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Friday, 18 April 2014

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Carlisle Utd despair as Swindon grab added time equaliser

Carlisle Utd 1 Swindon Town 1: Someone at Swansea cannot let go of his Cumbrian voodoo doll. Even from their position of high altitude in the Championship, the men from South Wales keep piling the indignities on Carlisle United.

Carlisle action photo
A great save by Ben Williams

Yes, the Blues have authored the best part of their own downfall this season. And yes, it was Swindon who nudged Greg Abbott’s flailing troops closer to the abyss with a brutal equaliser on Saturday.

But this excruciating result had its roots in the valleys. To explain: Owain Tudur-Jones, the double-barrelled midfielder who sent a bullet through Carlisle in the 94th minute, was recently borrowed from Swansea by the Swindon manager Danny Wilson to help the Robins fly clear of danger in League One.

By landing his injury-time punch, Tudur-Jones simply contributed another dose of Welsh-inflicted pain in these parts, which has previously obliged Carlisle to stomach a Football League Trophy final defeat (2006), a 5-0 annihilation at the Liberty Stadium (the same year), the termination of a play-off charge (courtesy of Swansea’s 2-1 win at Brunton Park in April 2007) and last season’s Roberto Martinez-inspired bulldoze through League One which left United again unable to make the giant leap to the second tier.

How distant those days now seem. Carlisle are scraping along the floor of the third division and will either be finished off in the next 14 days or will somehow reach for redemption with victories against Cheltenham and Millwall.

The problem with the latter scenario is that Carlisle have gone almost a quarter of a season since they last enjoyed the warm feeling of putting three points in the bank. The winless trot has now hit double figures. Worse, Saturday’s frustration – a facsimile of their previous home draw against Oldham on Good Friday – allowed Brighton and Northampton to further attack the Cumbrian system with victories which kept their own survival hopes alive. If either or both of those teams stay afloat, it will be at Carlisle’s expense. Crewe, pegged back by Cheltenham two days ago, are firmly in the mix themselves, but Abbott’s team can no longer presume that finishing above the Railwaymen will automatically equal League One football next season.

“It’s a cruel game,” said the manager, a phrase repeated by Ben Williams (who really deserved to be on the winning team after a high-class goalkeeping performance) and probably every other blue-shirted player who staggered away from Brunton Park with a thousand-yard stare. Let’s not, however, confuse cruelty with injustice.

Did Carlisle do enough to win this game? Only if it finished at the 45-minute mark. United’s second-half efforts were defined by an attack of the jitters and a creativity-shutdown which allowed Swindon to claim their point. The fact Carlisle have scored first and still failed to beat other teams at home in the last two months – Walsall, Bristol Rovers, Scunthorpe, Northampton and Oldham – tells you they are quite incapable of finishing the job.

As in all those games, there was a sprightly start from the Cumbrians here, and an early goal which created the illusion of total home superiority. After Michael Bridges and Cleveland Taylor had a couple of sighters, Bridges curled in a fine eighth-minute strike from 15 yards after Wilson’s defence made a hash of clearing Evan Horwood’s low cross from the left.

United, whose opening efforts were defined by the aggressive urgency of the recalled captain Paul Thirlwell in midfield, hustled Swindon right out of their comfort zone. Simon Cox, their 28-goal dangerman, had one near miss from 25 yards but was otherwise becalmed. At the other end, Bridges ran onto a Taylor pull-back and almost added a second. Scott Dobie was then harshly penalised as he attacked a superb Peter Murphy cross, and Bridges again tested Phil Smith with a 30-yard free-kick.

Hindsight says the Swindon fightback began in the closing moments of the first half, when Anthony McNamee’s clever cross was headed over from golden territory by Billy Paynter, and when Hal Robson-Kanu’s elusive sprint was terminated illegally by David Raven, who was booked for the foul.

Carlisle’s right-back would have two more brushes with misfortune, more of which soon. First, the tale of the second spell, which saw Wilson’s refreshed players slowly pin United back in their own half as Abbott’s men lost most of their earlier snap and daring.

Not once did United oblige Smith to make a proper save from minutes 46 to 90. The drama was now unfolding at Williams’ end, as the goalkeeper saved superbly from Kanu, tipped Jack Smith’s drive onto the post, then kept out Gordon Greer’s thumping header with a brilliant leap to his right.

United, with Danny Graham, Jeff Smith and Ian Morris joining combat from the bench, tried to force a second goal, but their best effort saw the relentless Horwood dig out a back-post cross which Taylor couldn’t divert back on target.

Murphy, who chalked up a personal triumph over the prolific Cox over the course of the afternoon, snuffed out the £2m-rated striker one last time in the 88th minute, yet it still wasn’t enough to secure victory. In the depths of added time, Raven was dubiously penalised for an edge-of-the area challenge on Kanu, then the defender tried to put his head in the way of Tudur-Jones’ set-piece but succeeded only in turning it past the wrongfooted Williams.

Carlisle’s lot now is to peer towards Sixfields, Northampton on Tuesday and pray the Cobblers take nothing from their first game in hand, against Scunthorpe (resurgent Brighton tackle Bristol Rovers on the same night). Then to Cheltenham four days later: normally a pleasing destination in the springtime, but not when you have to face a team prepared by Martin Allen and who are still scavenging for survival points themselves.

The day is approaching when we have to hold United up to the light and decide whether they are simply in the throes of an awkward period of transition, or locked in a desperate decline back to the ambition-and-achievement-free days of old.

Each winless afternoon nudges you towards the latter conclusion.

The good news is that two performances – two victories – can still scrub many of these words from the page. All other optimistic thoughts are impossible today without Prozac.

BEN WILLIAMS Another heroic effort from the ‘keeper, who made some superb saves and did not deserve to be beaten so late.

DAVID RAVEN Hard work was ruined in injury time as the right-back was harshly penalised for Swindon free-kick, then diverted Tudur-Jones’ effort past Williams.

EVAN HORWOOD Strong performance from the left-back, who defended with plenty of heart and tried to boost the attacking effort.

PETER MURPHY Accomplished defending against the threat of Cox, did all he could to help United keep a clean sheet.

RICHARD KEOGH Typically strong in the challenge and dominant in the air, a shame his distribution wasn’t more polished.

PAUL THIRLWELL Some forceful tackling on his return from injury inspired United in the first half, less influential after the break.

CHRIS LUMSDON Recalled midfielder struggled with the game’s pace and too many passes went astray, but he did some good defensive work.

LEWIS NEAL Some promising first-half runs but the ex-Preston man ran out of steam later on.

CLEVELAND TAYLOR Posed Swindon countless problems in first 45 minutes, but was stifled after the break as Carlisle lost their way.

MICHAEL BRIDGES Expert finish and some quality touches, didn’t see enough of the ball in second half.

SCOTT DOBIE High marks for effort on his return to the side, but didn’t get many sights of goal.

Subs: Jeff Smith (for Neal, 72) – Plenty of urgency; Danny Graham (for Dobie, 77) – No late heroics; Ian Morris (for Lumsdon, 79) – Fresh legs in midfield. Not used: Tony Kane, Ian Harte.

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