Andrew Bennett finding fine lines at the (Cambs Glass) Abbey:
If the Olympics have shown us anything, it is that there is a fine line between winning and losing, success and failure. Just look at the last 24 hours, for example. Poor old Lutalo Muhammad was ahead in the Taekwando final with one second to go and was probably thinking about his gold medal when his opponent snatched it away with some nifty footwork (interesting fact: Taekwando is Korean for ‘Hokey Cokey Head Kick’). The British women’s hockey team took a hell of a pounding from the Dutch in the third quarter but hit back to level and win gold on penalties; and wouldn’t football be improved by an eight-second shootout contest from which it would be possible to gain a penalty kick if the taker was fouled? And today we had Tom Daley swinging from a brilliant, record-breaking first round in the diving to a dismal, fumbling last in the semi-final, which he was at a loss to explain.
Speaking of vertiginous drops in form, the pre-season feelgood factor at the Abbey has swiftly been replaced by anxiety and frustration as results and performances have greatly disappointed while key players remain absent with little or no information as to when we may expect to see them again.
Less than two years ago United thrashed a poor Carlisle side 5-0 in their third home game back in the Football League. Now the Cumbrians have stabilised and improved, with an unbeaten start to 2016-17, while the U’s are wondering where their next win will come from as they field a team which looks markedly weaker than last season’s eleven. Carlisle’s team today included Bermudan international Reggie Lambe, who played a couple of times for the U’s as a pre-season trialist in 2011 at Bury Town and Bedford after his release from Ipswich but failed to win a deal at the Abbey, moving on to Canada and then Sweden before returning to England with Mansfield three years later.
United line-up: Norris; Long, Legge, Coulson, Taylor; Dunne; Mingoia, Elito, Berry, Gosling; Pigott
On the bench: Gregory, Adams, Roberts, Keane, Clark, Newton, Williamson
After last Saturday’s pathetic non-performance at Colchester, Shaun Derry’s team selection at Doncaster on Tuesday had a desperate whiff of change for change’s sake about it, and he made four more alterations today, replacing Max Clark, Keith Keane, Ben Williamson and the unwell Tom Dallison with Greg Taylor, new loan signing Jake Gosling, Joe Pigott and Leon Legge, and lining them up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, James Dunne protecting the back four and Pigott all alone up front, not the most positive team selection for a home game against what can only be described as middling opposition.
The weather was as changeable as the manager’s tactics, ranging from cloudy and cool to warm sunshine to a brief but intense shower, all the while with a stiff breeze whipping down the pitch, and a creditable 405 away fans trekked the length of the country to adorn the South Stand.
There was a positive start to the afternoon’s proceedings when Jez George introduced Shaun Whiter and Joey Abbs onto the pitch in advance of their benefit day at the Abbey in October, and they were afforded the rousing welcome they deserved.
The match was keenly contested from the off, and United gained the early lead they needed on 7: Piero Mingoia arrowed an outswinging corner over from the right, and Legge soared over everyone to thump home a flying header with all the power of Laura Trott’s leg muscles. 1-0.
The hosts could have doubled their lead inside three minutes. Joe Pigott embarked on a run into the box and was clearly having his shirt tugged by Michael Raynes, but ref Huxtable played the advantage and Pigott pulled the ball back to Luke Berry, unmarked on the edge of the box, but with the entire goal to aim at, he blazed disappointingly over the bar.
Carlisle, much more of a footballing team than the direct-line stormtroopers of yore, began to play their way back into the game, gaining four corners in quick succession with Danny Grainger seeing a shot blocked, while United failed to build on their early advantage; once again Pigott was an isolated figure up front, while the team’s passing and movement left something to be desired all too often.
Medy Elito was first into the book on 22 for a clumsily mistimed tackle on Macaulay Gillesphey, not for the first time this season. When it comes to tackling he appears to be League Two’s answer to Paul Scholes, only without the latter’s vision, range of passing, ball control or shooting ability. Or ginger hair.
Even worse, Carlisle equalised from the ensuing free-kick. Gillesphey swung it diagonally into a packed box from the left hand side of halfway, it seemed to be sailing over everyone’s heads and Will Norris confidently shouted that it was going safe, only to be proved horribly wrong when Jason Kennedy popped up beyond the far post to send an acutely angled header into the net off the static Norris’ hands. Oh dear: 1-1.
Now the visitors really took the game to the U’s, aided by the wind at their backs, and United began to struggle, particularly down the flanks where full-backs Long and Taylor were offered little assistance by wide men Mingoia and Gosling. Luke Joyce had a header from a corner blocked on the half hour, then Mike Jones fired over, and Dunne was next to see yellow on 38 for a foul on Lambe.
Nicky Adams then had a header plucked from the air by Norris, but on 41 the match took another twist when Gosling crossed from the left and Grainger flattened Berry with a clumsy aerial challenge 15 yards out. Penalty, and Berry picked himself up to stroke it calmly down the middle as keeper Mark Gillespie dived to his left. 2-1.
It was a scarcely deserved lead, and Carlisle tried to hit straight back, Adams crossing for Jabo Ibehre to test Norris with a header, then another Ibehre effort was blocked and Tom Miller guided it goalwards, only for the keeper to intervene again. Berry was then clattered on halfway by Raynes, followed by Elito, only for the ref to unaccountably wave play on with both players down.
