Sunday, 29 November 2015

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Michael Bridges turns back clock as Carlisle United sink Leeds

Leeds Utd 0 Carlisle Utd 2: Here’s a new transfer window suggestion for Greg Abbott. Find the chap who scribbled Michael Bridges’ script on Saturday and make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Michael Bridges photo
Off: Michael Bridges

Nothing in this season of ricocheting emotions beats for poignancy the sight of Bridges gliding up the turf and sliding the ball into the net at a ground where he once took Premier League goals as a matter of routine, before injuries assaulted his stellar career. Beat that, Hollywood.

Elland Road, the spiritual home of demolished dreams, was the perfect stage for the Carlisle United striker to rise up and confront the popular theory that he is locked in a permanent decline from those heady days of old.

Not here, he wasn’t. Not when he was scattering the years with a 60-minute masterclass of intelligent forward play, which at times completely outwitted Leeds’ centre-halves. And not when he was swapping perfect passes with Danny Graham, sidestepping the home goalkeeper Casper Ankergren, and cutting the ball home from a sharp angle to secure the most significant victory of Abbott’s brief Carlisle reign.

The nature of Bridges’ game today, as a roaming danger rather than a robust line-leader, means such eruptions of class might not come along on a weekly basis. This defining performance came on the heels of his match-turning deeds against Huddersfield on Boxing Day, with an afternoon of frustrations at Oldham wedged in between. Two out of three ain’t bad, as Meatloaf put it.

“Michael has had a frustrating time this season, but all along we said that once we got him fit he would have a big part to play,” said Abbott. “He got his goal, held the ball up well, brought people into play, and complemented Danny Graham well. Together, they caused a lot of problems.”

Just what Leeds needed: more problems. It appals to see a club of this stature so enfeebled, and Simon Grayson, the latest manager to don Elland Road’s toxic tracksuit, has on this unpromising evidence a mountain of work to do in order to make this staggering giant look plausible again.

Still, while the Yorkshiremen are thrashing around in the middle of the third division, it drops to teams like Carlisle to draw maximum enjoyment from confronting them. And no outfit can claim to have taken greater dramatic value from their contests with Leeds in recent times than the Cumbrians.

Including last spring’s play-off ding-dong, these unlikely rivals have torn into each other six times in the last 14 months. The reckoning now reads three wins and nine goals apiece. So much for the idea that Leeds would trot into their giant arena on Saturday, complete a league ‘double’ over United and finally assert their superiority.

Bridges’ splendid 35th-minute strike, after an expertly-worked 14th of the season from Graham, gave United a startling two-goal lead into which Leeds were unable to chomp. For this, credit a supreme defensive effort from front to rear, and the odd fluffed finish from Grayson’s anxious troops. Yet it must also be recorded that Carlisle could easily have doubled their own total without breaking much sweat.

For Abbott, nine years a youth coach at Leeds before moving to Cumbria, this will be recorded as the most satisfying day of his managerial career to date. The United boss gets high marks for most of his major decisions on Saturday, such as 1) ruthlessly chopping Richard Keogh and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson from his side in order to restore the influential Peter Murphy and Paul Thirlwell; 2) having the nerve to field two strikers at a ground where so many teams turn up simply to subdue; and 3) assembling a counter-punching strategy which worked like a dream across Elland Road’s broad acres.

That, in fact, was the theme of the opening phases, when Leeds attempted to launch a series of rapid attacks but saw the game’s first proper chance fall to Carlisle, as Cleveland Taylor’s expert flick put Bridges scampering through on goal, only for the forward to be thwarted by the solid Ankergren.

Leeds’ persistence led to half-chances for Malcolm Christie and Luciano Becchio, but at no point did they summon the cutting class displayed by United at the moment they took the lead. Graham Kavanagh, the newly-appointed player-coach, put a fine, curling pass onto Taylor’s toes, and when the winger responded with an intelligent cut-back to the arriving Graham, the striker’s scoring shot had enough revs on it to conquer Ankergren’s attempted save, and to attach a few more thousands to his transfer-window value.

