Monday, 12 December 2011

CUFC's Season So Far

I was recently asked by the 'Scunthorpe Telegraph' to provide a Carlisle United Fan's View ahead of last Saturday's game. I felt the outcome represented a nice summary of the season so asked to reproduce it here. Thanks very much to Sports Editor Chris Sumpter for agreeing - the questions are all his work!

The Cumbrians have spent the past few seasons hovering just outside of the play-offs. Will this be the year they break into the top six? Why?

No. I think we remain one or two players and a couple of options short of being in the top six. I think we've made huge strides on from last year; the side is less porous, has more guile and we're scoring more goals. Unfortunately, all the contenders have all this and more in spades.
Realistically, looking at the current top five, I can't see that being much different come the end of the season. And so it shouldn't be given the amount of spare change swilling round in the coffers of Charlton, Huddersfield, MK Dons and the two Sheffield clubs. To put it in some kind of perspective - Huddersfield signed Jon Parkin and Alex Bruce on deadline day; proven Championship quality players brought in as short term injury cover.  Carlisle signed Chris Chantler, an untried Manchester City greenhorn who our manager openly admits is too small for League One at the moment. How do you compete with that?
At the start of the season I was optimistic that we could have crept in - we played excellently in pre-season against bigger clubs, but even then it needed one of those 'big 5' to slip up I thought. There's always one unfancied team who storms the top 6, Bournemouth last year for instance. I wondered if it might be Carlisle but I think we'll be a bit short - particularly once injuries and suspensions take their toll. Notts County and Brentford look to have a bit too much quality for us and a couple of other sides are well poised for a late surge.
The last couple of years seem to have seen them become an established mid-table third tier team. Can they realistically, go much further?
I hope so. As I've suggested in the first answer I don't think we're far off. That said, I think we'd need a fair wind and our fair share of luck to end up in the play-offs or even the automatic promotion places. My fear is if we don't make it this year.  There are a few key players out of contract at the end of the season - Lubo Michalik, Frankie Simek and James Berrett particularly could all be 'punts' for Championship sides and would all be awkward to replace. Our two forwards Rory Loy and Lee Miller are both, I am told, attracting covetous glances too, though we'd be due a fee for either.  Take those five away and we're facing an absolute rebuild and we haven't done so well when that's been needed. 
The trouble for us is that we really do live on the breadline. Our owners are all successful in the business world and able to squeeze the monetary pips as far as they'll go but we have a dilapidated stadium and little disposable income; they could take a punt and on two big name players on the off chance we smash the second half of the season but it'd be a huge gamble and could leave us in financial hock - unlikely with these guys in charge and probably rightly so.
I think next season, with two or three of the aforementioned 'big 5' out of the way and the potential break up of Sheffield United's multi-millionaire squad if they stay down, could be the best chance for teams like us (and Scunthorpe). That, of course, needs us to maintain the side we have and build on it a little. That will no doubt need a performance which takes us close to the top 6 - luck in other words.
Looking at their record during the first half of games, it would appear they seem to be slow starters. Is that a fair observation?
Yeah, I think it is.  Last season we had a reputation for starting games incredibly tightly but in those matches I’ve been to this season we’ve been a bit more lackadaisical. At Charlton and Chesterfield for instance we were two nil down inside twenty minutes.  You look at those and think ‘well, glad I’ve made the trip today’.
I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to it to be honest – though if memory serves me we didn’t score many early goals last year either. One suggestion may be that we like to stroke it about a bit and get into the tempo of the game (within reason of course – it isn’t exactly Total Voetball) and there are one or two in the team – particularly Berrett and McGovern who do take a bit of time to warm up.
At the start of the season they were flying on their travels, so why have things seemingly stuttered in the last couple of months?
Forgive my insolence but I’m afraid I disagree with you here. Our away league form is won four, drawn three, lost three. Two of those losses were at Charlton and Sheffield United. I don’t know what the form is like across the league but I’d venture that, across the season, that isn’t far off promotion ‘away’ form. I think the figures are put askew somewhat by three away losses in the cup – one of which was a last minute JPT fall after we’d had two men sent off. If anything, I’m more confident than I can remember of us ‘doing a job’ away from home.
If anything I think our home form is the real problem – though we’re unbeaten in five straight home games we started appallingly. I think there’s a good reason for this. As I’ve said we play a passing game, possession football, and look to hit people on the break with some pace from Loy and Noble or trickery from McGovern – that’s a lot easier to do away from home. When we’re at home teams have looked to absorb our midfield superiority and score at set pieces; too often a failing this season. There are signs of improvement in our home form but we lack that ‘killer player’, someone like a Johnnie Jackson, a Gary Roberts or Ched Evans who can win tight games with a moment of divine inspiration.
