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Thursday, 24 April 2014

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Carlisle United make a point as they stun league leaders Leicester

Leicester City 2 Carlisle United 2: Nigel Pearson is a dignified and upstanding football man who retains a peculiar place in Carlisle United’s history, and is making a competent stab at returning Leicester City to the Championship at the first attempt.

That’s why Saturday’s biggest surprise was not the Blues’ claiming of a dramatic point from the season’s most daunting day, but the sound of Pearson speaking a few words of the sourest tosh in its immediate wake.

“Carlisle’s first goal was a poor one, but other than that there was only one team in it and trying to win the game,” insisted the Leicester manager, who is famous in Cumbria for waving Jimmy Glass forward a few paces for a certain corner-kick nearly 10 years ago.

Well-versed in encouraging unlikely drama, it may be that Pearson is simply displaying the strains of attempting to force an unbackable favourite past the winning post (a common theme, this, on Grand National day). On this occasion, it was his vision that failed first.

There isn’t the tiniest grain of Cumbrian bias in the alternative assessment, which says that Carlisle were value for this point from the rear to the front of their team. Scott Dobie’s injury-time header ensured the appropriate reward could be tacked onto their total.

And if the Blues were not attempting to win this absorbing skirmish, Pearson needs to explain what Dobie, Michael Bridges (four times), Cleveland Taylor, Danny Graham, Joe Anyinsah and Graham Kavanagh were doing so close to the home target at various points across the 90 minutes.

It certainly wasn’t admiring the splendid surroundings. United put piles of attacking effort into this match, as much as could be reasonably expected against League One’s gold standard. Brilliant as Ben Williams may have been in protecting his goal at the opposite end, this wasn’t a point earned simply by slotting men behind the ball and attempting to subdue Leicester. Pearson, whose troops are now just two points clear of Peterborough at the summit after one win in five, should have acknowledged as much.

“If anybody thinks this team hasn’t got spirit and determination, and it’s a sinking ship, they should have seen this today,” was Greg Abbott’s view, one with which it was easier to sympathise. From the weekly thrashing around the gutter which Carlisle’s survival attempt has become, their manager and players summoned a performance fit for this resplendent stage.

Bridges, with a 31st-minute goal of high quality, was quite superb. Likewise Graham Kavanagh, a captain of industry in midfield whose only lapse was the weak free-kick which led to the 88th-minute Matty Fryatt goal that most observers presumed had done for United.

Williams saved the performance of his season for this 32,500-seat arena, which was two-thirds full and included 991 travelling Carlisle loyalists. And Abbott, who added two attack-minded wingers (Taylor and Anyinsah) to his front pair of Bridges and Graham, deserves praise for having the nerve to take Leicester on at the Walkers when other managers would have slipped into containment mode by default.

Dobie, one of many players who would dearly love to scrub much of this season from the hard drive, could be a useful weapon in United’s run-in should his 92nd-minute effort have applied the booster jab to his confidence. The Cumbrian substitute was nowhere near the action when Carlisle were attacking their early work, however, with Bridges volleying millimetres over as Abbott’s men found their range.

Taylor, who ripped one into the side-netting, confirmed United’s status as live contenders in this game, once the hosts’ early bluster had been absorbed. The first real Leicester scare was averted in the 23rd minute, when Williams beat away Andy King’s drive and then heroically repelled Max Gradel’s follow-up.

Moments later, a stooping header from Fryatt after Matt Oakley’s long throw was pushed around the post by Carlisle’s goalkeeper, whose defiance was then rewarded with an explosion of class at the other end. Kavanagh’s cutting pass through a gaping Leicester back line was of the highest standard, likewise Bridges’ shrewd run and scoring shot with the outside of his right foot which left the onrushing Tony Warner stranded.

