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Monday, 21 April 2014

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Crewe's Miller grabs brace to dump Carlisle United out of FA Cup

Carlisle Utd 0 Crewe 2: The only victory Carlisle United chalked up last night was over Jack Frost.

Carlisle action photo
Graham Kavanagh tries a diving header for Carlisle

In hindsight, he should have been welcomed through the gates and thrown a blue shirt, since no-one else in the home side threatened to put the bite on Crewe.

Saluting Carlisle’s groundstaff for getting this game on is where the applause begins and ends. The “duvet” system of covering the pitch worked a treat against the icy climate, but Greg Abbott’s players weren’t then supposed to slide under the blanket and sleep in for 15 minutes.

United plunged from the cup faster than the tumbling Cumbrian temperatures last night, and it happened for two reasons: one, a hideous opening quarter-of-an-hour when Crewe’s Shaun Miller smashed two goals through the claims that United are skating cleanly away from the traumas of the John Ward era.

Two: a lack of devil in all the Blues’ attempts to prise the tie back open, against a side whose anguished pursuit of an away win this season is now over.

The cohesion Abbott had apparently brought to an under-performing team came loose wherever you looked here: in United’s defence, which did not look a convincing unit too often against Crewe; in midfield, an area which was never claimed with any authority by Carlisle’s representatives; and in attack, where the best of a mixed bag of crosses were not given the proper treatment.

Only Chris Howarth, summoned for his debut in goal at the last minute due to Ben Williams’ illness, comes out of the episode unblemished. Put plainly, this was the low watermark of Abbott’s caretaker reign and a jerking up in standards is now required at Swindon in two days’ time if his quest to claim the job permanently is not to be dispatched back to base camp in the thick of winter.

Somewhere out there today you’ll find a Carlisle supporter who has trekked to Grays twice, endured a floodlight failure and many miles in transit, only to witness United’s FA Cup campaign skid to a halt like this. Offer them your deepest sympathies, while saving a small cheer for the 79 durable folk who tramped up from Crewe despite the uncertainty over whether the tie would go ahead at all, and their own team’s wretched form on the road.

Even in their years of revival, Carlisle's failings in the cup have stayed stubbornly in the system. Crewe now join Grimsby, Swindon and Cheltenham on the archive of highly-beatable opponents who have blocked United’s path to the third round, a quest which has remained futile since Ian Atkins’ team scuffled with Arsenal here seven years ago.

“We’ve lost a game of football against a team who I think aren’t as good as us,” said Abbott. “That hurts.” As well it might, but United’s caretaker manager would be wrong to make any assumptions on Carlisle’s lasting superiority over Crewe now the eminent Dario Gradi has kicked off his slippers and returned to the dug-out he occupied for 24 years, before stepping down last year.

Sure, it’s doubtful whether many high-quality Gradi coaching drills have produced the kind of goal with which they hit United in the third minute. But Crewe will take their breaks however they come just now, and not even their 67-year-old preacher of tight passing would wince at the sight of his goalkeeper booming the ball forward and it ending up in the opposition net a couple of seconds later.

Route One is normally broken down into several dozen steps by Gradi’s academy graduates. This time, however, the only additional phases from Stuart Tomlinson’s launched ball from the back were Calvin Zola’s flick-on which skimmed past Michael Liddle, and then Miller’s step inside from the right which he ended with a fine, angled drive that bounced in off the left-hand post.

Zola, a giant, lumbering striker, hardly seems the type of player who slots into Gradi’s particular way of football thinking. Miller, a buzzing winger with a tidy touch, certainly does. His second goal, nine minutes later, was the product of another swift back-to-front attack with a big splash of quality at the end.

First, United made an unconvincing attempt to force a chance in the Crewe box. The visitors swiftly dealt with the threat and motored towards Abbott’s outnumbered back line. Miller’s sweeping ball forward was expertly delivered for Colin Daniel, who outmuscled Liddle and saw his shot repelled by the sliding Howarth - only for Miller to leap on the breaking ball and, with expert technique, curl the ball into the centre of the net from 30 yards.

Carlisle’s response to this startling statement from the 21-year-old was not without spirit, but was certainly bereft of cutting quality. Cleveland Taylor powered onto a Graham Kavangh pass and tested Tomlinson from the edge of the box, then David Raven did likewise after linking with Danny Graham.

Other salvos saw Jeff Smith blast a deep Taylor cross into the side-netting, and Gary Madine drop a decent header narrowly wide. But none of Carlisle’s raids from the flanks had the deftness of Crewe’s next meaningful attack, which saw Michael O’Connor dart into the box and cross for Daniel after another outbreak of clean passing, only to see Howarth get in the way of the striker’s shot.

That was Crewe’s last authentic chance, which tells you everything about the way Gradi nudged them into containment mode in a second half dominated, but not illuminated, by the Cumbrians.

United’s most promising efforts from this point tended to emerge from the feet of Michael Bridges (on for Graham in the 57th minute). On one occasion, the former Premiership man slipped Madine through on the left of the target, but Danny O’Donnell blocked the teenager’s shot. Marc Bridge-Wilkinson had a 30-yarder saved, then Bridges - whose cameo offered a level of promise - saw a trio of late shots scooped up by the admirable Tomlinson, who then denied Madine at close range with an excellent block.

What snagged in the mind the most, however, was the sight of Gradi’s goalkeeper accepting cross after United cross - either misdirected or not convincingly attacked by Carlisle bodies - as the tie drifted by in front of a credit crunch crowd of 2,755.

The blunt truth for Abbott and his employers is that Brunton Park won’t feel much like a place to seek refuge from recession if the entertainment setting stays this low. Fine: it’s probably wrong to expect a strong flow of consistency so soon after the Ward regime hit the skids.

But the Blues won’t get through this demanding winter unless they start attacking in considerably colder blood.

CHRIS HOWARTH - Blameless for Miller’s goals and, a couple of wayward kicks aside, it was a decent, belated debut for the ‘keeper.

DAVID RAVEN - Has performed strongly in recent weeks but wasn’t at the top of his game last night.

MICHAEL LIDDLE - Exposed more than once when Crewe attacked with pace down the right. Not a comfortable night for the youngster.

DANNY LIVESEY - Defended with his usual effort, but United’s back line was unconvincing for most of the evening.

RICHARD KEOGH - Performed with some heart and was the pick of an below-par defence.

GRAHAM KAVANAGH - Disappointing night for the veteran, whose distribution in open play and from set-pieces was beneath his normal standard.

MARC BRIDGE-WILKINSON - Not in the game enough to have a lasting impact. Ought to improve when Thirlwell returns to the midfield.

JEFF SMITH - Far from the worst of Carlisle’s players last night, made some decent runs even if end product was mixed.

CLEVELAND TAYLOR - Like Smith, can’t be faulted for persistence, particularly in first half, even if crossing was inconsistent.

DANNY GRAHAM - United’s top scorer didn’t have a single scoring chance on a night when he contributed little of note, and was replaced early in second half.

GARY MADINE - Won his share of headers and although touch sometimes let him down, always looked United’s likeliest scorer.

Subs: Michael Bridges (for Graham, 57) - Some quality touches but couldn’t inspire comeback. 6; Scott Dobie (for Livesey, 84) - Unable convert injury-time chance but game was lost by then. 6. Not used: Alex Mitchell, Evan Horwood, Peter Murphy, Grant Smith, Jonny Blake.

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