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Sunday, 20 April 2014

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Keogh stars as Carlisle Utd edge away from relegation zone

Carlisle Utd 1 Scunthorpe 1: Carlisle United can now stop rummaging around for the qualities which will eventually deliver them from this anxious relegation fight.

Carlisle action photo
Joe Anyinsah celebrates his goal

The spirit and defiance which Richard Keogh put into every scrap of his work against Scunthorpe needs to be bottled and shared, quickly.

There are days, when the football is nimble and the opposition forwards’ movement dizzying, when Keogh appears less than comfortable in United’s back four. This was not such a day.

It was an afternoon of “typical third tier football,” in the words of the Blues’ manager Greg Abbott. Or, put another way, 90 minutes of battling and bruising, of ball-in-the-air skirmishing. Perfect for Keogh and his chest-out hunger for the scrap.

Had United lost this game it would have been an affront to Keogh, who offered the game’s sponsors the easiest Man of the Match decision of the season.

“Richard is a big, honest, typical centre-half,” observed Abbott. “He heads it, kicks it, clears it. He had a tough time in the first half against Scunthorpe’s front two, but he rose to the challenge and came out admirably. His determination and desire shone through.”

The reference point for this game was not Joe Anyinsah’ scrambled opening goal, Paul Hayes’ lashed leveller, or the banquet of frustrating decisions laid out by Rob Shoebridge, the fussy referee.

It was the sight of Keogh launching his frame in front of a Grant McCann shot in the last minute. By protecting the Cumbrian target thus, Carlisle were able to bank another point in their winding pursuit of League One safety.

One way of reading this draw is to complain that it extended the Blues’ winless run at home to five games. Given that results elsewhere actually strengthened United’s position by close of play (they are now seven points above the bottom four), the grumbling ought to be kept on a fairly low setting today.

There were flaws in this performance, certainly. And plenty of mediocrity in the swirling wind. And some of Abbott’s selections (Tony Kane preferred to David Raven at right-back, for instance, and the deployment of Michael Bridges down the left as a substitute) certainly offered a rich seam for debate.

But in terms of attitude, appetite, it was a giant leap away from the individual and collective collapse against Leyton Orient four days earlier. “There were a lot of players throwing themselves into tackles and blocks, a lot of spirit, effort and endeavour,” said Abbott, who appeared less emotionally-battered than in other recent post-match briefings. “We asked them for that, and we got it.”

Thirty-seven games into such a brain-aching season is not the ideal time to be demanding football to ignite the senses. What there needs to be from here until May is a public acceptance that points must be obtained by whatever means possible. Aspiring to a better, more consistent pattern of play must never be off the agenda - and will jump straight to the top once this campaign is through - but just now there is a more urgent demand for a collective striving for results. More sweat, less style, if that’s how it has to be.

It’s certainly how it had to be on Saturday, once the influence of the cutting wind became apparent, along with both sides’ struggle for rhythm. In the third minute, Lewis Neal’s free-kick from the right caught the gust and forced Joe Murphy, the Scunthorpe goalkeeper, into a backpedalling tip-over. At the other end, Hayes and Gary Hooper were dovetailing to promising effect, the latter bustling in from the left and firing off target, and then the former sprinting clear, only for Williams to repel the big striker’s deflected shot with superb reflexes.

The warning flares were duly lit. Then out of the early squabbling, Carlisle scored. It started with a strong run from Anyinsah and a wobbling shot from Paul Thirlwell which Murphy pushed behind. From Neal’s inswinging corner, Anyinsah managed to bundle the ball into the bottom corner of the net, via his thigh.

This did not trigger a flow of appealing football from United or their opponents, as the ball lingered too often in the air and the whistle too often in Mr Shoebridge’s mouth. The Blues did cough up one more decent chance in the first half, when Williams’ kick was headed on by Anyinsah, and smacked low and fractionally wide by the raiding Danny Graham.

Scunthorpe then nipped forward and punched another hole in Carlisle’s back line, but after Hooper had fastened onto Hayes’ shrewd flick and wriggled away from the retreating Peter Murphy, he shot wastefully at the legs of Williams, who deserves praise for standing up strongly to the Iron’s 25-goal assassin.

A second United goal early in the second half would unquestionably have ended the argument. The only time it looked likely to arrive, though, was just after the hour, when Andy Crosby nervously conceded a corner and Neal’s delivery was scrambled towards Murphy’s left foot. But the defender’s thumping shot ricocheted off a visiting body, and his second attempt rolled wide.

It was Scunthorpe’s essential reprieve. A few minutes later, they claimed their opportunistic equaliser. First, the elusive substitute Martyn Woolford plummeted to ground under a trifling challenge from Kane. What followed was a lesson in quick-thinking, as McCann swiftly stroked the free-kick forward, Hayes stumbled past Michael Liddle, swerved the chance across Williams and saw it bash the stanchion and rebound into the net.

There were a few other scrapes as Scunthorpe briefly claimed the ascendancy, founded on McCann’s smart ball-playing and the intelligent line-leading of Hayes. Two minutes after scoring, Hayes nipped onto a Hooper cross and was denied by a combination of post and Williams. Then McCann fizzed a free-kick onto Hooper’s head, but Williams was well-placed to kill the danger.

Bridges, on for Neal, curled the final home opportunity at the Scunthorpe ‘keeper. Then, at the death, two more Iron replacements combined, but Liam Trotter could only poke Kayode Odejayi’s flick into orbit.

The result of all this bluster? Not a great deal more clarity on United’s survival chances, and not much evidence of the poise with which we would dearly love to see them play (a pipe dream for the season’s remainder, frankly). But it was a display laced with character, thanks, chiefly, to Keogh. Let his stomping efforts set the example for the final nine games of this uncomfortable campaign.

BEN WILLIAMS - A couple of handling wobbles in the wind, but made a superb save to deny Hayes and was generally solid.

TONY KANE - Battled away but Scunthorpe had some joy down United’s right flank.

MICHAEL LIDDLE - Better defensively than in recent weeks, stayed alert against some imposing opponents.

PETER MURPHY - Steady return after injury, solid in most of his work.

RICHARD KEOGH - United’s best player: honest, wholehearted and aggressive. Led the rearguard effort superbly in tough conditions.

PAUL THIRLWELL - An unremarkable afternoon from the skipper in an unattractive midfield battle.

GRAHAM KAVANAGH - His usual hard-working shift but the veteran’s distribution was erratic.

LEWIS NEAL - Good delivery for Anyinsah’s goal but not in the game enough afterwards.

JOE ANYINSAH - On the spot for his goal and always willing to run at his man, with mixed results.

DANNY GRAHAM - Led the line well enough and got through piles of work with little reward.

GARETH TAYLOR - Did little to trouble the Iron back line and conceded too many free-kicks. Eventually replaced by Dobie.

Subs: Scott Dobie (for G Taylor, 61) - Not much impact; Michael Bridges (for Neal, 77) - Couple of skilful flashes. Not used: David Raven, Cleveland Taylor, Gary Madine.

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