It was with some relief that United retired to the dressing room ahead despite a rather patchy performance, but at least they could draw some encouragement from the scoreline, knowing that a clean sheet in the second half would precipitate a first League win of the season. It all seemed so simple, as Lutalo Muhammad thought with one second to go.
Battle resumed with no changes made to either side, and Kennedy was Carlisle’s first bookee on 54 for a silly challenge on Norris when he was making a routine catch; he stayed down for a long time, attracting the administrations of his physio, but as with every optimist in such a position, he was just delaying the inevitable yellow card in the vain hope that the referee might forget or lose interest. They never learn.
As it turned out, Kennedy was genuinely injured and was soon replaced by Charlie Wyke, and wouldn’t you know it, the substitute scored the equaliser five minutes later. It was another poorly defended goal from United’s viewpoint, as Adams beat Mingoia to cross low from the left into the six-yard Corridor of Uncertainty, Long unaccountably left it and Wyke was presented with the easiest of tap-ins from close range. 2-2.
A couple of minutes later Ben Williamson was introduced in place of the ineffective Elito and United switched to 4-4-1-1, their fourth different formation in four games, Derry still reluctant to commit to having two out-and-out strikers on the field. Unfortunately the change had the effect of weakening United’s midfield, with Dunne pushed up into the middle four, and the visitors began to find gaps between the men in black and amber through which to push through balls as well as down the flanks.
Two more Carlisle corners were followed by a rather harsh booking for Berry for what looked like a decent challenge on Adams, but the resultant free-kick could not beat the wall. Back came the visitors, though, as they exposed United down the right again, Norris saving well from Wyke then Jones’ follow-up looking bound for the open net before Josh Coulson blocked heroically.
Derry made another positive substitution on 71, introducing Conor Newton for Dunne, and Williamson spooned an ambitious shot over the top from outside the box, then Gosling, looking increasingly dangerous, wriggled through and had his shot beaten away by Gillespie. Lambe then drew a save from Norris, and on 78 a thunderous daisycutter from Jones looked goalbound from the edge of the box but the unsighted Norris flung himself full length to his right to palm it away for another fine stop.
Soon afterwards Lambe went down with no-one near him, and the rest of the players took the opportunity while he was being treated to have a drinks break, leading to suspicions that Lambe was their designated diver, but he turned out to be genuinely injured and was replaced by Jamie Devitt.
Almost immediately United were carved apart again as Devitt ran onto a diagonal ball down the right channel and his shot was blocked well by Norris, the ball bounced around the area then Ibehre headed for goal, but onto the roof of the net. United responded with four corners in five minutes, but were unable to win anything in the air until at last Pigott nodded Mingoia’s cross over the top as he fell over backwards.
The visitors responded once again, Haynes’ header from a corner deflected wide on 88, and the game remained wide open to the last. Inside the four minutes’ added time United might even have won it, Pigott dribbling to the byline but having to wait an eternity for support to arrive, and with two colleagues to his left, his cross into the six-yard box was deflected away by a red-shirted boot.
Thus ended a breathlessly contested encounter, and although that first League win still evades United, at least they did not taste defeat this time, albeit they fell to the bottom of the table, a peculiar sight with the top two being a couple of the early favourites for relegation, Morecambe and Crawley.
It is clear, though, that there is a lot wrong with this team at the moment. To start at the back, Norris’ decision making is erratic, and the solidity of the centre-backs is undermined by the flakiness of the revolving door of full-backs, while the midfield is a mess, full of off-form, off-key players whose constant changing of formations and personnel has engendered a fundamental lack of cohesion and organisation, while Pigott (or Williamson) remains a lonely, isolated figure up front. No-one, it seems, is playing to their strengths, and they do not look particularly united personally either.
Five players from today’s starting line-up played in the last game of last season in which United finished so strongly: Norris, Legge, Coulson, Dunne and Berry. Of the rest, Sean Long is inferior to Darnell Furlong, Taylor is not as good as Harrison Dunk, Elito does not begin to compare to Ryan Ledson, and Pigott does not have the nous of Jimmy Spencer. Mingoia looks a better prospect than Zeli Ismail and it remains to be seen whether Gosling will turn out better than Williamson, but it is clear that this team is overall not as strong as the one that finished last season, while other clubs have strengthened and improved. It is early days, of course, but the club does not appear to have recruited very well. And how close are Dunk, Barry Corr and Adam McGurk to much-needed returns? We aren’t being told.
Even more concerning are Shaun Derry’s coded comments after the match, hinting at unrest within the club and that all is not well behind the scenes. The supporters are unhappy and critical, but at the end of the day all of us (well, most of us) really want him, and his players, to succeed. Unfortunately the team’s form has, with the notable exception of extra time against Sheffield Wednesday, been almost entirely poor, with its nadir at Colchester, and it is difficult to see where the points are going to come from with the current fit personnel.
It still comes down to fine lines, though. If United had somehow held onto their lead today, or Pigott had found a team-mate in the last minute, they would be out of the bottom two. One win, one moment, can change an entire outlook (albeit United’s problems appear to be deeper rooted at the moment). Just ask Lutalo Muhammad.
(It costs just 20 pounds to join CFU and your membership makes a difference) CFU.
CUFC Lottery supporting CRY click here www.play2winlottery.co.uk/bull-cry.html