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…