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Friday, 25 April 2014

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Southend ambush piles the pressure on wobbly United

Carlisle United 1 Southend United 2: THE earth is still orbiting the sun. Gravity keeps pulling things down. And, what do you know, Carlisle have found another way to stretch the season to its final kicks.

Anyone who is surprised to read that a Blues campaign is going the full distance yet again needs to leave town immediately to avoid being rumbled.

Only an impostor, a bogus Cumbrian, could possibly be startled by the news that United are drawing full dramatic value from another 46-game epic. This maddening and fractious defeat to Southend means their lead over third-placed Doncaster, once six points, has now been shaved down to two with two games left.

Nottingham Forest, a point further back, are also hiding in the cupboard preparing the ultimate ambush. Leeds, should they win their 15-point appeal, have done enough to nail automatic promotion for themselves. As it stands, not even Southend can be overlooked at this late stage in the race, such are the undulations of League One in the springtime.

John Ward’s response to all this, during his dissection of Saturday’s last-minute defeat, was to crack a joke. “The glass isn’t half-full or half-empty - the glass isn’t big enough,” said the United manager. Unwittingly, he spoke for every Carlisle fan who sought one comforting drink after another after Lee Barnard had sent Steve Tilson’s raiders scampering down to Essex with three plundered points.

Normally, the injury-time winner is out on its own when you go searching for a game’s most notable event. Not here. Barnard’s 90th-minute header at the Waterworks End was simply the last in a sequence of jolts to the Cumbrian soul, a string of incidents which included an infuriating early goal (from Southend’s Charlie Mulgrew), an injury to Paul Reid in the first half of his comeback game, a startling equaliser from Simon Hackney, a red card for David Raven and then a perplexing missed chance from Danny Graham before the blond-haired Barnard strode over the horizon as the day’s improbable hero.

Toss in a flustered refereeing performance from Anthony Taylor, a spate of bad-tempered scuffles between opposing players, another Barnard shot which smacked the post and rolled across the line in super slo-mo, and a barnstorming second-half performance from Carlisle’s 17-year-old gem, Gary Madine, and the challenge is greater than usual today in trying to assemble matters into order of significance.

Ward, not unsurprisingly, started by brandishing the league table. “I can comfort myself a little bit by letting you know we’re second in the table and two points clear of the team behind us,” he said. “It’s still in our hands and that’s the important factor.”

The alternative view says Carlisle’s flow of form has now slowed to a dribble at just the wrong time; they have won one game in six and taken a single point from four top-end duels with Forest, Swansea, Leeds and now Southend. A more balanced outlook suggests the law of averages has swung back at United in the season’s final stages. Carlisle have won enough games this season when below their best, so they’re hardly entitled to grumble too loudly when events conspire against them as they did here.

Reid, forced off with suspected ankle ligament damage after 45 minutes of his Brunton Park return, was the day’s second unluckiest figure in blue. Top of that list was Peter Murphy, dropped to the bench on the basis of an unsteady display at Leeds the previous weekend. A bold managerial call, undoubtedly, but also a harsh one when you consider Murphy’s otherwise impressive body of work alongside Danny Livesey at centre-half these past few months.

Not that Reid looked inferior, it must be said, although he did concede the free-kick from which Southend claimed their eighth-minute lead. Moments after Graham had a promising effort deflected wide, Reid caught Barnard and Mulgrew whipped in a devil of a free-kick from 30 yards which flew over every player in the United box and spun into Keiren Westwood’s net, the goalkeeper anticipating the diverting touch that never came.

The goal winded United, who looked panicky as their visitors set an impressive early pace. Graham’s buried volley in the 19th-minute - disallowed for offside - was a rare moment of Carlisle clarity amid a stream of anxious, overhit balls from the back.

One Southend counter-attack led to Tommy Black having two efforts blocked, and another urgent passing move, started by James Walker’s nimble feet, ended with Mark Gower testing Westwood from just outside the box.

Reid’s injury, sustained in a challenge after a surge from the back, prompted his half-time replacement by Murphy. On, too, came Madine (for Grant Smith), as Ward shifted to 4-4-2. Six minutes in, Carlisle had their leveller: strong work from Madine in the corner, a foul by Mulgrew, and then a fizzing free-kick from Hackney which surprised Darryl Flahavan at his near post. Now there was a real sense that the game’s tone was changing, dramatically so, and not least because young Madine’s bustling presence was suddenly unsettling Tilson’s centre-halves.

Moments later, however, Marc Bridge-Wilkinson’s aerial challenge on Nicky Bailey, milked by the Southend man, sparked the bad-tempered spell which culminated in Raven’s damaging dismissal. First, Bailey enacted ham-fisted retribution on the increasingly-dynamic Hackney.

Then, after Scott Dobie and Gower had swapped half-chances, Raven won one storming challenge on the touchline, plunged into another on Bailey, and received an instant red card. To the naked eye, it was far from a malicious lunge. From Mr Taylor’s position, it’s not impossible to see why he issued the card he did (and Bailey’s rolling response again did him little credit); and it’s therefore hard to see any appeal working in United’s favour.

Raven’s immediate three-match ban, which kills his season unless Carlisle drop into the play-offs, is yet another awkward fact which needs to be absorbed quickly by Ward’s strategic brain.

In the short-term, the manager’s response was to ask Dobie to deputise at right-back, before Paul Thirlwell charged off the bench to assume the role. United, now outnumbered, did fashion one more golden chance, but Graham was mystifyingly off-target with his free header from Evan Horwood’s cross. Then Southend zeroed in on Carlisle’s weakened right side and eventually won the day.

First, a Barnard snap-shot flicked the side-netting. Then a curling effort from the striker swept past Westwood, bashed the inside of the post and somehow rolled to safety. Finally, after Alan McCormack had nipped past Thirlwell, the dangerous Gower floated over a telling cross, and the unmarked Barnard’s meaty header had too many revs on it for Westwood to keep it out at the far post.

It was, in truth, the ambush to which all teams are susceptible. More serious is the allegation which says United, in fielding a single striker from the start in games like this, have been left scrambling to retrieve the initiative instead of taking it from minute one. There’s not much time for Ward to respond to that theory, although it shouldn’t surprise him that the questions are creeping up in volume and number. “It’s not as if I haven’t considered it before,” he said of the 4-4-2 calls. “I’ve got a week to look at it and see where we go next Saturday.”

Double whiskies and keep them coming for the rest of us, meanwhile, as we pass the next few days by second-guessing and worrying, whilst another season’s finale is defined by nerves and confusion. Welcome to the new Carlisle: same as the old Carlisle.

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