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The Inside Line: Carlisle United (26/10/2013)

It’s Hallowe’en fancy dress at Brunton Park on Saturday as City make their longest trip of the season on the back of yet another defeat.  There was another Ashton Gate horror result on Tuesday night as for the first time the vocal minority of fans calling for Sean O’Driscoll to be relieved of his duties became a more significant number.  Two online ‘Sack Him or Back Him’ polls were split almost exactly 50/50 which, when you consider the recent record, actually bears a remarkable testament of faith by the half who remain in support, but the shadows of the Grim Reaper hang long over the BS3 area and if City are on the end of another fright night in Cumbria on Saturday, it could well sadly bode the end of this philosophical, thoughtful and well-intentioned coaches reign.

Seven months and 17 days have passed since three points were last witnessed by anyone, so it would be somewhat ironic and perhaps apt if what will inevitably be one of our smallest – but most dedicated – away followings of the season witness the ending of that abysmal record.

One of the my favourite, more outspoken but eloquent fans-of-other-clubs-I-follow-on-Twitter is Carlisle supporter John McGee, who also writes occasionally for top football league bloggers The Two Unfortunates.

Carlisle had a difficult start to the season, which culminated in Greg Abbott’s sacking last month.  Abbott was the third-longest serving manager in English football (which in itself tells a story as he was there less than five years!).  Was it a bit harsh to dispense of his services so early (after six games) in your view?
Ultimately, I think not. My own personal stance on Greg was always very favourable and I still think there’s an argument that he was a victim of his own success. His tenure has been amongst the most stable in the history of the club and he genuinely did take us forward. 

But it started to become apparent during last season that he was running out of ideas – he lacked the wit to change games and was constantly looking for easy blame horses; money, the fans, injuries. He also made some odd moves over the summer too – we were defensively inept for much of last season, and he signed a bunch of forwards.  That was rewarded by us conceding 5, 4 and 4 in our first three games. 

When your erstwhile gaffer cum city rival John Ward was at his most embattled point as our manager he famously told local radio that he ‘just (didn’t) know what to do any more’ Abbott never said that, but it certainly came across that he felt it.  For most fans his sacking felt more like putting a much loved pet out of its misery, rather than the ‘public drowning in a well’ it often is in this game.

There’s a constituency of fans who never liked him, and who feel his sacking was vindication of the fact they were always right about him.  It must have been tortuous for them, waiting 5 years to get their moment in the sun.

How have overall performances been and have they picked up since Graham Kavanagh was appointed? That was an impressive victory at MK Dons on Tuesday?
The facts suggest that Kavanagh’s impact has been huge – 2 points from 18 under Abbott, 13 from 18 under Kav.  We’ve also only conceded more than once in a single one of those games, so whatever he’s doing is clearly working.  I’m yet to see the newly minted ‘Kav United’ in the flesh but they seem to have been marked by greater discipline and much more emphasis on ‘playing the side in front of us’ than under any manager since Paul Simpson.  What’s been especially pleasing has been his ability to read the game and change our approach during it – that won’t surprise anyone who saw him play, but it’s particularly impressive for such a greenhorn manager operating at our level and with a small, limited squad.

MK Dons was a good case in point. Lee Miller’s been injured and we’ve been using our Scotland under 21 beanpole Mark Beck as a replacement with mixed results. Knowing MK like to pass from the back Kavanagh replaced Beck with the feisty, industrious Lewis Guy in a pacy front three. The upshot was that we wore them out and, despite poor possession stats, out-foxed them on the break. I don’t think Karl Robinson will be the last gaffer who Kav out-thinks this season.

What are the first impressions of Kavanagh, aside from getting himself sent off last weekend?
Very good.  I was initially wary of the appointment, feeling that Kavanagh always seemed happy to see Abbott as the fall guy in public and shirked responsibility.  It was less a ‘clean broom’ sentiment than ‘and take your bad egg with you’. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

His regime has been marked by changes in everything – I talked a little about his tactical rigour, but even tiny things like the pre-match warm ups have seen a new approach, he seems to be doing much more to bond the team in a social sense and he’s also much more visible.

His sending off illustrates part of that – he and no. 2 Davie Irons seem to be a fourth official’s worst nightmare, but fans like that, they want to see passion and engagement from their manager.  He’s also typically Irish in terms of media engagement – a loquacious rent-a-quote – and that too makes a nice change from Abbott.  Although I loved Abbott’s passion for the club, his interviews could be truculent and testy, even in the good times. Kavanagh seems much more willing and able to talk up the club, the players and the fans and to bring a degree of humility to his approach which has endeared him to many.

One final point is his personal cache – he’s a recent Premier League player of some repute and that opens doors.  Could Abbott pick up the phone to Gianfranco Zola to ask advice on a potential new signing?  Would he field a call from a World Cup runner-up ex-teammate desperate for a club? No to both.

What are the ambitions for the season? Are they limited to mid-table relaxation or are covetous eyes being placed on the play-off spots now?
I personally think we have a ‘top half capable’ squad, though I am on the optimistic side when it comes to our fanbase.  When I look at our bench now I no longer think ‘who the fuck is going to come on and change a game?’ and when I see an attacker heading to our box I don’t think ‘this time…’, I just don’t worry.  It’s been a while – I never even felt that two years ago when we finished 8th – and it’s a pretty swift transformation from that opening trio of games.

