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Friday, 18 April 2014

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Offiong fires first goal to send Carlisle Utd into top half of table

Exeter City 2 Carlisle United 3: Richard Offiong’s earliest football fantasies probably depicted him stroking a 91st-minute winner at St James’ Park and sprinting towards a surge of gleeful supporters.

Carlisle action photo
Kevan Hurst

That dream was popped with his departure from Newcastle United’s arena in 2004, but last night it was happily revived at Devon’s own theatre of the absurd.

The Geordie thirst for sporting melodrama would have been satisfied by injury-time events at the English game’s second most famous SJP, as Offiong took Carlisle’s decisive third goal – and his first in 16 blue attempts – some 370 miles away from his north-east cradle.

Had a remarkably boisterous 139 travelling fans not stood in his path, it’s possible United’s matchwinner would have cleared the English Channel with his cathartic victory dash. “It was a brilliant feeling,” said the 26-year-old, who forced home the rebound after his fellow substitute, Gary Madine, had hit the post as United climbed from the ashes of a torched two-goal lead.

Offiong may never have sampled first-team prominence at the north-east’s most resounding football cathedral, but he will never trade this memory from Exeter City’s tight, peeling ground. As well as smashing his own five-month duck, the striker bulleted Greg Abbott’s team back into League One’s top half from a starting position of 17th. “We found a bit of character at the end,” said Carlisle’s crimson-faced boss. “And the winner couldn’t have gone to a better person.”

This is the right way to rap on the manager’s door in a week when he is making feverish pursuit of a new striker. Offiong threw off the personal burden of having gone so long without his maiden United strike and, in so doing, told Abbott that the act of scoring important goals in League One is not beyond his powers after all.

The former Hamilton Accies favourite put down his first repayment of August’s £90,000 transfer fee after Joe Anyinsah had himself rattled in two goals – his seventh and eighth of the campaign – amid a first-half masterclass of energy and purpose. That was before a Cumbrian collapse in the last 20 minutes put the prospect of United’s first league victory of 2010 in depressing peril.

At a ground where Leeds were impaled 10 days earlier, we saw the best and worst of Abbott’s Blues: an opening spell of pace and attacking intelligence, then a closing period of damaging anxiety, before their spirit bubbled up at the end. It felt like an entire Carlisle season crammed into 90 tragi-comic minutes.

Notable among the pre-match stats was that only two third-tier teams had fled north from Exeter with a victory in 2009/10 prior to last night’s set-to.

Carlisle’s own previous triumph in these distant parts came in 1979, before 13 more fruitless attempts. Abbott’s bid to correct that grim sequence saw him feed the hard experience of Paul Thirlwell into his midfield at Tom Taiwo’s expense.

The captain, back from injury, duly made his first start for four months – and Carlisle opened up impressively, pinning the Grecians back and forcing some notable early errors from Paul Tisdale’s players.

Tisdale, the cravat-wearing dandy of the dugout, tried to author a counter-attacking strategy that led to half-chances for Adam Stansfield and Marcus Stewart, but United’s territorial supremacy was steadily catching the eye, with Graham Kavanagh threading their moves together, Matty Robson piling a series of handy crosses into dangerous areas, and Anyinsah leading a muscular line.

A Kavanagh cross from a short-corner triggered Exeter’s first major scare, as the ball reared up at the near post and Anyinsah hooked it over his head; Matt Taylor hastily clearing off the line. Kavanagh then tested Paul Jones in the home goal, before Stewart bent a shot wastefully wide at the United end.

Then, in the 33rd minute, came the first Cumbrian blow. Richard Keogh, in typically buccaneering mood down the right, accepted a pass and curled a perfect cross into the home box. Anyinsah, free from his marker, applied the scoring header.

Ten minutes later, after Danny Livesey had repelled another Stewart blast, he struck again. First, the rampaging striker was pulled back by Richard Duffy to the left. Kavanagh’s threatening free-kick then popped up for Livesey to the right, the centre-half turned it sensibly back into the six-yard box, and Anyinsah smuggled it home. Carlisle’s interval advantage was not ill-deserved.

