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Friday, 19 December 2014

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Why Carlisle boss handed striker Miller captain's armband

When it comes to captaincy people tend to slot into two camps – either you believe that the lycra band carries enormous importance, and should always be worn by someone who closest resembles Kevin Gray, or it is a trivial detail which gets more debating time than it is worth.

It’s possible to take both views. The identity of the team’s leader is a natural talking point but do we get very far by obsessing about this, instead of tactics, signings or the club’s overall strategy?

Those who value the office of captain believe Gray, the double promotion-winning leader in 2005 and 2006, to be the template for the sort of man Carlisle United’s supporters wish to see leading the team from the tunnel.

Since his square-jawed reign the armband has passed to different players, most regularly Paul Thirlwell, and latterly Danny Livesey before Greg Abbott made United’s leadership a topic for discussion again at the weekend.

As of Sunday, Lee Miller is now Carlisle’s on-field general: the first time the Blues have been skippered by a striker since Abbott briefly handed the honour to Danny Graham in the spring of 2009.

That was a hotly-debated time, the assumption being that Abbott was trying to flatter the talented but under-performing Graham into signing a new contract (he didn’t).

Talking to some supporters once the team sheets had arrived two days ago and a similar suspicion was spreading around Brunton Park. Miller, another influential striker, has a few months left on his contract. His future is likely to dominate discussions of United from here on in.

Yet this latest move is slightly different to events in ’09, in that the Graham experiment a) did not bring about an improvement in his or the team’s fortunes (which was Abbott’s stated wish) and b) was shelved rather quickly. By contrast, the more consistent Miller has been appointed captain for the foreseeable, with Thirlwell’s influence lowered a touch to the ceremonial “club captaincy” and Livesey now back in the ranks.

Abbott’s explanation, after Miller had chalked up a 1-0 win over Coventry in his first game at the front, was twofold: that Livesey needed to lose the responsibility in order to raise his defensive game, and that Miller, a respected figure, was the sort who could take on the job and command instant respect while not feeling the armband to be made of lead.

Certainly it’s unlikely, on the early evidence, that the duty will crush Miller, an experienced player who wears his many responsibilities lightly. To start with on Sunday he pulled his team-mates into a huddle to kick off this change of on-field regime.

What followed was much more of the same from United’s No14, in terms of his line-leading play, which remains of critical importance to Abbott and his team.

Overall, though, it’s fair to conclude that Miller’s status as a personality inside Brunton Park has just risen. Only the naïve would assume there was zero consideration from the management to how this promotion might make him feel when contract talks eventually start (he claimed to have “heard nothing” on this, when asked by News & Star Sport on Sunday night).

Putting Miller at the very heart of the club may be a tactic, but at least it ought to be one supporters can accept, providing United’s results improve over a spell. Carlisle’s team contains no more admired player than the man from Lanark.

This was also the case with Gray, so Abbott may simply have decided that Miller is the best face to present both to the enemy and a fanbase which still retains many doubts about the path Carlisle are taking in 2012/13. The forward himself, who has never before been a captain, professed to be “proud” whilst pointing out that there are other leaders in blue shirts on an average Saturday.

When pressed on the subject Carlisle’s manager also made the point that it was as much about Livesey as Miller. It’s unlikely the centre-half, also a proud man, offered up the captaincy lightly but Abbott insisted it was the right call at the right time.

“It is a huge decision but I don’t care, it had to be done,” the manager said. “Danny has to concentrate on his job, of being a No5 alongside Sean [O’Hanlon] and on keeping the ball out of our net.

“He has found it difficult [recently], because of the amount of defending he has had to do. It’s difficult, when you are fighting your own game, to influence others. Some can’t.

“Lee is consistent on the pitch, respected in the dressing room – when he talks, they listen – and he is generally in an area of the field where, if he makes a mistake, it won’t cost us a goal.”

This appeared to be a direct reference to Livesey’s unfortunate start to 2013, when a slip in front of his own penalty box allowed Crewe to poach the only goal on January 1. That mistake left the long-serving defender distraught but against Coventry two days ago the old defiance seemed to have returned.

It would surely be a reading too far to say that this was only a result of the captaincy switch but it speaks well of Livesey that he buried any disappointment into his performance, which kept League One’s most in-form away team at bay for 90 minutes.

Asked for how long he had been considering the change, and Abbott declined to say. After dealing with one question on the topic he could not be drawn into a second answer, preferring to fill his press conference with talk of Carlisle’s display, their clean-sheet, against Mark Robins’ team.

Fair enough. Here was more from that initial explanation: “I made the decision and I think it’s the right decision. Everybody has taken it on the chin.

“Paul will be club captain, Lee, if he plays, will be captain on the pitch, end of story.

“I would expect [Miller] to treasure it, because it has hurt the ones I have taken it off. It is also a compliment to him and the way he is.

“I have had to work with Danny and manage his disappointment but I’m not bothered who’s captain. If Danny plays like that every week, heads it, kicks it, puts his body on the line, maybe it will have been the kick up the backside he has needed as well.

“Danny is a responder. He knows what I think of him, hopefully he thinks the same of me and that has not been damaged.”

Then at the end he added: “That’s the decision, it’s done, I don’t care.”

This did not, in fact, sound like a man who was “not bothered” about who was captain.

What Abbott was surely trying to say was that he didn’t give a hoot about who the decision might upset or please, which is a different point.

Decisive management, some might conclude from this. Others might class it as tinkering at surface level. The rest may chip in and say there are bigger things to bother about. All may be correct. Just two things will allow us to judge how successful a move it has been: results, and ink on a contract in a few months’ time.

JColman@cngroup.co.uk

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