In our latest season review feature, we take a look at the better moments and most important days of Carlisle United’s 2021/22 campaign. Starting from the top…

1 February 23, 2022

Nigel Clibbens, the chief executive, told the recent awards night that if May 8 was Jimmy Glass day, February 23 ought to be remembered as Paul Simpson day. The comparison could be forgiven, bearing in mind everything that has happened since.

News and Star: Andrew Jenkins with Paul Simpson on February 23 (photo: Amy Nixon)Andrew Jenkins with Paul Simpson on February 23 (photo: Amy Nixon)

 

We’ll always remember where we were when the winds of change blasted through Brunton Park, taking Keith Millen and David Holdsworth out and bringing Simmo back in.

It felt, at a moment of grave desperation, like the best card United could play. We probably didn’t realise just how good it would turn out to be. While the focus now is on how Simpson can build Carlisle, let’s never forget the way he saved them from a time of acute crisis.

2 Injury-time against Northampton

There were several last-minute goals along the Simmo-led recovery, each of them memorable and important in their own way. Something special, though, was afoot at Brunton Park on March 12.

News and Star: Fans celebrate the Northampton win (photo: Barbara Abbott)Fans celebrate the Northampton win (photo: Barbara Abbott)

There was a big crowd, swelled by a ticket offer and still drunk on the positivity of Simpson’s return. There had been a gutsy United performance against one of their division’s best.

And then, in the very dying seconds, the place was alive with tension, drama and electricity, as the Cobblers’ Fraser Horsfall handled, and Jordan Gibson detonated the ground with a winning penalty. The stadium hadn’t felt that good, that passionately alive, for a long time.

3 The darkest hour

The weekend before Simpson arrived took Carlisle United into places so low that urgent action could no longer be delayed. In hindsight, the utter misery of it was the catalyst needed.

News and Star: Harry McKirdy celebrates for Swindon (photo: Barbara Abbott)Harry McKirdy celebrates for Swindon (photo: Barbara Abbott)

First there was the disgraceful performance in defeat to Swindon Town, when Harry McKirdy threw a one-man party on his return and many left the ground feeling as low about the Blues as they’d ever felt.

Then there was the untimely Botchergate carry-on involving a couple of players. In the space of 24 hours it felt like United’s seams were coming very loose indeed. In reality, it was the prompt directors needed to carry out some overdue repairs.

4 Feeeeeeneeeeeeey

Had United lost at Oldham Athletic, the survival race would have become very itchy still, even after the initial Simmo uplift. By half-time they were a goal down thanks to a certain Hallam Hope.

News and Star: Morgan Feeney scores at Oldham (photo: Barbara Abbott)Morgan Feeney scores at Oldham (photo: Barbara Abbott)

Then we saw the Simpson effect in full cry. Carlisle responded with character that had been missing for many of the previous months. Omari Patrick levelled – then, a last-minute free-kick, Callum Guy’s delivery, and Feeney’s amber bonce heading it sweetly into the top corner.

It was a poetic moment, capturing not just United’s recovery of something important, but also a young defender coming into his own after a ruined first season in Cumbria.

5 Howard signs up

At the time, it was barely headline news. Chris Beech had just been sacked, and, yeah, Carlisle are a keeper short, but who’s going to pick up the reins and sort the wider mess?

News and Star: Mark Howard on his debut against Tranmere (photo: Barbara Abbott)Mark Howard on his debut against Tranmere (photo: Barbara Abbott)

It turns out the recruitment of an emergency No1 proved the more important deal. Whoever will take the credit for it – Beech had gone, Gavin Skelton was caretaker, and David Holdsworth didn’t pick the players, we were often told – the signing of Mark Howard was probably the best bit of business United did all season.

Even in 2021/22’s most dire performances, he was a reassuring presence. In some of the better ones, he also stood out. He has since been released, but should go with our gratitude.

6 Patrick’s homecoming

Keith Millen’s midwinter revival didn’t last long, but it was still a rare old day when Carlisle’s Bradford City old boys took it to their former club in a 2-0 win at Brunton Park.

