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Andrew Bennett reporting from the Habbin ...
It was a pleasure to welcome Roy McFarland back to the Abbey Stadium today, evoking memories of that great United promotion side of 1998-99, and some of his anecdotes and observations afterwards in ‘The Dressing Room’ had to be heard to be believed. Unfortunately the preceding 90 minutes of football brought to mind a rather less enjoyable day of Uncle Roy’s reign, specifically 28th December 1999, when Cardiff City came to the Abbey missing six regulars due to a flu virus.
The visitors were reduced to 10 men just before the end of the first half when Russell Perrett received a second yellow card, then former U’s man Craig Middleton joined him in the early bath after 63 minutes for similar indiscretions. United laid siege to the Welshmen’s goal and 15 minutes from time they were reduced to eight men when Lee Phillips was dismissed for handling John Taylor’s goalbound shot. The ever-dependable Martin Butler stepped up to take the penalty...and saw his feeble effort comfortably saved.
The last quarter of an hour was like Persians versus Spartans, although puzzlingly United kept their entire back four on the pitch, but through profligate finishing and desperate defending the match remained resolutely goalless until the deeply frustrating end. And to add insult to injury, Marvin the Moose was ordered off for making a gesture towards the Cardiff supporters, and a United programme seller was reprimanded for carrying an inflatable sheep.
I thought it best not to mention any of this to Roy. He had enough on his plate at the time, dealing with the likes of Steve Guinan, Neil Mackenzie and Scott Eustace (all later sacked by the club) and a board of directors which was on the verge of driving the club off the edge of a financial cliff. Happy days.
Cardiff’s team that day was not an especially dirty one, more clumsy really, in stark contrast to today’s opponents, also a club in blue beginning with ‘Car,’ which was probably the most violent, cynical and plain dishonest seen at the Abbey this season. Although Morecambe are coming on Tuesday night.
Like Carlisle, the U’s were still clinging on to their hopes of making the playoffs, although Shaun Derry’s target of four wins from five looked ambitious given that United have only won three League games in a row once this season and won two consecutive matches just twice more. But hey, if Leicester can win the Premier League and Peterborough can attain mid-table mediocrity…
United line-up: Norris; Furlong, Legge, Coulson, Dunk; Williamson, Berry, Dunne, Ledson, Clark; Spencer
On the bench: Beasant, Omozusi, Roberts, O’Neill, Williams, Ismail, Simpson
Derry selected an unchanged starting XI from that which won at Newport last week, with Harrison Dunk filling in for the injured Ryan Haynes at left-back behind a fluid five-man midfield in which Ben Williamson had licence to roam upfield in support of Jimmy Spencer.
It was an attritional contest from the start and the tackles were soon flying in from the visitors after Spencer had an early shot blocked, Hallam Hope bringing down Darnell Furlong. The next challenge was even worse as centre-forward Charlie Wyke poleaxed Leon Legge with what looked like an elbow on 8, and he was lucky to only receive a yellow card for his marker’s considerable pains, but big Leon is made of stern stuff and continued after treatment, having a header from a corner blocked three minutes later. Wyke continued to foul and complain to the referee as if he had drawn himself in the sweepstake for first sending-off, but he had cause to moan when Legge brought him down on the quarter hour to incur a reciprocal yellow card.
Hope was soon kicking Furlong down the wing again but he went too far on 23 with a ghastly foot-up sliding tackle-cum-assault on the United right-back and deserved the instant red card he was shown, although for some reason he stayed on the pitch to plead with the man in black instead of just walking off, as if he really believed that Mr Toner would say “Oh…all right then, as you asked so nicely, we’ll just forget about that silly old card, eh? And don’t be a naughty boy again!”
United continued to press, the lively Max Clark firing a shot wide, but an awful mix-up on the half-hour between Legge and James Dunne sent Jack Stacey through on goal; however, he dragged his shot wide of the far post when he really should have done better. After that the U’s resumed their pressure, Williamson and Ryan Ledson both having shots blocked, then Dunne burst through as he did last week but lifted his shot over the top.
The U’s were all build-up and no finish. Legge headed a corner down on 40 which was prodded home by Williamson, only to be foiled by the offside flag, then Spencer essayed a curler which flew just wide of the far post. As half-time approached, the visitors’ Michael Raynes inexplicably collapsed clutching his face after heading the ball and was eventually replaced by Derek Asamoah, a chippy little character whose first action was to try to pick a fight with Clark then complain to the ref.
