CURLE’S TROOPS SHOW FIGHT­ING SPIRIT RE­QUIRED FOR A FI­NAL TILT

The Football League Paper - - LEAGUE TWO PLAY-OFF PREVIEW - By John Lyons

THERE’S one thing Carlisle United man­ager Keith Curle doesn’t need to ques­tion about his play­ers as they bid for play-off glory – their char­ac­ter.

Head­ing into last Satur­day’s fi­nal reg­u­lar sea­son game at Ex­eter, who had al­ready se­cured their post-sea­son spot, the Cum­bri­ans’ cam­paign was on the line.

And it looked as though they could start mak­ing hol­i­day plans, rather than play-offs plans, when they trailed 2-1 to the Gre­cians with just un­der 20 min­utes re­main­ing.

How­ever, Carlisle upped their game when it came to the crunch and turned it around with two goals in three min­utes.

Firstly, skip­per Danny Grainger showed he has ice in his veins by con­vert­ing his sec­ond spot-kick of the match af­ter Jamie Proc­tor had been fouled. Then, Proc­tor headed the win­ner.

Vic­tory en­sured the Cum­bri­ans re­mained sixth and landed a play­off berth against… Ex­eter.

“Char­ac­ter is some­thing built into the squad,” said for­mer Manch­ester City and Wolves de­fender Curle. “We won some­thing like 26 points from los­ing po­si­tions this sea­son.

“Goals change games, but they don’t change our men­tal­ity. We men­tioned it be­fore the game: play the game, not the oc­ca­sion.

“We be­lieve our game plan will bring us re­wards. Don’t change. Ex­eter wanted to play foot­ball. We needed to win the game. We needed to get the ball in the right ar­eas. We know we can score goals if we do that.”

In some ways, it was sur­pris­ing that Carlisle had to go to the last game still look­ing for their in­vite to the post-sea­son party.

They had, af­ter all, en­joyed a su­perb first half of the cam­paign, go­ing un­beaten un­til mid-Novem­ber and looked as though they would chal­lenge for au­to­matic pro­mo­tion.

Win­dow

But there was a slump in form in the sec­ond half of the sea­son as in­juries to key men, like Grainger, Ja­son Kennedy and Mike Jones, hit hard. There was another ham­mer blow with the sale of top scorer Char­lie Wyke to Brad­ford City for £250,000 in the Jan­uary trans­fer win­dow. It looked as though they could miss out al­to­gether, but then came an endof-sea­son re­vival with cru­cial come-frombe­hind vic­to­ries against New­port County and Ex­eter to seal a cov­eted play-off spot. It might not be au­to­matic pro­mo­tion, but for­mer Eng­land de­fender Curle be­lieves achiev­ing a post-sea­son place is still some­thing to be proud of.

And it’s a far cry from when he took over at Brun­ton Park in Septem­ber 2014 with the Cum­bri­ans prop­ping up the Foot­ball League.

“At the start of the sea­son your ex­pec­ta­tion is to fin­ish higher than the pre­vi­ous one,” said the ex-Mans­field, Ch­ester, Torquay and Notts County boss. “We fin­ished tenth last year and, per­son­nel-wise, there were a lot of changes, but fi­nances have stayed pretty much the same.

“It shows we’re do­ing the right things in terms of in­fra­struc­ture, re­cruit­ment and train­ing. The qual­ity of the play­ers is in­creas­ing.

“You only get that progress with con­ti­nu­ity and con­sis­tency. If you have foun­da­tions and pil­lars in place, it gives you an op­por­tu­nity to progress.

Progress

“To be in the play-offs af­ter two full sea­sons, with­out a men­tion of rel­e­ga­tion, shows there has been a lot of hard work be­hind the scenes.

“There was a dev­as­tat­ing flood, as well, which wiped the club out. To be able to with­stand

that and have a func­tion­ing team op­er­at­ing at the top of the divi­sion tells me there are a lot of peo­ple pulling in the same di­rec­tion.”

Reach­ing the play-offs is one thing, win­ning them is another.

But, be­fore you can start think­ing of a Wem­b­ley showpiece fi­nal, you have to win a two-legged semi-fi­nal – and Curle is com­fort­able with meet­ing Ex­eter again.

It’s no real sur­prise given that the Blues did the dou­ble over the Gre­cians, win­ning both games 3-2. Yet Curle doesn’t be­lieve ei­ther side goes into the tie as favourites.

“Some peo­ple will say they’re the favourites be­cause they fin­ished higher than us over 46 games (fifth to sixth on goal dif­fer­ence) and oth­ers will say us be­cause we have two wins, but it’s re­ally about man­ag­ing each in­di­vid­ual game,” said the 53year-old.

“You’ve got to take it one game at a time. What­ever hap­pens in that first leg has a bear­ing on what you have to do in the sec­ond, whether it’s pro­tect­ing a lead or com­ing from be­hind. We are flex­i­ble and adapt­able. We know we can cause them prob­lems and they know they can cause us prob­lems. I can con­fi­dently say there will be goals in both games.”

So will Ex­eter re­gret not killing off the Cum­bri­ans’ hopes when they had the chance last Satur­day?

“The pleas­ing thing is that (Ex­eter boss) Paul Tisdale played his strong­est team,” said Curle. “He knew it would be a com­pet­i­tive game and he didn’t want his play­ers think­ing they could take their foot off the gas.

“They wanted to win the game. They didn’t want to play us in the play-offs. There is a lot of re­spect be­tween us.”

This evening, the venue switches to Brun­ton Park from last week at St James Park, and the Blues will be seek­ing to make the most of home ad­van­tage be­fore Thurs­day’s re­turn in Devon.

“We will go in to en­joy it and there will be a par­ti­san crowd,” said Curle. “We are des­per­ately try­ing to get more than 10,000 tick­ets sold, and the call to the fans is to give us their back­ing.”

If Carlisle are to get through, then a big part of their hopes will likely rest on the shoul­ders of strik­ers Proc­tor and Jabo Ibehre.

Va­ri­ety

Bolton loa­nee Proc­tor, 25, has scored twice in his last three games and ap­pears to be hit­ting form at just the right time, while Ibehre, 34, has notched 14 goals this term, in­clud­ing a re­cent spell of scor­ing in five straight matches.

That’s gone some way to re­plac­ing the goals of Wyke, who net­ted 18 in league and cup be­fore join­ing the Ban­tams.

Curle said: “Any cen­tre-half who comes up against those two knows they have been in a game phys­i­cally, tech­ni­cally and tac­ti­cally.

“They can both score goals, they have a phys­i­cal pres­ence and they can hurt the best in the divi­sion in a va­ri­ety of ways.”

Curle is hop­ing for a bit of play-off joy af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing pain in the past. His Mans­field side lost on penal­ties to Hud­der­s­field Town in the Third Divi­sion fi­nal in 2003-04, while he also suf­fered de­feat as a coach un­der Neil Warnock at Crys­tal Palace in 2007-08, go­ing down to Bris­tol City in the Cham­pi­onship semi-fi­nals.

“Now I need to get to the fi­nal and win it,” he added.

PICTURE: Ac­tion Im­ages

HON­EST: Billy Kee CAP THAT: Jabo Ibehre is one of Carlisle’s key men HEAD BOY: Jamie Proc­tor scores Carlisle’s cru­cial win­ner at Ex­eter. Insets: Danny Grainger cel­e­brates scor­ing the equaliser and man­ager Curle en­joys the mo­ment

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