Friday, 24 December 2010

Blue in Exile Pts 1&2

These posts initially appeared in the Cumberland News and Star on December 13 and 20 respectively. They appear here by kind permission of sports editor Phil Rostron. Enjoy!

Carlisle Lose While I See a Great Draw

How’s the Great Cumbrian Thaw going? I wonder if you, like me, are beginning to wish it had stayed at -15 all week.

Saturday’s dispiriting submission to a well drilled but limited Dagenham side capped a rather desperate fortnight in my life as a Carlisle fan. Firstly the London Branch Supporter’s Club Dinner fell foul of the weather and was followed swiftly by the cancelling of my ‘local’ away game versus Orient (for the record, the pavements in North East London were far from raising any safety fears – my own view is that they were keeping fresh for their FA Cup win). The Blues return to last season’s habit of following a JPT victory over an ex Premier League side with a home reversal against a weaker team only compounded the misery.

I spent Saturday afternoon at the National Gallery’s Canaletto exhibition with my girlfriend and her parents. Her Dad (a Southampton fan) felt Dagenham at home was ‘an easy three points’ for Carlisle – after all this time keeping a keen eye on our results he clearly hasn’t learned! The exhibition was underground and thus out of reach of phone signal so he and I played our own technologically advanced version of ‘The Likely Lads’ for the hour it took to walk around. When we emerged, blinking into the sun, to see a pair of 0-2 scores we both rather wished we’d been locked in.

Regular readers of this column are probably wondering where John Hartley has gone and who I am. He approached me to take over after reading my football blog ‘Bring Me the Head of Keith Mincher’. Here I constantly threaten to cover subjects as disparate as the wonderful re-emergence of Borussia Dortmund and the overseas career of John Charles but mainly descend into confused ranting about Tom Taiwo’s positioning or the privileged world view of Barcodes fans.

I don’t consider myself a typical Carlisle fan. I was raised in Workington rather than within hearing distance of the ‘Brunton Roar’ and I spent my childhood years haring headlessly round its green spaces in the colours of Leeds, not Carlisle, United. I harboured a soft spot for Carlisle throughout the Knighton regime and this has fledged over time into a full blown obsession – one fully confirmed by my absolute delight as we turned over Leeds at BP in 2007/8.

I left Cumbria for university in 2002 and have slowly wended my way down the country via Durham, York and Leeds to London. With each step my involvement with Carlisle United has grown stronger to the point where I now consider my fandom part of the very essence of my Cumbrian identity. Visits home now are almost as about spending time in the Paddock as with my parents or on the fells and I’m often joined at games (home and away) by old friends who showed no interest in football at school; Carlisle United is part of what keeps us together.

What is Francois Were Merely Frank?

Another week’s passed where the ‘fantastic indoor facility at Stoke’ has been the only hospitable place for the Blues to kick a football round. On weeks like this I normally pray for a bit of boy’s own stuff with the orange ball but having seen the utterly bizarre scenes at Portman Road. As Sven’s temperature soared whilst his players recreated scenes from Ice Age 2 I saw the logic in Terry Skiverton’s men dispatching Greg and the boys back to the club owned house for a few of Frank Simek’s Christmas Budweisers and a chance to beat Kav on the Wii while he’s still on crutches.

This hasn’t been a slow news week at BP though. The midweek news that Ivorian totem Francois Zoko has penned an extended deal would have provided a fillip to the majority United faithful, while Ben Marshall’s extension should hopefully salve the rest.

I’m unashamedly delighted that ‘Big Francois’ has elected to stick around in North Cumbria. In those games I’ve seen this year I’ve seen him at his best and, when his tail is up, he seems to be able to lift tricks directly from the pages of ‘Roy of the Rovers’. There’s also an undoubted frisson about seeing a flair player with a delicious foreign moniker flashing up next to your team on ‘Final Score’. Even if it is his second against lowly Tipton.

That subject has been broached over on the CUFC Messageboard where long suffering site administrator Tim Graham posted a couple of great articles from When Saturday Comes discussing the tendency of fans to over-rate players with exotic sounding names. The ‘Nardiello Factor’, dubbed by Barnsley fans after the Exeter hitman of the same name, is an index linking the popularity of players with partisan fans to the ridiculousness of their name. Their striker Jeronimo Morales Neumann scores a ‘NarFac’ of 9 despite his warming the Tykes bench all season. Where’s Francois? Eight surely?

