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Monday, 21 April 2014

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Brighton win makes it lucky thirteen for Carlisle United

Carlisle Utd 3 Brighton 1: All this, and the pasta still to come. Greg Abbott’s assault on the sluggish eating habits of his playing staff begins in earnest today, when the era of the greasy sandwich is declared over at Brunton Park.

After this out-of-nowhere performance - comfortably Carlisle’s best of an otherwise depressing season - the caretaker manager can have no remaining doubts about the ravenous hunger of his troops.

Greed Is Good: that was the motto for a display which blasted 10 weeks of anxiety straight out of the Cumbrian system. It has taken that long for United to put a victory on the table, and when it finally came it had everything to do with an impressive appetite for goals, chances, through-balls, tackles, headers and all the other elements which have generally remained off the menu these past two months.

The mains electricity that seems to be permanently running through Abbott was at long last attached to his players. After last weekend’s false start against Grays, John Ward’s would-be successor saw all those gasping monologues about “high tempo” football jump from the page and onto the grass. Carlisle took three goals and might have had eight, and what we saw has to go down as a stunning vindication of the caretaker’s teachings on pace and vigour since he slipped into Ward’s chair a fortnight ago.

“All the accolades have to go to those boys,” insisted Abbott at close of play, a fair comment when you reflected on the individual and collective effort which threw up two goals from Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, one from the dynamic Cleveland Taylor, and performances of high quality from such as Graham Kavanagh and Michael Liddle, a brace of Sunderland loanees of differing vintages who came to the party in quite splendid terms here.

Bolt onto all that David Raven’s display of the season and Paul Thirlwell’s excellent return in midfield and Abbott was perfectly entitled to divert our gaze to the shop floor. But since the interim leader doesn’t escape scrutiny when things malfunction, as they did against Grays, nor should he be spared some justifiable praise when things go so conspicuously right.

For starters, the 44-year-old’s first dip into the transfer market gets plus points, since young Liddle, signed on Friday, attacked his senior debut with the sort of confidence that the rest of the team, and most of the 5,333 crowd, could gorge upon.

Immediately restoring Thirlwell, thereby liberating Kavanagh and Bridge-Wilkinson to enter dangerous places higher up the pitch, looked like a smart move every time the latter player in particular was scampering into the box to convincing effect.

For the first time in weeks, Carlisle looked properly defiant at the other end, too, save for Brighton’s deflected consolation goal and a free header squandered by Stuart Fleetwood when the game was still goalless. Most of all, through, it was the general speed at which United operated that lifted the heart. “We were breathtaking at times,” said Abbott, who had us all gulping for oxygen at the end of another high-octane media briefing which seemed to run on well into the night.

The sense that this might be an afternoon of better things popped up in our thoughts early on Saturday. As soon as the 37th second, in fact, when Liddle ambushed Joe Anyinsah down the United left (a common theme of the afternoon, as it happens) and fed the racing Simon Hackney, whose cross was missed by Taylor but dropped for Graham, unmarked, at the far post. His stumbling effort was hoofed clear by Adam El-Abd, but the early tone was maintained with further efforts from Hackney, Liddle and Bridge-Wilkinson.

Brighton, stuffed with threatening players themselves, could never be completely silenced and as Micky Adams’ men emerged with chances for Anyinsah, Glenn Murray, and Bradley Johnson, it required wholehearted interventions from Thirlwell, Danny Livesey and Ben Alnwick to keep the back door bolted. Fleetwood’s miss, after a Murray backheel and Anyinsah cross, was all of his own making, however.

United required a goal to properly see off this menace and it came after Graham had battered a shot into Michel Kuipers’ legs after Taylor’s telling flick. A few minutes on, Raven retrieved a lost cause down the right, drove in from the wing and arrowed in a firm near-post shot which drew a diving save from Kuipers, only for Kavanagh to retrieve the ball and slide it back across the six-yard box, where the lurking Bridge-Wilkinson slotted home.