At a stroke, Leeds snapped back, but Becchio’s point-blank header from Robert Snodgrass’ centre was bravely blocked by the towering Tim Krul. Then came the second display of Cumbrian subtlety, as David Raven prompted an attack from the back, Bridges and Graham exchanged a trio of passes down the right and the former £5 million man eventually drew Ankergren, sidestepped the Dane and claimed a splendid goal.

If Bridges’ understated salute (designed out of respect for his former employers) suggested that this was the least-celebrated goal of United’s season, you should have aimed your eyes at the thrashing thousand in the away seats at that precise moment. The travelling supporters recognised the significance of a two-goal leg-up against a plainly nervous Leeds team, who continued to struggle for inspiration as the first half closed with an Andy Hughes drive flicked behind by Danny Livesey, and a Becchio blast repelled by Krul.

After the break, there were spells of heavy home pressure prompted by the talented teenager, Fabian Delph, and a flurry of set-pieces which almost coughed up chances for Lubo Michalik and Becchio respectively. It took Leeds until the 67th minute to assemble their best chance, when Andy Robinson (one of three subs by now on the field) played in Becchio – but Krul’s fingertips pushed the Argentine’s shot against a post, and then Robinson squandered the simple follow-up volley.

United, quite understandably, were now in containment mode. But still their sporadic surges carried menace, such as the 73rd minute rumble from Raven into the home box, and a pass on a plate for Marc Bridge-Wilkinson which the substitute somehow contrived to scuff wide.

No matter: Carlisle were protecting their own target with sufficient style to get the points in the can – Krul defying Snodgrass and Bradley Johnson – even allowing for a late cameo from Lee Trundle, Leeds’ eve-of-battle loan capture who twisted, turned, flicked and flounced on his Elland Road debut but contributed little to divert the course of the Cumbrian victory (their first on the road in the league since August, it should be added).

Trundle, in his Swansea pomp, has tormented Carlisle often enough. The Scouser can take this one squarely on the jaw. It was a ghost from Leeds’ past who did all the haunting here, and United’s present and future will continue to look less daunting if Michael Bridges can stay this close to the peak of his powers.

TIM KRUL – Another supreme effort from the goalkeeper who, on this and other recent evidence, is simply too good for League One.

DAVID RAVEN – Superb performance from the right-back, who was strong and determined in all his defensive work and made some decent attacking contributions.

MICHAEL LIDDLE – After a couple of nervy moments early on, the teenager grew into the game and acquitted himself well on the big stage.

DANNY LIVESEY – A towering effort from the big centre-half, who seemed to relish Leeds’ second half bombardment.

PETER MURPHY – Made a high-quality return to the side, kept the dangerous Becchio relatively quiet, and appears to bring the best out of Livesey.

PAUL THIRLWELL – Disciplined and tidy midfield contribution from the skipper and the hope is he can remain fit enough to have a similar influence on many future battles.

GRAHAM KAVANAGH – The newly-appointed player-coach was United’s heartbeat on Saturday in a performance high on aggression and responsibility.

JEFF SMITH – Had limited attacking impact but still put in another decent shift down the left as he keeps Hackney on the bench.

CLEVELAND TAYLOR – Deserves plenty of credit for the clever cross that led to Graham’s opener, and the earlier flick from which Bridges should have profited.

MICHAEL BRIDGES – Was simply too smart for Leeds’ centre-halves in the first 45 minutes, and made up for early miss with a calmly-taken goal against his old club.

DANNY GRAHAM – The in-demand striker was quiet for 27 minutes, then arrived to slot yet another goal. He linked well with Bridges throughout and helped the Blues defend from the front.

Subs: Scott Dobie (for Bridges, 59) – Hard-working effort from the Cumbrian. 6; Marc Bridge-Wilkinson (for Taylor, 66) – Guilty of shocking miss but did his bit in the midfield battle. 6. Not used: Ben Williams, Simon Hackney, Richard Keogh.


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