Added time amounted to some six minutes due to stoppages and United kept going forward, but Spencer was off-target with a header from a free-kick, then Josh Coulson did the same from a corner, and a fractious and fractured first half finished unfulfilled.
Macauley Gillesphey replaced Stacey for Carlisle after the interval, while for United, Clark dropped to left-back to allow Harrison Dunk to take a more advanced position. The pattern of the match remained unchanged, though, with the visitors using up as much time as they possibly could whenever the opportunity arose. A rare Carlisle shot on 57, their first on target from Luke Joyce, drew a decent save from Will Norris, then Legge went down with an injury just before the hour; after some treatment the stretcher bearers came on, only to be waved aside by the big man as he got to his feet to cheers from his adoring public, but he was unable to continue and was replaced by Mark Roberts.
Soon afterwards Spencer took advantage of some hesitancy in the opposition rearguard to surge through the middle on goal, but he took one touch too many when he should have shot earlier and his shot was blocked away by a lunging defender. Derry made a positive change on 65, introducing Zeli Ismail for Dunne, but Carlisle continued to sit back and defend robustly. Asamoah then collapsed to the floor for no apparent reason but the ref allowed play to continue as Dunk beat his man and advanced into the box, but he failed to pick out a colleague with a cross (a common complaint for all United players today) and play was then stopped to howls of protest from the amber faithful.
Mr Toner then staged an uncontested drop ball with a Carlisle player, who promptly hoofed it downfield so that it bounced out of play deep into the United half, to more displeasure from the amber hordes. When did they introduce a rule outlawing contested drop balls? They are rarer than an Aston Villa player who seems to give a monkey’s.
Danny Grainger was next into the book on 69 for a foul on Furlong, followed three minutes later by team-mate Tom Miller for some pathetically transparent timewasting, deliberately missing the ball that was throw to him by a ballboy at a throw-in. Then it was Furlong’s turn for a card for an unsubtle shove in the back on Wyke, presenting the visitors with a free-kick 25 yards out. Grainger’s effort cannoned off the wall into the air and in the ensuing chaos it ran to Asamoah about three yards out who somehow managed to stab it over the bar.
It was becoming increasingly apparent that neither team would score a goal if they played until midnight. Robbie Simpson replaced Spencer on 77 and after some more falling-over-then-getting-up-again theatrics Wyke was withdrawn in favour of Antony Sweeney. Simpson came close to scoring with his first touch when Roberts nodded a free-kick down into his path and his angled shot was deflected wide for a corner. Two Carlisle defenders stayed down to delay proceedings but soon had to get up when it was apparent that there was nothing wrong with them.
A couple of corners ensued as the U’s tried to force a winner, then Ismail’s cross evaded the heads in the middle and Luke Berry stretched to meet it on the volley but could not keep it down. Mark Ellis became the next cardee on 83 for a foul on Williamson, and three minutes later United came their nearest to scoring yet, Berry meeting Clark’s corner with a towering header that drew a fine reaction block from keeper Mark Gillespie.
Still the hosts pushed and probed, and as they entered five minutes’ added time Gillespie’s unconvincing punch was lofted back to the far post where Simpson was arriving, but Sweeney somehow blocked his shot off the line and it rebounded off the United man for a goal-kick. Ledson and Ismail then had shots hacked away and deep into stoppage time Simpson found himself with the goal at his mercy only to be flagged offside. Inexplicably, Ellis then blasted the ball out of the ground and duly received a second booking and a red card for more ridiculously blatant timewasting.
It was too late to benefit United, though, and the match dribbled to an unsatisfactory and frustrating goalless draw. Carlisle had been the worst sort of opposition – niggly, cynical, confrontational – but the U’s could have only themselves to blame for their lack of invention and quality in the final third. It was remarkable how often players under no pressure with time to measure crosses would send them sailing out of play or falling short in playing conditions that were not difficult. The team also lacks a dominant focus in the box – Barry Corr – who would surely have made so much more impact than the current powder-puff goal “threat.” In its last ten games it has failed to score four times and scored just once in five other matches, and that is not the goalscoring record of a team chasing promotion. And they aren’t too great at grinding out Leicester-style 1-0s either, with the odd exception.