It’s obviously a bit of fun but it does raise a serious point. I remember standing on the Paddock a couple of seasons ago when Danny Graham was going through one of his legendary mid-season dry spells. He was being harangued from all sides for his profligacy, despite putting in a work horse shift at the prow of John Ward’s cursory 4-5-1. It makes you wonder if a name like Daninho Grahamo (run with me here…) or even just ‘Danny’ (a la Zenit St. Petersburg’s Portuguese No 10) might have got him off the hook.

When Zoko was pulling up trees on trial over the summer I had an excited and childish conversation with a Shrewsbury supporting workmate. He told a cautionary tale about ex-Shrewsbury and Ghana forward Derek Asamoah. Asamoah, despite previous spells with Northampton and Lincoln, was received in 2006 at Gay Meadow like a gift from God. Ten goals and 39 appearances later he went AWOL and demanded a transfer to Nice. I reckon he’d heard he had a ‘NarFac’ of below five. Francois’ll be safe at BP.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Brother Could You Spare Me a Left Back?

There are, to my eyes, three reasons for a team to dip into the loan market: a play for an extra bit of quality, a try before you buy and a desperate attempt to fill a match day squad. Carlisle’s signing of Miguel Comminges and Ashley Eastham before the close of the window brought Greg Abbott’s flirtation in that market to 9 ‘in’ so far this season so there’s no doubt each of these categories has been used.

I don’t want to dwell on how each of the ‘Carlisle 9’ have played this season (some fitfully, some poorly, some outstandingly) but rather to use them as an examination of the pros and cons of using the loan system.

The first, and most solid, criticism of using the loan system is that it fails to build you a coherent team. This can most certainly be true and is perhaps seen most desperately in the from of Peter Reid/Eddie Gray’s Leeds United team who took route one to the Championship with a side featuring borrowed ‘talent’ such as current Wrexham (then Marseille) striker Lamine Sakho, Cameroonian Salomon Olembe and, most famously Brazilian mercenary Roque Junior. Where Junior’s spell as resident barfly at Leeds Malmaison can be seen as the nadir of the ‘loan squad’ the plight of Graham Turner’s League 2 promoted Hereford United side in their first season at League One level is perhaps more cautionary.

Turner’s side’s promotion had owed everything to the borrowed talents of Watford duo Theo Robinson and Toumani Diagouraga and an in form Gary Hooper from Southend. The following season in League One and stripped of their three stars Hereford finished dead last with a derisory 34 points (including a gift wrapped 6 from Brunton Park’s finest).

It’s this fate that worries Carlisle supporters of late. The side is high on confidence after knocking Wednesday out of the JPT and well poised for a strong finish in a tight League One field but its fate inarguably lies in the post-January whereabouts of Manchester United centre back James Chester, Stoke’s flying winger Ben Marshall and the Leeds United duo of Mike Grella and Lubo Michalik.

All four have added undoubted quality to the Cumbrian ranks and there’s certainly a hint that the signings of Grella and Michalik at least fall squarely in the ‘try before you buy’ category. The giant Slovakian, frozen out by Simon Grayson at Elland Road, has been imperious at the back and a key tenet of a much improved United defensive effort.

Not since the early season defeat of Wednesday at Hillsborough have Carlisle chosen to field fewer than 4 loanees in a matchday squad. This has at times been down to rotten luck with injuries to defenders – the 1-1 draw with Rochdale on 23rd September saw United finish with their 8th different back four of the season. This has included four left backs (including a left winger) and deputations in the middle for two different right backs.

That the loan market can be used in this situation is without question – with summer signing Sean McDaid suffered a second career threatening injury in 3 years that we could go to Arsenal to pilfer Champions League left back Thomas Cruise or that a summer centre back crisis could be salved through a burgeoning relationship with Manchester United’s reserve team is credit to the management and bound to raise a smile with all fans. But a first choice defence, three of whom are deputed to leave on January 3rd is a straightforward concern for all.

