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