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!