News and Star: United players wave to the Bradford fans after Omari Patrick's goal (photo: Barbara Abbott)United players wave to the Bradford fans after Omari Patrick's goal (photo: Barbara Abbott)

After Jordan Gibson smacked United into the lead, a new, old signing popped up from the bench and scored an outstanding solo goal on his second debut.

Omari Patrick was back, and very pleased to be so. From that enjoyable January day, he’s continued to give the Blues plenty, including the goal against Mansfield that finally got them safe.

7 Eastern promise

It’s impossible to mention the Simpson effect without considering the way United’s support surged behind the Cumbrian manager.

News and Star: United fan Martyn Haworth leads the celebrations at Orient (photo: Richard Parkes)United fan Martyn Haworth leads the celebrations at Orient (photo: Richard Parkes)

The first and most telling sign of that came in his first game. A week after the Swindon desolation, there was a strong, buoyant turnout from away fans at Leyton Orient.

There were duly great scenes when Omari Patrick scored to shatter the recent tension, and again when United got the sorely-needed win over the line, with Simmo at the heart of things. It was the day the Blues and their people reconnected.

8 Tactical tweaks

A manager can’t lead on aura alone. Simpson had to get his hands dirty from day one to sort United out.

News and Star: Back at the back: Jon Mellish at Orient (photo Richard Parkes)Back at the back: Jon Mellish at Orient (photo Richard Parkes)

One of his best moves was one of his first: rejigging the Blues to a back five, helping a young and raw back line with extra numbers and asking Jon Mellish to be a centre-half again after the months in midfield and even attack.

It paid immediate dividends, as did Simmo’s leaning on the experience of Jamie Devitt and Kristian Dennis in those crucial early games. It was evidence of the manager’s judgement being sharp when it was most needed.

9 Saddlers unseated

It didn’t count for a great deal in the end, for team, player or manager. But, goodness me, there was still something cathartic in the moment Tristan Abrahams scored a last-gasp winner for United against Walsall.

News and Star: Tristan Abrahams is mobbed after his Walsall winner (photo: Barbara Abbott)Tristan Abrahams is mobbed after his Walsall winner (photo: Barbara Abbott)

The maligned summer signing was booed onto the pitch by some. Carlisle were heading towards a record sixth straight home league game without scoring.

Then a cross looped Abrahams’ way in the box, he clipped it home, and Brunton Park threw off some of its many stresses for one autumn afternoon.

10 He’s alright, Jack

An understated positive from United’s season was the way Sam Fishburn gamely led the line alongside Jon Mellish in a three-game winning run which at least kept their heads above the waterline in the winter.

News and Star: Jack Ellis in action at Bradford (photo: Richard Parkes)Jack Ellis in action at Bradford (photo: Richard Parkes)

Older heads would take over in due course, but the teenager deserved some credit for his efforts. As, clearly, did Jack Ellis for the way he eased into professional life with two fine performances at the end of the campaign.

Something to work with, evidently, in terms of the latest home-grown talent at United. Here’s hoping they can convert their big chance next season.

11 Sho-time

More than anyone, Tobi Sho-Silva had a penchant for late activity when it came to those dramatic games when results could have gone either way.

News and Star: Sho-SIlva and Simeu celebrate at Tranmere (photo: Richard Parkes)Sho-SIlva and Simeu celebrate at Tranmere (photo: Richard Parkes)

Making his greatest impact as a substitute, the former Sutton striker triggered memorable celebrations with an excellent solo goal against Rochdale on Simmo’s first home game back.

Goals against Northampton and Tranmere followed, the latter a very late equaliser which, once more, said United had found a bit of positive character. The thoughtful Sho-Silva himself is certainly one of those.

12 Simmo’s at the wheel…

April 27 eventually followed February 23. Whatever the challenges and pitfalls facing the Blues from here, the strong sense is that they have found the right man to negotiate them.

News and Star: Simmo: Here to stay (photo: Ben Holmes)Simmo: Here to stay (photo: Ben Holmes)

The three-year deal offered to and signed by Paul Simpson was the placing of United into good, dedicated and credible hands for the long run.

It will still require fundamental change at higher levels to equip Carlisle United to fulfil all its potential. Simmo’s presence, though, makes you feel that certain opportunities are finally back in play.

READ MORE: Awards, bogey grounds and salt & pepper: an alternative review of Carlisle United's 2021/22 season