Saturday, 28 November 2015

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Howson double ends United's dream

CHECK the sun to see if it has bothered to rise over Carlisle today. This was Jimmy Glass, Aldershot and all those other extreme nights of Brunton Park drama swinging back in the Cumbrian face.

Dejected: United’s Chris Lumsdon reflects after the second-leg defeat against Leeds at Brunton Park

Fate has reserved some special acts of kindness for the Blues these past few years. Now, it seems the tank of fortune is empty.

Eight months, 48 games, 4,320 minutes, 115 goals, and it all comes down to this: a 91st minute attack by Leeds, a deft touch from Dougie Freedman, and a final, inviting opportunity for Jonathan Howson which the 19-year-old buries into the extreme bottom right corner of Keiren Westwood’s net.

The Waterworks End becomes a thrashing white sea; the rest of Brunton Park transforms into a torture chamber. The final whistle, moments later, has thousands of Cumbrians suddenly staring into an empty summer. This is football at its most vindictive.

From Greg Abbott, United’s assistant manager and former Elland Road youth coach, there came the post-match revelation that Leeds nearly released Howson as a 14-year-old. How John Ward’s accomplice would now love to slip into the nearest Tardis and spin back five years to finish the job. In the 10th minute last night, the young midfielder crossed out Carlisle’s 2-1 first-leg lead with a goal of clinical simplicity. Then came the final sting.

“That’s what sport can do to you in one moment,” said Ward, who fronted up impressively to the microphones and notebooks in the wake of this defeat, but today wakes up to the head-thumping truth that Carlisle have mislaid a stunning chance of promotion on his watch this spring.

What Howson did last night was twist the knife that was already hanging from United’s back after their damaging dip in April, when their players and manager allowed a six-point cushion in the automatic promotion places to explode, obliging the Blues to confront arguably League One’s most dangerous collective in the emotional pinball of the play-offs.

Irrelevant question number one: how differently might events have fallen last night had Leeds not been able to pocket a goal in the sixth minute of dubiously-awarded injury time in Monday’s first leg? And number two: might a 2-0 deficit have done for Gary McAllister’s men, and made Brunton Park look a little more formidable rather than the field of opportunities it appeared to Leeds last night? Perhaps, perhaps.

But there is a more compelling reason why the Yorkshire team have taken late goals in both these games and so many of their other League One fixtures this season, and it has precisely nothing to do with luck. It is “playing to the end,” in Sir Alex Ferguson’s words, and it explains why Leeds were applying the pressure that coughed up the final chance which Howson buried in front of 12,873 mentally-savaged supporters.

Let the obituary notice on Carlisle’s season record that they were far from poor last night. They contributed plenty to a game which rattled along at a furious pace. They have played worse this season and received the breaks which never came on this occasion. But duty also compels us to credit Leeds for winning the battle of jaded limbs. “They played better than us,” admitted Ward, correctly. “They stepped up their game and deserved to go through. I wish them well.”

From an early stage last night it seemed Leeds were attacking the occasion with the purpose that some of their play on Monday lacked. Jermaine Beckford, in the second minute, sped onto a David Prutton pass but overran the ball to Keiren Westwood. Then, after Grant Smith blasted a decent chance over and Scott Dobie had ambitious penalty appeals waved away, Howson made the evening's first statement.

First, Prutton beat the recalled David Raven to a header by the left touchline. Beckford and Howson then shifted the ball out to Dougie Freedman on the left of the area, and his cross was eventually controlled and slotted cleanly past Westwood by Howson. It was Leeds’ reward for attacking at pace and in numbers, at a time when Carlisle’s own passing was not at Monday’s levels of accuracy and sharpness.

Chris Lumsdon, whose black armband worn in memory of his late uncle provides all the perspective we need on this defeat, led the attempted Carlisle comeback from the base of midfield, swinging a series of expert passes across the field and performing with the urgency the occasion demanded.

But there were few blue openings, save for a brisk Simon Hackney run on the counter-attack which Frazer Richardson eventually terminated, and a Marc Bridge-Wilkinson effort on the stroke of half-time, which Casper Ankergren blocked following a defensive malfunction. Moments earlier, Westwood had averted calamity for United when he blocked from Freedman, following a weak Evan Horwood header.

Carlisle went about their early second half work with energy and willing, but they could not summon sufficient quality around the penalty box to get past a Leeds defence containing Paul Huntington, the young Cumbrian who dealt admirably with the hostility which flowed his way from the terraces all match long.

For most of the night, the match was anxiously poised but Leeds were going about their work with the greater assurance. Freedman leapt on a mistake and tested Westwood, then Bridge-Wilkinson was again denied after another pacy break from Hackney. The visitors remained more effective in the critical midfield areas, particularly with Jonathan Douglas sturdy and accomplished in front of the back four, the classy Prutton involved in most of their attacking thrusts and Neil Kilkenny working the gaps around the Carlisle box.

One splendid move, sparked by the creative Australian Kilkenny, ended with Howson feeding the raiding Prutton, only for the midfielder’s low shot to be blocked.

A trio of Leeds corners ended with Bradley Johnson battering a header against the post. The same player then belted a long-range volley wide. Then, with extra-time at hand, the wise and dangerous Freedman dropped off the United backline, glanced the ball to Howson, and the teenager shot his team to Wembley with the conviction of an old-stager.

The Cumbrian inquest might rumble on for days and weeks. On this night alone, no secrets were kept from the paying public: Carlisle were beaten by a better, smarter (and, it needs to be said, richer) team who therefore deserve their pageant to the capital on Sunday week, however shabby this League One campaign has often felt due to off-field matters at Elland Road.

McAllister re-emerging from the personal trauma of losing his wife to cancer to lead a team to promotion two years later would be a decent tale by which to remember this turbulent season.

Don’t expect many smiles from this end for a while, however, since it could all have been dramatically different. Reading the small print of some of yesterday’s previews, it emerged that a jazz concert at the neighbouring rugby club fell victim to the hype and attention surrounding this all-consuming game. When they eventually rearrange, the band ought to open up with a lament.


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