Never Write Off a Wounded 'Banger' - Carlisle United Will Go Down Swinging
This time four years ago Carlisle United stood on the brink of glory. A single win from their last four games against Leeds United, Southend, Millwall or Bournemouth would have been enough for the Cumbrians to claim the final automatic promotion spot from League One and reach the heady heights of English football’s second tier for the first time in 20 years.
Some fans will tell you that the intervention of a single player cost the Cumbrians that year – Middlesbrough’s Nicky Bailey, then of Southend, is held in peculiar affection at Brunton Park – his histrionics served to con referee Anthony Taylor into dismissing Blues full back David Raven as the home side were cresting the wave of a Brunton Roar. Lee Barnard’s last minute sniff rubbed salt in the wound and Bailey’s spot as Carlisle’s own ‘Ginger winker’ was preserved in folklore. The local Am Dram players were furnished with a generation’s worth of ‘hiss’ lines for their annual panto.
The reality is, perhaps, rather different. By mid April the Cumbrians were shorn of their niggling ingenu Joe Garner, lost to a cruciate injury in February that has put the dampeners on his career ever since. The club’s sputtering Eastertide form belied a team bereft of ideas and struggling to maintain the early season pace as Danny Graham went on a late season slump that has become the trademark of his flourishing career.
The pinging sound in Garner’s knee on 26th February 2008 at Gresty Road, Crewe is Carlisle United’s Devon Loch moment. The record books show that the team won that night and continued to rustle up points – a win for the Sky cameras at Nottingham’s City Ground the highlight, it would transpire, of the season – but it was this point that marked the beginning of the metaphorical belly flop, the flap of wings from which we can trace the chaos of a last minute swinging of Jonny Howson’s rapier right boot some two and a half months on.
I don’t often like to recall those two months. Living and working in Leeds I’d gained a reputation as an immature football brayer of the highest accord. While the Beeston Whites toiled away their 15 point penalty, my own club sowed at the right end of the table – our promotion a foregone conclusion and Leeds plight in play-off purgatory a cherished extra.
On the night of the play-off reverse at Brunton Park I was at a work event, a Cumbrian keeping Mum in a room full of enemies, my attempts to slip under the radar shattered by a colleague’s stand up declaration in the aftermath of the Yorkshire triumph – ‘if anyone wants to laugh at a Carlisle fan, there’s a really irritating one sitting over there’.
So why think of it now? Well, a lot’s happened in four years but the Cumbrians current plight shows bizarre parallels to 2008.
Going into Easter weekend on the back of outstanding victories over MK Dons and Huddersfield the team were four points clear of play-off rivals Notts County in sixth place. Cue the inevitable asphyxiation as first Wycombe and then Scunthorpe rustled a point from the Blues whilst Notts ceaseless rampage under Keith Curle continued, tiding them back into the hot spots on goal difference.
One can easily forgive the jeers of ‘here we go again’ on the streets surrounding Warwick Road this week. ‘Typical Carlisle‘ is a well worn aphorism round those parts, referring to the club’s relish at taking the less trodden route to glory. On Monday circumstances got a little ‘too typical’ for comfort as, yet again, the team was shorn of a talisman for the rest of the campaign.
For Joe Garner insert Lee Miller, for irritating wind up with dynamite in his boots replace bravura workhorse with an eye for goal, a man pivotal to the team’s shape and movement. In 2011/12 Carlisle United without Miller is like Stonehenge without lintels or Queens of the Stone Age without Nick Oliveri – utterly devoid of that crucial alchemy, that inbred binding.
As the club stumble on for their final five games they do so more in hope than expectation. There is no greater truism in football than that which speaks of ‘late twists’ in promotion campaigns. Nevertheless, even the most expectant and optimistic of Cumbrians is struggling to find straws to clutch this week. The returning resoluteness in defence which tallies with the come back of the battered and hardy Danny Livesey may yet withstand the coming onslaught of Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday and Stevenage.
Unencumbered by crippling fear the club’s young side may flourish and push the club into that sixth place, there is a game in hand over their near rivals but the thought lingers that goals will need to be found from meagre pickings.
Yet to push these lines, as optimists must, feels like seeking to comfort Job. Some Blues fans have reacted to the miracles of manager Greg Abbott on a tight budget, at an unfashionable footballing outpost by mocking him up as a Christ-like effigy set on guiding his flock to the promised land. This feels like his ‘loaves and fishes’ moment – time to conjure goals and points from sticks, mud and bracken.
The rotund Coventrian’s oft piqued relationship with the Carlisle fans has seen a recent surge – an impromptu outbreak of fist-pumping ‘Henmania’ in the aftermath of the Huddersfield has seen a crest of good will hitherto unafforded to the former Bradford City stalwart. Miller’s goal in that game was dubbed by many ‘The Second Miracle of Brunton Park‘ (you’ll recall the first). Clambering out of the current predicament may well see Abbott beatified yet – his quality as a manager may be in question, his luck certainly isn’t; conservative estimates count at least 3 job-saving wins in his Carlisle career to date. A little more of that happy tincture wouldn’t go amiss right now.
Reflecting on the season and its likely outcome it’s tempting to suggest that history is bound to repeat itself at Brunton Park – once again the plucky men of the Northern outpost collapse at the last. Tempting, but wrong.
Even should they fail this is a Carlisle United side of glorious valour. They call to mind not Devon Loch but the ‘nearly greats’ of British boxing in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They may not have the reach, the style or the backing. They concede on weight and height to the League One big boys, but they have heart, the ‘chin’.
They may be nursing cuts to cheeks, eyes and mouth and peeling their back from the canvas but with five rounds left there’s only one way they’ll go. This team, like an Alan Minter or a Jim Watt, will come out ‘banging’. It only takes one punch…