There is cause for optimism as, while Abbott again sticks resolutely to his line that ‘my squad at the end of January will be better than at the start’ (this proved a lie last year largely thanks to the departure of Vincent Pericard), Marshall and Chester have been open about their wish to stay at Brunton Park whilst cautious optimism has been sounded about the Leeds pair. Regardless, the team diminished of even one of these 4 would lack its current sheen – though it figures that they can view these spells as an opportunity to relaunch their careers elsewhere.

The experience of the other five loanees raises another question. The Manchester United and Northern Ireland midfield pair of Corry Evans and Oliver Norwood were both unlucky with injury and are undoubtedly very talented young men but the signing of both appeared to smack of desperation or ulterior motive. Many put United’s early season form down to the resurgence of perennial ‘glass man’ and BMTHOKM favourite Paul Thirlwell, playing at the foot of a diamond midfield. His injury in Sheffield led to the signing of Norwood as an ill suited replacement (Thirlwell is more Ray Wilkins to Norwood’s Michael Carrick) when the squad offered more obvious replacements through a slight tweak in formation.

If this wasn’t a show of bloody mindedness from Greg Abbott then moving for Evans after a bad injury sent Norwood back to Old Trafford certainly did. The period with Norwood at the base of the diamond had seen United pull themselves out of trouble with second half formation changes and the coming form of Marshall and left winger Matt Robson. Evans one appearance at Bristol Rovers lasted an hour and was, by all accounts, neat and tidy but his departure precipitated a fightback and an almost remarkable late snatching of all three points. Some have argued that the growing links with Man United are worth carrying deadwood for but to take players who won’t improve a side for this reason seems somewhat regressive.

The recent signings of Comminges and Eastham are the most puzzling and dispiriting. Abbott, as with many other managers, has in the past reached for the loan market rather than trusting the club’s next generation. The worst example was 36 year old striker Gareth Taylor keeping FA Apprentice of the Year Tom Aldred out of the centre back places in 2008/9 season but the late season emergence of Gary Madine last year after a plethora of loanees were tried up front should surely have taught Abbott a lesson?

Seemingly not. Comminges, a left back, was brought from Cardiff to replace the ‘injured’ and out of form Cruise rather than choose the club’s talented youth team skipper Steven Swinglehurst, himself a natural left back. He departed 45 minutes into his FA Cup debut against non-league Tamworth, replaced by a miraculously recovered Cruise. One wonders if we’ll ever see him again. Eastham also played in the Tamworth game – signed to cover the suspended Michalik and injured duo of Peter Murphy and Danny Livesey at centre back. He too played very poorly and was unsurprisingly benched for the visit of Wednesday (Comminges failed to make the matchday 16). Before that game he had been limited to reserve football and was surely no better placed than a youth teamer?

Both signings seem to fall squarely into my latter category – desperation signings. Its these that irritate fans the most, inhibiting as they do the progression of clubs’ young players through proper football. Abbott has been quite vocal about not wanting to ruin the chances of a young player by blooding them early but his unwillingness to learn from the fate of Madine and Aldred, who pushed an out of form Murphy out of the team and earned a move to Watford with some impeccable late season displays, is dispiriting.

It’s not merely a question of stopping the development of youngsters but one of money – loan signings aren’t free after all – and when they backfire in a desperate bid to field side of ‘grown ups’ for no sane reason. On the flipside, just occasionally they come good – any good Carlisle fan would be able to tell you that – just ask them about that on loan goalie from Swindon Town…

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Greg Abbott Mid-Term Report (Part 1)

Here we are again, welcoming an old, familiar friend. Last week’s hard fought and well deserved defeat of a high calibre Southampton scrubbed out by a scrappy undoing at basement club Walsall. With a run of fixtures against sides in the bottom half of the table it had been hoped that this would be a period for the Cumbrians to consolidate their impressive start – some hope. There was a crushing inevitability to this defeat in a week where manager Greg Abbott was rewarded with a 2 year contract extension as reward for this year’s improved performance. By all accounts Carlisle were as abject against the Saddlers as they were inspired versus the Saints but Abbott deserves credit for moving on from some of last year’s more regular mistakes. There are some things he really needs to learn though. By way of constructive evaluation I’ve picked out three of each. For ease of digestion I’ve split them into three parts. Here’s the first:



