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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

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Will Carlisle's Utd's decision to live within their means pay off?

Greg Abbott has made the bold claim that Carlisle United will eventually have the “upper hand” over many clubs in League One, because they have taken hard financial decisions now instead of putting off reality forever.

Greg Abbott photo
Swindon manager Paolo Di Canio, left and Carlisle boss Greg Abbott

It takes a big mental leap to imagine United as standard-bearers here in 2012/13, when results have often sagged, crowds have slipped and the flow of money into the club has slowed to a trickle.

As such, Abbott’s insistence that the Blues are managing their affairs more wisely than lots of their rivals must be weighed against all the struggles that are ongoing at Brunton Park.

A season that began after a summer of cost-cutting – another term for people losing their jobs – has mainly carried on without painting a picture of a club on the brink of thriving again.

Indeed, if you talk to some people around the club, the question is often asked: how much deeper must things bite? How pared-down can United be and still be a credible operation? At what point in this big squeeze do the pips start to squeak?

Answers do not come at you with any great comfort in this era of coping. But Abbott’s argument, mounted with trademark gusto, is that Carlisle are better off doing what they are, keeping a beady eye on the bottom line, instead of living in a state of denial about what tomorrow might bring.

A mighty reckoning, the manager believes, faces the clubs who spend what they don’t have, live even a fraction beyond their means and are a shade flabby around the edges, even in this new period of financial fair play.

This isn’t just about those most recently in the headlines, such as Swindon and their reported £13 million of debt, but even those more on the level with the Blues and who have not yet had the heart or will to start pulling the belt tighter.

“You are looking at 80-85 per cent [of clubs] in our league having financial problems,” said Abbott. “When they start dealing with them, it will hurt them. We’re hoping we can have done our work, know what we can spend and be on the way up again.

“We know we have hit a sticky spell where finances are concerned, but we can come out the other end before others, have the upper hand and go forward.”

Prospering in League One or anywhere else cannot just be about this: who can streamline the best and the fastest. Some imagination, to get the turnstiles clicking again and engage the audience, needs to accompany all messages of prudence.

The most cynical may also conclude that Abbott’s prediction is doomed to fail because football seldom rewards the sensible. Come next season, when Carlisle will (in theory) be in better nick, another club or two will take their turn to be reckless, storming up the table whilst others crash and burn.

Sometimes you look upon the game and find yourself asking what the point is of managing your affairs responsibly and tightly, if all that happens is a different bunch of gamblers come along each year to skew the division.

It feels like the longest of long games, this idea that the good guy will somehow win in the end, but still, it sounds like Abbott has signed up to the religion of careful, sometimes painful, management at Brunton Park.

He has little choice, of course – especially not if he wants a new contract, come the summer – but the way he spoke on the eve of the (postponed) Crawley trip made it sound like he actually relishes his tight circumstances and that supporters should, too.

“Fans look for reasons to why we are doing this and aren’t doing that, and so on,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with our financial situation for over six months and a lot of people need to take lot of credit within this football club.

“I’m getting a lot of managers on to me now who know we’ve already started, wanting to know ‘how have you done this, what have you got in place for that?’.

“It is testament to people around the club who have dealt with it, had the foresight to make sure they saved the supporters’ football club. That’s the be-all and end-all. I’m sure it’s better to be a Carlisle supporter and moan than be one who doesn’t have a team to moan about.”

Nobody reading this would contest that last hearts-and-minds sentence. And instinct generally tells you to cheer any message of realism. Where League One’s 17th-place club need a few lessons is on selling the product, being modern, sharing with the paying public a credible vision on how it is going to get better, over time.

That is an ongoing gripe and was never going to be dealt with by a single press conference train-of-thought by the manager. What would be useful in the short-term would be to follow up the honest points Abbott made with some specifics – the hard facts, the finer details, on where Carlisle are trimming, and will continue to trim, in order to get over the current difficulties.

One complaint you never hear from fans is ‘too much clarity’. This is our journey as much as those on the club’s payroll.

Too much silence and fans naturally start to fear the worst; they start asking, for instance, whether the club has a bright idea beyond the new stadium scheme which now carries so much doubt.

Back, though, to Abbott, whose 1-0 win against Coventry last Sunday raised his mood sufficiently to make these points: “Teams burying their heads in the sand will find it difficult, come the summer and the middle of next season,” he said. “I think we are going in the right direction.

“Not everything has been explained about what’s happening, to fans, but generally money at this level is getting tighter across the board. We are addressing things so we’ve got a football club that’s up and running, alive and kicking, and can go in and compete again.”

All these views came to light after Abbott had been asked for his view on the situation at Swindon, 4-0 conquerers of United recently, and who are now looking for major new investment because the owner and bankroller, Andrew Black, wants out.

This prompted talk of administration, and the inevitable conclusion that Carlisle are at an unfair disadvantage while rivals like Paolo Di Canio are so able to assemble a formidable squad and put it on the slate.

Abbott professed not to know the “ins and outs” of events in distant Wiltshire but did raise his eyebrows at the latest bulletin from one of League One’s new big players.

“They have not been outbidding us, they have been absolutely blowing us out of the water,” United’s manager added. “If they are going into administration… I find that staggering.

“I am sitting here as a manager of a club I want to be top of the league. It’s easy to be top of the league – just give me Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, people like that. But we can’t afford them, so we have to find another way, we have to buy what can afford. We’ve done it.

“Sometimes that particular player has not been good enough to get us to the top. But we are going to keep trying to find them within the rules and regulations of what’s allowed.

“That’s the only way I’ve been allowed to manage. That’s the right and proper way to do it.”

That way includes looking more carefully than ever at things like overnight stays for some away trips, making your big January signing from the trialist market (Sean O’Hanlon, who made such a welcome debut against Coventry), analysing ever-closer which positions at the club are strictly necessary, and, above all, offering the big promise that this difficult season will be the manure for a new flowering of victories and goals next term, if we can all kindly gaze that far down the line.

“Undoubtedly certain teams at certain times will be finding it difficult,” added Abbott, holding this optimistic creed tightly. “We’ve been one of them, but I think we’re bouncing back.”

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