But while it is mathematically possible, the mantra “We can do it!” will continue to be dutifully recited, even though it is more in hope than expectation. Unfortunately with current injuries the squad is looking decidedly thin on options. Oh for Roy Mac’s goal machine of 1999, when Martin Butler, John Taylor and Trevor Benjamin all scored in double figures and were backed up by the likes of Paul Wanless and Alex Russell. That is the sort of quality that gets you promoted, and I just don’t see it in this side. Maybe next season.
United have now kept two consecutive clean sheets for only the second time this season. The first was back in September when they drew at Hartlepool and beat Stevenage 1-0 at the Abbey. They achieved the same feat just twice last season in League games, while in their last season in the Conference their longest run of blanks extended to six matches.
There has been a total of nine red cards in United’s matches this season, three for the U’s and six for the opposition. All were awarded at the Abbey except for Chris Dunn’s at Wycombe Wanderers last September.
Carlisle have now had a total of four players sent off against Cambridge United over the years, compared to none for the U’s.
The last team to have had two men dismissed against the U’s was St Albans City in the FA Trophy in December 2013; the last time it happened in a league game was to FC Halifax in their 5-1 opening weekend defeat at the Abbey in the same season.
Only twice has the opposition had three men sent off against United. The first was Cardiff City in December 1999, in a goalless draw at the Abbey as mentioned above; the second was Exeter City in their 2-1 home defeat by the U’s in November 2002.
There have been 10 other occasions on which the opposing team has had two players dismissed against the U’s. The teams were: Burnley (1988), Reading (League Cup, 1991), Cardiff (1995), Leyton Orient (1996), Torquay (1998), Chester (1998), Bury (2000), Mansfield (2003), Histon (FA Trophy, 2008) and Boreham Wood (FA Trophy, 2011).
United have never had three players sent off in one match. They have had two dismissed seven times. The first pair were Colin Meldrum and Peter Leggett in a 1-0 win at Lincoln in October 1970, and they were followed by: Colin Calderwood and Derrick Christie (at Burnley, November 1979), Mike Bennett and Andy Beattie (at Crystal Palace, April 1984), Chris Leadbitter and Dion Dublin (on a Swedish tour in Eskilstuna, July 1992), Paul Wanless and Martin Butler (at Stevenage in the FA Cup, December 1997), Terry Fleming and Luke Guttridge (at Lincoln, December 2002) and Paul Carden and Leo Fortune-West at Histon in the FA Trophy, January 2008. You will note that all were away games.
Norris 7. Did not have a lot to do, but was sharp and alert when needed.
Furlong 8. Put in a lively shift with some good overlapping in support of the attack.
Legge 8. Resisted all of the Carlisle thugs’ provocation until forced off, inevitably, by injury.
Coulson 7. Dealt with everything that came his way.
Dunk 7. Solid at left-back in the first half and useful further forward in the second, although all of his crosses seemed to be aimed at areas rather than specific colleagues.
Berry 7. Busy but not at his best.
Dunne 7. Quietly solid.
Ledson 8. Always involved in the action.
Clark 8. Livewire improving with every game.
Williamson 6. Still seems lost and wasted in a wide role.
Spencer 7. Led the line reasonably well, but does not have the authority or goalscoring ability of a Barry Corr.
Roberts 6. One incident summed up his season: a brilliant interception to foil a potential Carlisle breakaway, following which he passed the ball straight to an opponent.
Ismail 6. A handful of decent runs and crosses, but did not really scream ‘pick me!’
Simpson 7. Almost scored with his first touch and was unlucky later to be denied by a defender on the goal line.
It was an afternoon of frustration for the U’s as they failed to defeat Carlisle’s team of thugs, cheats and time-wasters despite the latter’s two deserved red cards which could have been more. United’s inability to create and convert chances despite enjoying plenty of possession demonstrated why they are not good enough to make the playoffs this season.
Man of the Match
Max Clark. Always industrious and in the thick of the action whether playing centrally, wide or at left-back.
Toner 6. His two red cards could have been three or four and he should have clamped down much earlier on Carlisle’s playacting and timewasting.
Soundtrack of the Day
Laura Gibson “Not Harmless”