martin’s corner and battering home a header.

That heralded more sweeping Posh attacks, notably a raid from Boyd which led to a blocked shot, a headed chance in front of goal which Gabriel Zakuani squandered, an Alnwick parry from Shaun Batt’s drive, and then a slice wide from the well-placed Mackail-Smith.

A kick in the face for Richard Keogh concluded the half - and then, after Mackail-Smith slotted just past the post after Boyd’s crafty pass, Carlisle reapplied the Cumbrian boot. Hackney cut in from the left and shot, Lewis made a hash of his attempted save, and Graham poached his 10th of the season from close range.

A few moments on, and United were tearing at their visitors again: Carlton releasing Cleveland Taylor through the middle, Lewis repelling the winger’s unconvincing shot, and then Kavanagh scooping up the loose ball and drilling cleanly home from just inside the box.

The end of the chaos? Belated blue redemption? Not likely. First, Ferguson whistled into the action Aaron McLean, last season’s 29-goal assassin who is just back from injury. Then his team zipped down the right and forced a penalty, when Lee lofted Mackail-Smith into dangerous territory and Horwood handled in his attempt to foil the blond-haired raider. Mackail-Smith lashed in the spot-kick; cue a relentless closing half-hour.

Minutes after the penalty, Mackail-Smith was denied by Alnwick from golden territory, McLean fizzed a shot millimeters wide and then the Carlisle ‘keeper produced a remarkable double save from Boyd and Mackail-Smith. The latter then buried a 77th-minute chance, but was flagged offside.

Ward’s substitutions at this point saw him feed an extra body into midfield (Jeff Smith for Carlton) and then younger legs into attack (Gary Madine for the wounded Graham). The latter move almost drew instant reward when Luke Joyce threaded Madine through and the teenager turned the chance across Lewis and fractionally wide.

More Alnwick heroics followed - this time to deny Paul Coutts and the effervescent Boyd - before that final, damaging punch was landed.

Madine strayed offside, Lewis pumped the free-kick forward, Lee put Mackail-Smith in behind the beleaguered Carlisle back line, and the striker bustled between Horwood and Keogh to accept the game’s final chance.

Justice demands a fair acceptance of Peterborough’s right to a point from this memorable confrontation. A small wager from this end says they will come to rest in the top six come next May. Don’t leave home unless you can accept the glittering gifts of such as Boyd, Mackail-Smith and the excellent Lee.

And don’t, for that matter, start any discussion of this game unless you’re willing to belt Carlisle’s new-found attacking prowess from the rooftops, while reserving some complaining time for those defensive gremlins which need to be zapped as a matter of urgency if their descent into League One’s bottom half isn’t to become permanent.

At least this wasn’t a sixth straight defeat, meaning we can stop chipping numbers into the wall and finally contemplate the Blues escaping their cell at Hereford tomorrow night. Another memo, this time to Ward: best not let him drive, but do make sure Kavanagh is on the bus to Edgar Street.

BEN ALNWICK - More than justified his loan arrival with several important saves and confident catches.

DAVID RAVEN - Tidier display than recently, solid effort and the pick of the defence.

EVAN HORWOOD - An improvement on recent weeks, but still not convincing when put under sustained pressure.

DANNY LIVESEY - Steady enough against one of the division’s most troublesome attacks.

RICHARD KEOGH - Wholehearted and aggressive in all his defensive duties, occasionally wasteful in possession.

LUKE JOYCE - Quiet first half but grew in confidence and influence after the break.

GRAHAM KAVANAGH - Another quality contribution and well-taken goal, already looks a vital addition to the Blues’ midfield.

SIMON HACKNEY - Not at his best but deserves credit for the persistence which led to two of Carlisle’s goals.

CLEVELAND TAYLOR - Positive and confident effort down the right wing, clearly had the Posh defence worried.

DANNY CARLTON - Excellent contribution to Graham’s opener, but sometimes let down by indifferent control.

DANNY GRAHAM - Poached his goals superbly, but knee injury restricted his influence as the second half went on.

Subs: Jeff Smith (for Carlton, 72) - Got stuck in on first league outing of season. 6; Gary Madine (for Graham, 79) - So close to wrapping up victory. 6; Jennison Myrie-Williams (for Taylor, 85) - Little time to make an impact. 6. Not used: Josh Gowling, Ben Williams.

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