All too often last year the Blues set up in a one-dimensional 4-5-1 formation designed to harness their strength in central midfield and dearth of quality up front, overly reliant on scampering winger Matt Robson as the only outlet ball. This worked with the ox like figure of Vincent Pericard as the fulcrum for joining attacks but his departure in the January window highlighted a dearth of options. All too often the midfield clogging duo of Taiwo and Thirlwell set out their stall to nick an away point and all too often we lost one-nil due to a defensive unit prone to lapses of concentration or stupidity.

At the time Abbott argued that, like Chelsea and Arsenal, his side played 4-5-1 in defence and 4-3-3 in attack. This was patently untrue. An old-fashioned winger, Robson’s instinct was to hug the touchline, while ball playing right sided winger Kevan Hurst possessed neither the pace, nor the finishing ability, to be classed as a forward. Fans constant calls for 4-4-2 were eventually heeded late on as Jason Price and Gary Madine formed a strong partnership but dropping a midfield battler always gave an uneasy feeling about exposing the defence.

This season has saw Abbott start with a 4-4-2 diamond formation designed to accommodate the game reading abilities of Paul Thirlwell at the base and the guile of Francois Zoko at the tip. The formation was largely to thank for the Blues unbeaten start to the season with the deep lying Zoko wreaking havoc with unfamiliar League 1 defences and a resurgent Thirlwell (often a target of fan abuse due to his perceived closeness to Abbott) offering a shield to a fledgling defensive unit.

Teams soon began to match the formation like for like to lessen Carlisle’s comfort on the ball and a number of goalless ties led a move to a traditional 4-4-2 with Robson, restored on the left, the creator of several goals. After a long term injury to Sean McDaid led to Robson’s use as an emergency left-back Abbott played to his squad’s strength, using the forward looking Zoko, Mike Grella and Ben Marshall in wide roles to complement regular front pair of Madine and Curran. This formation has proved much more malleable, with the wider forwards dropping in to a support central a central pair of Taiwo and James Berrett in defence but pushing on to make a flying 4-2-4 in attack.

Throughout this period Curran has remained an enigma. His ability to stretch defences and strong hold up play let down by his tendency to panic with the goal at his mercy – he was first punted to the wing before being fully dropped in favour of the tricksy Marshall. This latest formation is not unlike the 4-2-3-1 which was prevalent at the World Cup, with Zoko, Marshall and Grella all tasked with tracking back to stop counters but all flooding forward to support leading scorer Madine in attack. It seems to be working, as all three have scored in recent weeks.

Where last year’s stiff 4-4-2 and redoubtable 4-5-1 were set up in flat banks, it’s perhaps most pleasing to see this year’s team swiftly move and adapt shape according to the flow of the game. This is thanks in part to an improvement in the quality of players available, from the Man United loanee James Chester at centre half through to the mercurial Zoko via the technically gifted midfield ball player James Berrett. But Abbott should take credit for drilling this flexibility into his charges as it is key to success in modern football.

If anything, Abbott seems to be thinking far more carefully about his team choices and making decisions to suit the situation of a game and opposition. This can be seen in his improved substitutions (more of that later) but is exemplified by a decision to play the right footed centre back Chester at left back against Southampton rather than young Arsenal loanee Thomas Cruise. Cruise struggled against Crewe and Abbott had rightly identified teen flyer Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as Southampton’s dangerman. It paid off, with Chester winning plaudits for his performance, and Abbott even more for his pitching of the seeming mismatch.

Last season tactics became an easy and appealing stick with which to beat Greg Abbott and whilst it is going too far to say he’s cracked it (Berrett still goes missing too often, we still play long ball too often as default and a tendency to be caught on he break) but it seems reading ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ over the summer was a good start.


Half Time/Minutes 45-60

Oh to be a fly on the wall in a Carlisle United half time dressing room. Not a single fan knows what happens. So often last season the first 15 minutes of the second half were Carlisle’s worst, with game changing and game killing opposition goals aplenty and few in reply. It led to fair questions about what exactly Greg Abbott was saying to his side in the rest period and why it wasn’t working as well as those of his opposite number.

