Five Stars: Carlisle United's best players in the 21st century
One quality that has shone through in each of the contributions supporters have made to for this series is passion. It may go without saying, but talking about their favourite players over the past decade shows how attached fans get to the representatives of their club. John McGee and Jon Colman pick for Carlisle United.
When sitting down to work out Carlisle’s five best of recent times I quickly realised I had to set some criteria for trimming down the list. Despite this being a relatively fallow decade for us Cumbrians with a Knighton induced stupor at the foot of the bottom tier and a brief sojourn to the Conference I still had a list of over thirty ‘potentials’. I quickly discounted recent favourites so whilst midfield terrier Tom Taiwo, set piece metronome James Berrett and lower league George Weah-alike Francois Zoko may make this list come 2015 should they set down roots, their talent and potential wasn’t enough this time round. I also moved to betray my instincts by ruling out some of the potentially more ‘cult’ choices thus no place for popular midfielder and ‘Ginger Panface’ Chris Lumsdon, our lovable Spaniard Zigor Aranalde (who himself would have a strong case for a left back berth in an All Time XI) and yeoman workhorse Chris Billy. ‘Bills’ perhaps deserved his place by rote of being the only working footballer I’ve ever seen with a wider turning circle than an Eddie Stobart truck — alas in a tight five he fell just short.
In whittling down from ten or so outstanding candidates to a final five I’ve been assisted by the Carlisle News & Star’s United correspondent Jon Colman – a lifelong Blues fan and a man who’s seen these players every week and thus well placed to question my instincts…
So, the final five:
When Carlisle signed central defender Gray in 2003 in the midst of a relegation battle I was living with a Bradford City fan. I made the mistake of mentioning his affect on attitudes around the club to her — he, along with Andy Preece and Tom Cowan, gave fans hope where was none in what was ultimately a futile, but spirited, attempt to ward off the inevitable under Paul Simpson’s steadying stewardship. I knew Gray only by fearsome reputation — I hadn’t realised that he was responsible for the devastating injury which called time on Gordon Watson’s career. I don’t think our relationship ever recovered from the news.
Gray’s career is still defined by the incident, as well it might be given the amount in damages (£900,000) Watson later won in court. It shouldn’t be. A natural leader Gray brought a fair but aggressive quality to the pitch which Carlisle have missed since his departure in 2007. As captain of successive promotion winning sides in 2004/05 and 2005/06 Gray was the lynchpin around which one of the lower leagues meanest back-lines and a tutor to current squad veterans Danny Livesey and Peter Murphy in the adolescence of their career. Ask any Carlisle fan for their 5 best of this decade and you’d pull in some disparate choices – Gray would undoubtedly unite them all. In Cumbria, at least, he’ll never be remembered for that tackle.
Life is just a string of ‘where were you when’ moments. When Carlisle United signed Michael Bridges I was sat in the library of BPP Law School in Leeds some 20 seconds away from a swift rebuke from the librarian.
The move raised eyebrows at the time. How had a player with such talent, a £5million man, ended up at one of League Two’s most distant outpost? Even having regard to his injury record it was a major coup for Carlisle — and a major gamble for Paul Simpson. His other loan signing that season, Mark Rivers, goes down in history as one of Carlisle’s worst ever. Bridges ability to find form equating to his peak won Carlisle the League Two title.
Drifting behind front pairing Karl Hawley (himself a strong shout for this list) and Derek Holmes, Bridges played as a false nine before the term had even been dreamt up. His ability to work between the lines was far too much for lacklustre opponents, his goals including an astonishing hit in a 5-0 drubbing of Darlington, were never short of breathtaking.
Bridges second spell, and acrimonious departure, is remembered less fondly by fans but it’s worth remembering that he scored 8 goals in the 2008/9 season and played a big part in Carlisle not dropping from League One. He may never be remembered as an all time great but his short, delightful impact meant he was never in doubt for this grouping.
Best goalie outside the Premier League? Check. De facto Republic of Ireland number one for the next ten years? Check. Almost joined the police in 2004? Err, hang on a minute…
Westwood was picked up as a second goalie for our Conference season 2004/5 following his release by Manchester City after thinking long and hard about jacking in football for a career on the beat. He spent a year on the sidelines watching a fat lad (Matt Glennon) haul his hulking frame to stop penalties. Following Glennon’s departed for the SPL Westwood usurped newboy Anthony Williams for the number 1 shirt.
He didn’t lose it for three years, finding himself in the relevant PFA ‘Team of the Year’ for his division twice and earning a lucrative move to Coventry City after Carlisle failed to win promotion through the play-offs in 2007/8. He also did this, which is my favourite thing in football ever. Go, Go Gadget arms!
I thought long and hard about this one — a straight shoot out between Peter Murphy and Ian Harte. Did I go with my heart and pick Murphy with his 400 apps over 10 seasons, the man who returned us from Satan’s craw with a nodded goal at the Britannia Stadium to bring us back into the league. A man whose renaissance this season has been the veritable ‘play within a play’ to define our campaign — a faltering but largely warming comeback to our old selves?
Or did I go with my head and pick THE best player I’ve ever seen in a Blue shirt and write a poem about Peter Murphy instead? The answer is here.
That said, Harte’s single full season at Brunton Park was phenomenal. His conversion to emergency centre half after an early season defensive crisis (including an outrageous loss of confidence on Murphy’s part) meant the frailties that have dogged his entire career — namely a chronic lack of pace — were put to rest. His guile in the middle of the park was irrepressible — what he lacked in inches at 5’7” he made up for in nous — his canny, almost undetectable, nudges to the small of opposing forwards backs became a cheap and salacious thrill for at least this viewer.
His range of passing from the back and ability to Cruyff turn from the clutches of an onrushing opponent were breathtaking. And the goals. By heck, the goals — 18 from centre half. The word phenomenal doesn’t cover it. Peppered in between penalties (only one missed with the rebound smashed home) and trademark freekicks were a clutch of perfectly timed headers and smashes from set pieces — 5’7” remember.
Harte left in August to be laughed at in Reading’s left back slot where his age has proven his shortfall once again. They too have had the pleasure of that left foot, but thanks to blind panic and serendipity I can’t help feeling we got the better deal.
Those of you who’ve seen the Danny Graham tearing a new hole into Championship defences this season will be surprised to hear that his is perhaps the most controversial inclusion in the five.
There’s a reason for that — Danny blew hot and cold at Brunton Park. His two full seasons at Carlisle were peppered with fallow periods. In the 2008/9 season which saw the side flirt with relegation Graham failed to score post January after notching 18 scores up to that point. Many fans felt this was indicative of a desire to be elsewhere (Carlisle turned down a £250,000 bid from Huddersfield in the window, he exercised his right to leave that summer, joining Watford) and would rather see Scunthorpe sharp shooter Joe Garner in this slot.
Garner was indeed excellent, one of the most naturally talented players to wear the Blue of United in many a year but I’ve often felt his own misfortune (his 2007/8 season was ended by a cruciate injury, whilst he left for Forest in a £1million plus deal that summer) has helped burnish his legend. In tandem the Garner/Graham partnership was the rival of any in the club’s history.
But it was Graham’s goals, 19 strikes in the 2007/8 play off charge and the 18 which helped stave off relegation which proved crucial at either end of the table. Some fans will still suggest I’ve chosen Graham due to his enhanced reputation since leaving Cumbria. That isn’t true. I’ve merely chosen to view his achievements objectively, rather than through the prism of bloody minded conspiracy.
You can follow multi award winning sports journalist and Paul Collingwood obsessive Jon Colman via @joncolman