Two more golden chances went onto the furnace after this - Graham spooning over a near-post cross from the persistent Taylor, and then Hackney blasting wide after Taylor had led a counter-attack - which probably told the right-winger that he needed to be on the end of such service himself. It duly happened in first-half injury time, when Graham gathered a half-cleared Liddle cross on the right and teed up the former Scunthorpe man, whose volley crept through a cluster of bodies and over Kuipers’ line.

Was this sudden two-goal advantage United’s cue to cruise through their second half work? Not a word of it. If anything, they became more lacerating after the break. Graham and Kavanagh were close with efforts and Hackney drilled a great low ball across goal before the third finally arrived in picture-book style.

Liddle was at its heart, driving forward confidently down the left and squaring to Bridge-Wilkinson, who shaped to shoot from 30 yards, instead dropped his shoulder and fed Graham, and then bustled onto the striker’s perfect return pass and slammed the chance high into the net. There, in technicolour, was the leading contender so far for United’s goal of the season.

Again, though, this didn’t kill the drama. Carlisle continually sped forward - Kavanagh volleying wide, El-Abd brilliantly scooping away Hackney’s cross to Graham - before Brighton claimed their lifeline, Forster earning a dubious free-kick on the right and sub Tom Fraser rolling the ball to Matt Richards, whose shot flicked off Kavanagh and deceived Alnwick.

Johnson, the Leeds loanee, then emerged with a couple of half-chances as Cumbrian nerves were tested.

But there was so much more from United, who authored further opportunities for Kavanagh, Bridge-Wilkinson and even Raven, who steamed into the box 15 minutes from time to draw a desperate block from Kuipers.

Out of the chaos came two final moments of theatre - Alnwick spectacularly tipping over Fraser’s free-kick, then Hackney racing clean through from sub Gary Madine’s pass but planting his injury-time shot into the side-netting. A fourth goal might have been too much for the brain to compute after all these weeks of strife, not that we should end on the subject of a squandered sitter.

No, our closing duty is to record this as the day Carlisle seemed to become plausible again - and, maybe, the afternoon when Abbott leapt much closer to the manager’s job (unless defeat in tomorrow’s replay at Grays returns him to the departure lounge, of course).

A shame the ineligible Liddle won’t be in a blue shirt down in Essex, because this was a performance entirely in the young man’s image: fearless and accomplished (two words which haven’t spent much time hanging over Brunton Park this season). And yes, of course, it has to be the start of something sustained, rather than a once-an-autumn lightning strike.

Still, money says the pasta will taste pretty good when Abbott and his men assemble at the table this afternoon. 

BEN ALNWICK - Beaten by a deflection, otherwise dealt confidently with most things Brighton threw at him.

DAVID RAVEN - A barnstorming performance from the right-back, his best for several months.

MICHAEL LIDDLE - A debut to savour from the 18-year-old, who limited Anyinsah’s threat and made numerous confident attacking contributions.

DANNY LIVESEY - This was something like the old Livesey - hurling himself in the way of shots and restricting Murray’s influence with some sturdy defending.

RICHARD KEOGH - Performed capably on his recall as United’s back line suddenly looked more comfortable.

PAUL THIRLWELL - The unsung hero of this victory; the returning skipper did his duties solidly at the base of midfield, allowing Bridge-Wilkinson and co to profit further up the pitch.

GRAHAM KAVANAGH - Another who benefited from Thirlwell’s return, the veteran directed midfield traffic with admirable energy and quality.

MARC BRIDGE-WILKINSON - A stunning return to form and the biggest winner from Abbott’s tactics. We’ll never tire of watching replays of his second goal.

SIMON HACKNEY - Back to his threatening ways, particularly in the second half, and the speedy winger should have come away with at least one goal to his name.

CLEVELAND TAYLOR - A performance of huge persistence and heart from the ex-Scunthorpe man who capped his recall with a crucial goal.

DANNY GRAHAM - Excellent work-rate and two quality contributions for United’s second and third goals on a day when his own finishing deserted him.

Subs: Gary Madine (for Graham, 85) - Nearly served up a fourth goal for Hackney. 6; John Welsh (for Bridge-Wilkinson, 86) - Game was won by the time the Hull man was introduced. Not used: Ben Williams, Evan Horwood, Michael Bridges.

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