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Thursday, 24 April 2014

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Carlisle United have it all to do again after floodlight failure at Grays

FA Cup First Round Replay: Grays Athletic 1, United 0 (abandoned after 20 minutes): Greg Abbott’s unbeaten run continues. Carlisle United supporters with a love for the country’s highways get another 660-mile round trip to stick in the diary.

Sam Sloma photo
Sam Sloma celebrates after opening the scoring

Everybody else has the chance to dig out those old half-jokes about Far Eastern betting syndicates. So what’s all the fuss about?

Apologies. There’s something about staring at a semi-lit football pitch for half-an-hour that causes the brain’s wiring to overheat.

Now bewilderment has been overtaken by anger after the Farce of the New Recreation Ground, let’s save a few vengeful words for the Football Association in case they try to remind us that their grand old cup competition is these days sponsored by an energy firm.

The irony of E.On shovelling money into the coffers of the game’s governing body won’t be lost on any of the couple of hundred Cumbrian supporters who shuffled away from this gloomy Essex arena last night, a blown lightbulb having wiped out their fun.

Ok, fun is pushing it a touch, since the 20 minutes of fully-lit action we saw last night were to be endured rather than enjoyed by the travelling spectators. The best we can say for the abandonment (made “for health and safety reasons,” to repeat the modern jargon pumped out by the public address announcer) is that it may have spared Abbott and his United players a fairly brutal reckoning, given the nature of their performance in the segment of the game we were able to observe.

The hunt for someone to blame is normally launched without delay at times like this. But one hesitates before putting the shoe in on a cash-strapped non-league club, particularly one which was en route to a famous victory until Sam Sloma’s 19th minute goal became an instant quiz question.

Nor is what came to pass last night much of a laughing matter, not least because the joke about how many Grays Athletic officials it takes to change a lightbulb has yet to be convincingly answered.

No, the serious matter to be confronted today concerns those travelling supporters who, if fairness prevails, shouldn’t have to stump up another farthing if they choose to return to this corner of the south-east on Saturday week.

The Blue Square Premier side are hardly splashing around in a lake of cash. Assuming nothing sinister was at work here last night, all that can be asked of their chairman Mick Woodward and his staff is that the faults which brought this cup tie to its knees are fixed beyond all doubt, before Carlisle and Grays try to complete it at the third attempt.

Only if these malfunctions occur again should the FA contemplate the nuclear option of granting Carlisle an automatic passage to round two - something which would, in purely sporting terms, be an appalling way to end a contest in which Wayne Burnett’s doughty team have posed a serious threat to United’s well-being.

In the meantime, while last night’s hosts locate a set of ladders tall enough (or whatever additional measures are required) to ensure the replacement bulb stays intact, might the game’s rulers consider dipping into their trough to allow those United fans to watch this game through in 10 days’ time without incurring any extra damaging expense themselves?

A modest three-figure sum to pay for a couple of coaches from Cumbria to Essex could be found without much trouble by a governing body which is able to scrape together £6 million salaries for Italian managers and bank gargantuan cheques from rights-hungry foreign television firms.

Should United themselves stump up the extra cost of travelling for those frustrated fans, they’ll get respectful applause from this quarter. The point, though, is that they shouldn’t have to.

And while irritated Cumbrians might feel entitled to march back down to the New Recreation Ground with outstretched palms next time around, it is hoped they spare a small thought for a hard-up club who could have done with the booty themselves last night.

Asking Grays to pay for United supporters’ return trip might be technically the correct thing to do, but morally it would be a shade vindictive when the Gravelmen are already scraping the floor of their bank account to get through an average Saturday afternoon.

No, let someone else pick up the tab - while the rest of us are consigning Carlisle’s false start last night to the memory’s trashcan.

United, with Ben Williams and Evan Horwood back for the cup-tied pair of Ben Alnwick and Michael Liddle - and with Paul Thirlwell worryingly absent amid fears that his calf injury has returned - didn’t make many convincing early inroads on the Grays defence.

One fifth-minute attack, based on Marc Bridge-Wilkinson’s control and pass, collapsed with Simon Hackney’s poor control as the winger sped through the home side’s offside trap. Apart from that, we watched with concern as Grays’ pacy attackers Andre McCollin and Ishmael Welsh broke from the midfield congestion to test Abbott’s rearguard.

In the 14th minute, McCollin neatly fed the bustling Sloma, whose rising shot was pushed over by Williams.

Then a sweeping move saw Fabian Wilnis’ have a shot blocked and Barry Cogan curl the rebound wide from golden territory.

Then, quite deservedly, they went in front, when Jon Ashton cushioned a high ball for Sloma, whose attempted pass bounced off Graham Kavanagh and rolled perfectly back into the midfielder’s path, allowing him to speed through and fire the ball into the bottom corner.

Maddeningly for Grays, and poor Sloma, it was the last meaningful action we saw. About the only things the lights didn’t go out on last night were Abbott’s attempt to embark on a cup run, and his bid to strengthen his case for the top job at Brunton Park.

Depending on how the coming weeks unfold, the power failure at a time when his team were at their gloomiest might even get remembered as one of the caretaker manager’s luckiest breaks.

Just don’t try that line on any bleary-eyed Blues follower back from Essex today.

Grays: Button, Gier, Stuart, Ashton, Dayes, Sloma, Welsh, Wilnis, Cogan, Thurgood, McCollin. Subs: Arnold, Elliott, Taylor, Bailey, Hickie, Davis.

Carlisle: Williams, Raven, Horwood, Livesey, Keogh, Welsh, Kavanagh, Bridge-Wilkinson, Hackney, Taylor, Graham. Subs: Lumsdon, Joyce, G Smith, Gowling, Bridges, Howarth, Madine.

Ref: D Phillips (West Sussex).

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