This season the corner seemed to have been turned after we went eight games this season without conceding in the first fifteen minutes of the second half but recently the habit has returned. Early second half goals for Charlton and Southampton were followed by a second Walsall free kick goal in the 53rd minute at the Bescot on Saturday. These lapses of concentration after a Lucozade and a talking to are swiftly becoming a trope which must be put to seed if the Blues are to maintain their tilt at a top six position.

It surely cannot be that Abbott fails to motivate the team at half time – one of life’s talkers it may be that he overloads the side with information or that the team are under-prepared and so in need of their half-time recuperation that they leave their concentration in the dressing room. Either way, Abbott need to find a way to consign them to history before managers start to use them as a motivational technique.

Monday, 15 November 2010

We Need to Talk About Gary

Carlisle United’s Gary Madine is amongst the top scorers in League One, watched every week by a throng of Premier League and Championship scouts he is finally beginning to fulfil the reputation earmarked for him by the Cumbrians’ hierarchy. But this time last year the outlook wasn’t so great – Madine was out of form, out of favour and constantly in trouble with the police, culminating in an arrest for drunkenly assaulting a club fan in a pub 100 yards from Brunton Park. On Tuesday last week he was found guilty of common assault, sentenced to 250 hours community service and banned from all Carlisle pubs. It seems an opportune point to assess what drove a talented young footballer to almost blow it spectacularly and why has he turned the corner in such emphatic style.

I first heard about Gary Madine in an interview with CUFC’s normally taciturn Head of Youth Eric Kinder. The vim in his descriptions of a greenhorn Madine’s turns for the club u18s and reserves were topped only by his candid descriptions of playing alongside a young Michael Holding in the Lancashire League in the 1970s. Club manager John Ward soon began to brag about Madine being the next great homegrown United player to follow in the footsteps of England B international Paul Murray, human slingshot Rory Delap and, best of all, the unfulfilled genius that was Matt Jansen. After a few trips away with the first team Madine was tied to a long contract and when the future seemed set fair.

But Madine failed to live up to expectations. In his early outings his gangly stature and natural timidity made him look like a baby giraffe trapped in the headlights. He also looked about 6 stone wet through. In short he was far from ready to challenge the settled forward line of Danny Graham, Scott Dobie and Joe Garner which shot the Blues to play-off glory in the 2007-8 season. It was shortly after this point that rumblings about Madine’s private life began to appear – he liked a drink and a scrap they said, just another big time charlie at a small town club.

It’d be easy to say that this is the root of Madine’s problem, too easy perhaps. But his journey from the streets of Birtley in County Durham to league scorer versus Yeovil hardly mirrored those of Wayne Rooney from Croxteth to Old Trafford via a debut at 16 for England. Whilst much was expected of Madine he was being baby sat into the team with little or no expectation and his early misdemeanours and burgeoning reputation as a regular in Carlisle nitespots paled into comparison with those of his equivalents at Premier League clubs.

The 2008/9 season saw Madine’s burnished reputation begin to fade. Barely able to make the bench due to manager Ward’s preference for a 4-5-1 set up he found himself again behind Graham and Dobie in the pecking order but also squeezed by the unlikely duo of ex-Morecambe man Danny Carlton and returning favourite Michael Bridges. Ward departed after an appalling run of 1 point in 11 games and caretaker manager Greg Abbott used every tool in his kit to resurrect the season – every tool but Gary Madine who was sent for an unsuccessful loan spell at League 2 Rochdale.

At the beginning of the 2009/10 season Madine was charged by police for public order offences and it appeared that Abbott (by now installed as manager on a permanent basis) had washed his hands of the former prodigal son. Those who saw Madine at this time didn’t argue with his judgement – at 6’4” he never won a header and his hold up play left a lot to be desired. Frustratingly the departed Danny Graham had left a line leader shaped hole up front which was papered over by the lightweight Dobie and a converted winger – Joe Anyinsah. Carlisle were to try Vincent Pericard, Darryl Duffy, Jason Price and Stoke loanee Ben Marshall in that gap over the course of the season but there was little room for their own errant beanpole.