Tisdale, observing his bedraggled red-and-white collective, hauled off Stewart and Bertie Cozic at half-time, replacing their misdirected craft with the height and pace of Barry Corr and Richard Logan. Yet Carlisle might have killed the game before the subs’ influence could show itself. Early in the second half, Anyinsah darted onto another Kavanagh cross and nodded his hat-trick chance a fraction wide.

Robson then sped onto a Kavanagh pass but screwed his effort off target. Keogh then linked beautifully with Kevan Hurst and failed by millimetres to pick out Anyinsah in the box. Eventually, Exeter re-emerged, their attacks given focus by the strapping Corr, who headed over a Scott Golbourne cross at the onset of their most telling spell (which coincided with United falling deeper into their own territory).

Shortly after the hour, Ian Harte tried to shepherd a home pass back to Adam Collin, but then saw Adam Stansfield sneak in a shot which drew a stunning reflex save from the Carlisle goalkeeper. Ryan Harley, a rising presence in midfield, then darted down the left and watched his low cross battered against the post by Corr.

Abbott, in his bid to release the mounting pressure, sent Offiong on for Hurst, but that hardly looked a masterstroke when Exeter immediately piled another cross into Carlisle’s box which eventually fell for Stansfield, who smacked a swerving shot away from Collin and into the right of his goal with 12 minutes to go.

Madine, on for Kavanagh, was Abbott’s next attempt at defending United’s dwindling lead from the front. Yet still the Grecians came. One towering ball from the left was headed back over Collin, only for Livesey – on the line – to leap and head the ball against his own crossbar before his grateful goalkeeper smothered the danger.

Then, in the 90th minute, the hosts inserted the knife again: a testing ball from Alex Russell, a determined scamper from Logan, and a final deflection into the path of Harley, who stabbed in the equaliser.

Cue that instant, stunning riposte. Carlisle reassembled and stepped forward. Madine – showing impressive presence on his return from Coventry – accepted the ball to the left of the Exeter area, cut in and fizzed a low shot past Jones’ dive. Back it spun off the post, on sped Offiong, and you know the rest.

A couple of minutes on and St James’ Park was recast as a movie battlefield: Anyinsah, on his haunches, a picture of exhaustion; Evan Horwood, prone on the Devon turf, spent from the defensive struggle. Abbott skipping across the scene, applauding the travelling loyalists and picturing a league table that suddenly looks a sight more cheerful.

And at the centre of the chaos, the calmest chap in the West Country. “Now I want to get myself in the team and kick on,” said Offiong, who wore the casual smile of someone who fires last-gasp winners on a weekly basis. The man is entitled to his optimism. Sixteen false starts, then his night on the podium.

ADAM COLLIN – A couple of outstanding saves and plenty of aerial dominance from Grecians’ crosses.

RICHARD KEOGH – Early booking didn’t curb his usual gutsy efforts, and his cross for United’s opener was inch-perfect.

EVAN HORWOOD – Often in the game and put everything into an exhausting defensive effort.

DANNY LIVESEY – Sensible pass for Anyinsah’s second and frequently put himself in the line of fire.

IAN HARTE – Solid night’s work, although Exeter’s subs put extra pressure on United defence.

PAUL THIRLWELL – Solid return to the side and contributed some important midfield tackling.

ADAM CLAYTON – Used the ball impressively early on, then helped out the rearguard.

GRAHAM KAVANAGH – Carlisle’s main creative influence in first half, dropped deeper after break.

MATTY ROBSON – Some decent crosses went unrewarded, pace gave Blues handy outlet all night.

KEVAN HURST – Tidy performance down right where he often linked well with Keogh.

JOE ANYINSAH – Two-goal hero tortured home defence and ran himself into ground for the cause.

Subs: Richard Offiong (for Hurst 77) – Moment to savour; Gary Madine (for Kavanagh 82) – Played his part. Not used: Lenny Pidgeley, Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, Peter Murphy, Tom Taiwo, Tony Kane.

Goals: Anyinsah 33, 44; Offiong 90

Booked: Keogh

Exeter: Jones, Tully, Duffy, Taylor, Sercombe, Golbourne, Russell, Harley, Cozic (Logan 46), Stewart (Corr 46), Stansfield. Not used: Marriott, Saunders, Dunne, Burnell, Fleetwood.Goals: Stansfield 78, Harley 90

Ref: Oliver Langford (West Midlands)

Crowd: 4,106 (139 Carlisle fans)

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