I’d be really pleased with a solid mid-table finish, I think it’d give us a good platform for next year and I get the impression that anything more would be ahead of schedule for Kavanagh too.  But who knows? Last year’s play-off winners got a huge run of injury luck and were driven over the line by a striker who couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a spade in Carlisle! It’s a funny old game, Saint.

Where do you start? Absurdly, his trial, and subsequent signing, split opinion. Admittedly, he’s been out of the game for a while, but he has a World Cup runnersup medal and a few years ago was named in the Premier League team of the year. Surely it’s one of those where you place aside prejudices based on, what, a couple of games on Sky and just think ‘wow, how on Earth have we gotten hold of him?’ 

Sadly, it’s something of an affliction amongst some of our fans. When Ian Harte played for us – Champions League semi-finalist and 74 cap Irish international Ian Harte – a small number thought he was crap. He scored 19 goals from centre half. Funny definition of crap.

I’m not worried about Chimbonda’s time at Market Drayton, his aborted move to Chicago Fire or his supposed mercenary past, I’m genuinely elated to have him at my club – anyone who thinks otherwise needs a serious word with themselves.
As for his performances to date, I got the following text from a mate after the MK game – ‘Our man Pascal – not fit yet, still adapting to the team, but absolutely pissing it already. Frightening.’

We once spent £300,000 on Lee Miller who is now your number 9 – how has he been for you and has he found his level in League One do you feel after spells in the Scottish Premier League and the second tier of English football??
Well firstly I’d suggest there isn’t much between the SPL and League One nowadays – with the obvious exception of Celtic.  As for Miller ‘finding his level’, I’d say perhaps.  What I do think is that he’s ‘found his club’ in Carlisle; he had opportunities to go back to a couple of the SPL’s bigger clubs, or to move to the Championship this summer, and he turned them down. He’s gone through a lot of personal trauma in his time at Brunton Park and I think has formed a real bond with the city and our fans – his three young lads are treated like celebrities in Cumbria, and I think they had a big role in him staying put!

As for his general contribution, it can’t be underestimated. Quite simply, he’s the best pure centre forward we’ve had in my time following the club.  Another of your ex-players, Michael Bridges, is the only player to better his personal impact on the team.  Under Abbott, Miller was the be all and end all of our playing style – he was our best defender, our best assister and our best goalscorer.  When he was injured we were, in short, crap.  He missed a few games at the start of this year and we were dreadful then too – his presence gives the team a real boon. He’s only just coming back to fitness, but may be available to start on Saturday.  We’ve actually been okay without him this time, but we’re unquestionably better with him.

Who are the current star performers for the Cumbrians?
As I’ve indicated, the Kavanagh era seems to have been defined so far by collective effort, rather than individual vim, but it’s worth name checking a couple of players.  Our young goalie Mark Gillespie is inexplicably still uncapped by England under 21s, who prefer Watford reserve Jonathan Bond over a lad who’s played 50 consecutive League One games.  In that time he’s started to look like something special.  Tim Krul played for us on loan at a similar stage of his career and I don’t think Mark’s far off being as good as he was back then. He’s already unquestionably our best academy graduate since the late 90s crop of Matt Jansen, Lee Peacock, Rory Delap and Scott Dobie. He still makes the odd mistake, but has started to recover in the style that all the best ‘keepers do.  Following our win over Notts last month Stu Brothers, who edits the ‘Black & White’ fanzine, and his mates suggested that they had collectively never seen a better goalkeeping performance by an opponent than Gillespie’s that day. I’ll take that.

The other standout has been David Amoo.  He’s an ex-Liverpool lad who has pace to burn but it looked like his career was drifting after he was released not once, but twice last season. Fans of both Preston and Tranmere couldn’t disguise their glee when we gave him a two year deal.  We couldn’t hide our dismay. Fifteen appearances, seven goals and minute after minute of terrorising wing play later and we’re all eating our words in open mouthed, gobsmacked fashion.

We haven’t won a league match since March 9th, 21 games which is a club record. We also can’t keep a clean sheet. Have we got any chance of ending either of those runs on Saturday at Brunton Park? What’s your match prediction?
Yes to both – we’ve got a bit of form for helping sides overcome hoodoos, so I’m sure we’ll do our best to oblige.  We’ve tightened up defensively, and we’re a decent counter-attacking threat, so the stat sheets might not give you a chance, but that doesn’t factor in the fickle nature of our football club.  We don’t really do front running, or being the favourite very well.

As for specifics, I have only one superstition in football and it’s that I don’t really share any hunches or predictions for fear of looking daft.  For someone so prone to spouting off and making a total arse of myself in print, that paradox often amuses people.

Many thanks to John for his superb answers, certainly one of the more interesting and informative sets of answers we'll see this season!

Not much left to say really, other than please, please, please come on City. I can't take much more of this.

The Exiled Robin

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  1. Great Blog. Very entertaining.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. hmm - Chimbonda - yes - but what are you paying him and what's the financial outlook for the club if more join a la Doncaster? I speak as a fan of a team that has Royston Drenthe in its ranks and I'm worried.


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