Back Leicester flew. Oakley’s 30-yard howitzer was brilliantly tipped over by Williams, who then got down bravely to deny Fryatt from the resulting corner. Bridges and Gradel swapped further chances, the most vocal home fans got to work on Evan Horwood for a tumble following a collision with Gradel, and United reached the interval still clutching their startling lead.

It lasted a mere seven minutes after the restart, as Leicester swept forward after an ill-directed Horwood cross. Lloyd Dyer made menacing progress down the left, accepted Steve Howard’s pass, pulled the ball back for Oakley, and the Foxes captain buried an exquisite shot.

The trigger for an avalanche of home pressure? Yes, in a way, but a second goal never looked certain. Gradel’s elusive running forced a spate of corners, none of which came to anything. Carlisle then worked on Leicester’s frustration and forced a makeable chance of their own - Taylor digging out a decent cross, sub Wayne Brown blocking Graham’s header at the back stick, and Bridges bobbling his follow-up shot wide.

Anyinsah whipped one over from decent territory moments later, Kavanagh thumped in a 30-yarder which required attentive work from Warner, and while Leicester had plenty of persistent pressure to counter all this, the winning strike seemed elusive.

Then, crushingly, Fryatt pounced. Kavanagh’s free-kick from the United left was easily claimed by Warner, who launched a rapid home surge upfield, which ended with Dyer eluding Ian Morris and crossing for the division’s recently-anointed player of the year to nod simply home.

Abbott, on his haunches, cut a desperate sight at this moment. Even Carlisle’s manager, normally the most optimistic of souls, seemed to presume that Fryatt’s goal was the fatal wound. And yet. Four minutes on and forward sped Michael Liddle, on for the injured Horwood. In came a perfect cross from the young left-back, up went Dobie, in went his clinical header, and out there on the grass was the best evidence yet that United mean to contest this relegation fight with some hunger and willing.

A shame such spirit - and quality, it must be said - has not revealed itself too many other times on recent Saturdays (it was needed to fend off the hosts’ final flurry in the closing seconds here, too). But any day you speed away from Leicester City with a point in your pocket is not one to spend dwelling on previous surrenders.

Certainly, there is a thesis to be written on the psychology of a team who go down so pitifully to sides like Leyton Orient and Hereford at home and then front up so assuredly to the division’s classiest unit on their own manor.

But that can wait until May, when Carlisle will either be toasting survival or reflecting on a ruinous relegation. What most of us saw two days ago - not the one-eyed version put forward by Pearson, in other words - made it possible to believe in the first outcome just a little more.

BEN WILLIAMS - Inspired goalkeeping, would have been a travesty if he had ended on the losing side.

DAVID RAVEN - Battled willingly against the pacy Dyer and put in some important challenges.

EVAN HORWOOD - Angered the home crowd for reaction to Gradel challenge, but was otherwise combative and disciplined until injury forced him off.

PETER MURPHY - Back from injury but showed few ill-effects. Always watchful against the dangerous Howard and Fryatt.

RICHARD KEOGH - Typically committed, won his share of headers and ensured nothing came easily to the home strikers.

IAN MORRIS - United’s unsung hero, got through piles of important midfield work and added presence to the defensive effort.

GRAHAM KAVANAGH - Superb assist for Bridges’ goal, the veteran was at the heart of most of Carlisle’s good work in his best display for weeks.

CLEVELAND TAYLOR - On the front foot and always willing to run at Pearson’s defenders.

JOE ANYINSAH - Unsettled Foxes left-back Mattock with pace and strength, did not let the side down.

MICHAEL BRIDGES - Quality finish, so close to adding more goals to his tally as he frequently threatened the Foxes target.

DANNY GRAHAM - Not many scoring chances but led the line well and contributed some important link play.

Subs: Michael Liddle (for Horwood, 72) - Great cross for Dobie’s leveller; Scott Dobie (for Anyinsah, 73) - Took his dramatic goal well; Chris Lumsdon (for Bridges, 79) - Busy effort in midfield; Not used: Tony Kane, Gavin Rothery.

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