Greg Abbott has been given time to build a squad at Carlisle. How key has this been to their progress?
That depends who you ask. There’s a vociferous corner of our support who have never warmed to Greg – he can be a bit brusque and the football in the early period was, to put it mildly, ‘functional’. But I think time has been kind to him and he’s been able to improve the squad year on year.  There still remains a somewhat childish streak in some fans who publically call for his head after every defeat – Saturday’s FA Cup loss not excepted.  There was an internet trope over the summer suggesting that Jonathan Trott got blamed for every mistake in English cricket for no real reason; the same is often true of Abbott. What? Charlton fielded five ‘reserves’ who’d walk into most League One first teams? Greg’s fault!
Personally I think the time afforded has been sensible and strong willed. I’m as vociferous a supporter of the current regime as there is but even my resolve would have been tested at times in the last couple of years – including a mucky spell toward the start of the season when we couldn’t buy a goal. I think his noted ‘eye for a player’ has saved him ultimately. But, of course, the naysayers will always dwell on the duffers.
The result is a really decent side; a mix of youth and experience. This is a Carlisle team which could legitimately field a back four of internationals, chock full of scrap heap buys like Berrett and Loy who’ve turned into decent players. A lot of the credit for that has to go down to Greg and to the board. Go back to the dark days when your old boy Cleveland Taylor won player of the year? No thanks.
Lee Miller spent the second half of last season on loan with the Iron, but struggled for goals. Not so with the Cumbrians, how big an impact has he made at Carlisle?
Huge, almost immeasurable. When he signed the same folk I’ve mentioned in the previous answer were up in arms – ‘this is another Richard Offiong!’; ‘when is Abbott going to sign a proper goalscorer?’. A few others, myself included, looked at the stats from Middlesbrough and yourselves and jumped to conclusions too – bad egg, poor attitude, doesn’t score goals.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. In his first game at Orient his class was evident – his hold up play and lay offs are absolutely sublime and he immediately gave me that element of penalty box instinct we’ve missed since Danny Graham left; not even Gary Madine could sniff out a goal like Miller.
He is absolutely vital to our formation working – giving time for the ongalloping Loy, Noble and Madden and the cultured skills of Berrett and McGovern. He also seems to be central to a blossoming team spirit – in the centre of daffy goal celebrations and a good influence on his younger partners. There’s one word for what we’d be if Miller got injured and I probably can’t use it in a family publication like this one.
How does this season’s division compare to the standard of the past few years?
Much, much higher – even from last year.  As I’ve said already, you look at that top five and probably add in Brentford and Notts County who both spent wisely and handsomely in the summer and outside that can’t see where the ‘surprise’ is coming from.  There doesn’t seem to be room for a Bournemouth or Rochdale this season.
Last year I thought Brighton were head and shoulders above the others.  Having seen Charlton I think they’re as good; though less aesthetically pleasing. But I think Huddersfield, MK Dons and Sheffield United are the tiniest margin behind.
When Carlisle finished in the play-offs in 2008 we were, to my mind at least, the best side in the league if you except Leeds.  We should have won the division but a combination of negative tactics, poor signings (Scott Dobie over Grant Holt, Evan Horwood in at left back) and Joe Garner’s injury meant we bottled it. Danny Graham and Keiren Westwood from that side are Premier League regulars and two or three others turn out every week in the Championship -  I think our current team is as good, if not better, than that one and doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of promotion.
Where will Saturday's game be won or lost?
In our defence. Looking through the stats it seems that both Dagnall and Grant have been in decent goalscoring form. They’re also both (if memory serves me right) small, nippy players – exactly the type that the Slovakian giant Mr Michalik and the stylish but pensive Peter Murphy hate.  Matt Robson remains a curate’s egg at left back – he converted last year and depending on the day can look like Ashley Cole or Ali Dia – certainly one to keep an eye on.
I do feel like we could nick a goal or two.  I think our midfield perhaps offers a little more creatively than the Iron’s and it’ll be interesting to see how one of our own, Paul Reid, stands up to the challenges posed by Miller and Loy.  Look out for Paddy Madden off the bench – though yet to net for us he had a great record in the League of Ireland and has pace to burn and excellent awareness.  He looked set to play a huge part before a pre-season injury but is now back and champing at the bit.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Blue in Exile - Football, Depression and Me