Madine instead suffered the ultimate ignominy – he was, quite literally, sent to Coventry. He failed to score in his 9 substitute appearances and was variously called ‘one of the worst players to pull on a Coventry shirt’ and ‘a complete waste of space’ on Sky Blues fansites. His loan expired Madine returned to Brunton Park and, despite rumours that the club were trying everything in their might to palm him off, he stayed there throughout January after Chris Coleman’s sacking by Coventry chairman Ray Ranson.

Hot on the heels of the transfer rumours came news of a change in attitude from Madine. His spell at Coventry had made him realise what he could do. With Carlisle floating around in midtable this was surely time for Abbott to roll the dice? He thought not, instead plumping for Duffy in a 4-5-1 one set up and palming Madine off to League 2 Chesterfield. Four games and no goals later and he returned to his home in a club owned house next to Brunton Park for treatment on a groin injury. On 27 February 2010 Carlisle beat Gillingham 2-0 at home with Madine watching from the stands. He spent that night in the Beehive pub with team mate Gavin Rothery and, after being asked to leave by the landlady he helped himself to another drink before punching United fan Brian Mounsey who had tried to escort him off the premises.

Madine the pantomime villain had returned. Fans called for the club to cut ties with the recidivist striker, to let justice wreak its revenge and to ‘nail his bollocks to the Warwick Road End crossbar’. The club, who just a month earlier had been seemingly desperate to offload him, wrong footed everyone by doing the exact opposite and hugging him tight.

Then fate intervened. The Cumbrians went into the biggest game of the season – the JPT Final at Wembley – in the midst of an injury crisis. Madine appeared from the bench and rose to head an excellent consolation. The injuries prevailing he maintained a run in the team and ended the season with 5 goals. He has started this season as the club’s first choice number 9 and his long trailed talent is finally bearing front. This season’s Madine is a snarling, malevolent presence, winning every header, showing excellent awareness and, crucially, scoring goals.

This upturn in fortune, and the associated treatment by the club, makes you wonder if the tale of Gary Madine was merely another example of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks earning too much money, too soon and failing to handle the weight of expectation.

In his excellent book ‘What Sport Tells Us About Life’ the former Test cricketer Ed Smith suggests there are hidden causes behind all sporting mistakes. Zinedine Zidane’s infamous World Cup final headbutt on Marco Materazzi was not, says Smith, the product of a filthy joke about his Mum but a response to frustration bottled up from a fluffed last minute header against the Italian bar with the goal at his mercy.

But what does that say about Madine, the jilted prodigal son with an insatiable appetite for Stella Artois and a late night scrap? Just another stupid kid with a big head? Or a player poorly handled – who couldn’t cope with the pressure of expectation, of being the club’s next paycheque and whose will was broken by constantly being left at the bottom of the pile and repeatedly told to buck up. People queue up now to say his spell at Coventry made him but few stop to wonder if it was that spell at Chesterfield which almost broke him.

But who saved him? It’s tempting to plump poetically for Brian Mounsey or Judge Paul Batty QC who spared the reformed striker jail last week. It could be Ian Harte whose silver salver of a left boot served up Madine his Wembley route to redemption or Chris Coleman for offering him the taste of the high life. But the answer, ironically, is that this story’s Good Samaritans strode from an unlikely corner – Greg Abbott and Carlisle United whose late realisation of how to handle their enfant terrible has transformed him into the lower leagues’ most coveted hitman. Abbott’s team is swiftly becoming the chosen crèche of the Premier League’s elite managers with Stoke, Man United and Arsenal all posting their youngsters in the current Cumbrians starting XI. It is a record of which he can be rightly proud but deep down he’s surely proudest of his own – for it’s his testing, and at times ill-thought, handling of Madine which is proving vital for that team’s current lofty outpost.

Thursday, 11 November 2010


I've taken recently to reading a lot of online football blogs. The quality and breadth of knowledge is quite astonishing. It's made a pub braggand like myself wonder if I could match it.

For the time being this is my attempt to do so, though in time I hope to introduce a few different voices to contribute who have their own views and opinions. My own blogs may focus too tightly through the prism of Carlisle United to garner sufficient mainstream interest!