A short history of Carlisle United's most wanted
Carlisle United’s Gary Madine is amongst the top scorers in League One. Watched every week by a throng of Premier League and Championship scouts, Madine is finally beginning to fulfil the reputation earmarked for him by the Cumbrians’ hierarchy.
But this time last year the outlook wasn’t so great – Madine was out of form, out of favour and constantly in trouble with the police. This culminated in an arrest for drunkenly assaulting a club fan in a pub 100 yards from Brunton Park.
On Tuesday last week, Madine was found guilty of common assault, sentenced to 250 hours community service and banned from all Carlisle pubs. It seems an opportune point to assess what drove a talented young footballer to almost blow it spectacularly and why has he turned the corner in such emphatic style.
I first heard about Gary Madine in an interview with Carlisle’s normally taciturn Head of Youth, Eric Kinder. The vim in his descriptions of a greenhorn Madine’s turns for the club Under-18s and reserves were topped only by his candid descriptions of playing alongside a young Michael Holding in the Lancashire League in the 1970s.
Club manager John Ward soon began to brag about Madine being the next great homegrown United player to follow in the footsteps of England B international Paul Murray, human slingshot Rory Delap and, best of all, the unfulfilled genius that was Matt Jansen. After a few trips away with the first team, Madine was tied to a long contract and the future seemed set fair.
But Madine failed to live up to expectations. In his early outings his gangly stature and natural timidity made him look like a baby giraffe trapped in the headlights. He also looked about 6 stone wet through. In short, he was far from ready to challenge the settled forward line of Danny Graham, Scott Dobie and Joe Garner which shot the Blues to play-off glory in the 2007/08 season.
It was shortly after this point that rumblings about Madine’s private life began to appear – he liked a drink and a scrap they said, just another big-time charlie at a small-town club.
It’d be easy to say that this is the root of Madine’s problem. Too easy, perhaps. But his journey from the streets of Birtley in County Durham to league scorer versus Yeovil hardly mirrored those of Wayne Rooney from Croxteth to Old Trafford via a debut at 16.
Whilst much was expected of Madine, he was being nurtured into the team with little or no expectation and his early misdemeanours and burgeoning reputation as a regular in Carlisle nightspots paled into comparison with those of his equivalents at Premier League clubs.
The 2008/09 season saw Madine’s burnished reputation begin to fade. Barely able to make the bench due to manager Ward’s preference for a 4-5-1 setup, he found himself again behind Graham and Dobie in the pecking order but also squeezed out by the unlikely duo of ex-Morecambe man Danny Carlton and returning favourite Michael Bridges. Ward departed after an appalling run of one point in 11 games and caretaker manager Greg Abbott used every tool in his kit to resurrect the season – every tool but Gary Madine, who was sent for an unsuccessful loan spell at Rochdale, then of League Two.
At the beginning of the 2009/10 season, Madine was charged by police for public order offences and it appeared that Abbott (by now installed as manager on a permanent basis) had washed his hands of the former prodigal son. Those who saw Madine at this time didn’t argue with his judgement – at 6’4” he never won a header and his holdup play left a lot to be desired.
Frustratingly, the departed Danny Graham had left a line leader-shaped hole up front which was papered over by the lightweight Dobie and a converted winger – Joe Anyinsah. Carlisle were to try Vincent Pericard, Darryl Duffy, Jason Price and Stoke loanee Ben Marshall in that gap over the course of the season but there was little room for their own errant beanpole.
Madine instead suffered the ultimate ignominy – he was, quite literally, sent to Coventry. He failed to score in his nine substitute appearances and was variously called “one of the worst players to pull on a Coventry shirt” and “a complete waste of space” on Sky Blues fansites.
His loan expired, Madine returned to Brunton Park and, despite rumours that the club were trying everything in their might to palm him off, he stayed there throughout January after Chris Coleman’s sacking by Coventry chairman Ray Ranson.
Hot on the heels of the transfer rumours came news of a change in attitude from Madine. His spell at Coventry had made him realise what he could do. With Carlisle floating around in mid-table, this was surely time for Abbott to roll the dice? He thought not, instead plumping for Duffy in a 4-5-1 setup and palming Madine off to League Two side Chesterfield. Four games and no goals later, he returned to his home in a club-owned house next to Brunton Park for treatment on a groin injury.
On 27th February 2010, Carlisle beat Gillingham 2-0 at home with Madine watching from the stands. He spent that night in the Beehive pub with team-mate Gavin Rothery and, after being asked to leave by the landlady, he helped himself to another drink before punching United fan Brian Mounsey who had tried to escort him off the premises.
Madine the pantomime villain had returned. Fans called for the club to cut ties with the recidivist striker, to let justice wreak its revenge and to “nail his bollocks to the Warwick Road End crossbar”. Excuse the French. The club, who just a month earlier had been seemingly desperate to offload him, wrong-footed everyone by doing the exact opposite and hugging him tight.
Then fate intervened. The Cumbrians went into the biggest game of the season – the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final at Wembley – in the midst of an injury crisis. Madine appeared from the bench and rose to head an excellent consolation. The injuries prevailing, he maintained a run in the team and ended the season with five goals.
Madine has started this season as the club’s first choice number nine and his long trailed talent is finally bearing fruit. This season’s Madine is a snarling, malevolent presence, winning every header, showing excellent awareness and, crucially, scoring goals.
This upturn in fortune, and the associated treatment by the club, makes you wonder if the tale of Gary Madine was merely another example of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks earning too much money, too soon and failing to handle the weight of expectation.
In his excellent book ‘What Sport Tells Us About Life’, the former Test cricketer Ed Smith suggests there are hidden causes behind all sporting mistakes. Zinedine Zidane’s infamous World Cup final headbutt on Marco Materazzi was not, says Smith, the product of a filthy joke about his Mum but a response to frustration bottled up from a fluffed last-minute header against the Italian bar with the goal at his mercy.
But what does that say about Madine, the jilted prodigal son with an insatiable appetite for Stella Artois and a late night scrap? Just another stupid kid with a big head? Or a player poorly handled – who couldn’t cope with the pressure of expectation, of being the club’s next paycheque and whose will was broken by constantly being left at the bottom of the pile and repeatedly told to buck up?
People queue up now to say his spell at Coventry made him. Few stop to wonder if it was that spell at Chesterfield which almost broke him.
But who saved him? It’s tempting to plump poetically for Brian Mounsey. Or Judge Paul Batty QC, who spared the reformed striker jail last week. It could be Ian Harte, whose silver salver of a left boot served up Madine his Wembley route to redemption. Or Chris Coleman, for offering him a taste of the high life.
But the answer, ironically, is that this story’s Good Samaritans strode from an unlikely corner – Greg Abbott and Carlisle United, whose late realisation of how to handle their enfant terrible has transformed him into the lower leagues’ most coveted hitman.
Abbott’s team is swiftly becoming the chosen crèche of the Premier League’s elite managers with Manchester United, Arsenal and Stoke City all posting their youngsters in the Cumbrians current starting XI.
It is a record of which he can be rightly proud, but deep down he’s surely proudest of his own – for it’s his testing, and at times ill-thought, handling of Madine which is proving vital for that team’s current lofty outpost.