As football fans we’re all familiar with heart stopping moments; the gulp as Ryan Lowe’s shot zipped past Adam Collin’s post in the Sheffield Wednesday game, the sinking feeling as you walk away vanquished a losing finalist, the sunken shoulders of let down from a full back fresh from a two footed lunge.  Even still, ‘stop all the clocks’ moments, to borrow the phrase from WH Auden’s famous, forlorn poem ‘Funeral Blues’, are rare. Sadly, this Sunday saw one of them.

The passing of Gary Speed over the weekend was that rare thing in football; an incident that bonded fans of all clubs in common tragedy, a genuinely communal outpouring of grief and wonderment. Only once in my time following the game have I seen a similarly universal wave of good will and bonhomie upon the death of a lost fellow – that that man was the great Sir Bobby Robson perhaps touches on the level of standing in which Speed was held by his peers.

My friends and family will be quick to tell you that I’m a sentimental soul, but even I was shocked by my own personal reaction to the news.  The numbness I felt will linger for a long while, the wandering of my mind to his memory as I sought idle distraction continues to play on me.  I’ve mentioned here before that I followed Leeds United as a youngster – my first football shirt bore the legend ‘Speed 11’, the name of my favourite player printed across the back at a long forgotten sports shop at the foot of Ramsay Brow in Workington.  As the spontaneous, heartfelt reaction of the collected Swansea and Villa fans – breaking the billed minute’s silence – I had to leave the room to hide the bubbling over of my own emotions.

Many of you will have seen the Saturday morning tweets of Stan Collymore which were lent a spooky prescience by the events of Sunday.  For those of you who missed them they detailed the reasons for Stan’s unusually long absence from Twitter – namely the return of a depression which blighted his playing career and had again led to the turning upside down of a life; sleepless nights, lethargy and lack of self awareness. 

Those who haven’t been touched by the illness often struggle to comprehend depression and those who have it usually fail to describe it with sufficient erudition.  As someone whose been there myself I’d urge you all to place any prejudices to one side and seek them out; the ‘black dog’ described by Stan was eerily familiar.  If you who consider what you see familiar, or Speed’s actions selfish, I’d ask you to visit – better understanding is the greatest treatment for this awful condition.

Bookending the weekend came the news that Ronald Reng’s outstanding biography of the German goalkeeper Robert Enke - who, like Speed, was moved to take his own life - had scooped this year’s William Hill Sports Book Award. Returning to my earlier point it seems facile, but appropriate, to suggest that it now feels like core reading for those engaged with sport.

Enke’s story, that of Collymore and perhaps most chillingly of the ‘professional’s professional’ Speed, must also cause a pause for thought next time we raise a voice to question the sight of an underpaid linesman or call to task the ball skills of a blue shirted hero – of this, to again steal from Auden, ‘nothing now can ever come to any good’. Could it ever?

This weekend should remind us that, whatever Bill Shankly may have said, some things are far more sacred than football.