12 April ~ Rarely has the old adage "a week is a long time in football" seemed more apposite. Seven days ago Carlisle United were surfing a wave of confidence after dramatic last-minute winners against promotion-rivals Milton Keynes and Huddersfield had propelled them into the final play-off place with a handy four-point gap to the chasing pack. Now, with a crucial home fixture against league-leaders Charlton looming, the wave has broken. After two uninspired draws over Easter we are outside the top six, with the loss through injury of leading scorer Lee Miller for the remainder of the season adding a further smudge of gloom to the traditionally pessimistic Cumbrian outlook.
In many ways, the past week has showcased Carlisle’s season in miniature. Resilience, team spirit and moments of individual brilliance have been followed by scrappy, disjointed displays that leave the fans and manager tearing their hair out in frustration. When the team click, they are capable of beating anyone in the division – both Sheffield clubs have left Brunton Park pointless. But despite his legitimate protestations that consistency has improved markedly since Christmas, Greg Abbott seems unable to eradicate his team’s habit of throwing in an occasionally limp and shapeless performance.
Abbott has still to win over the doubters among the Cumbrian fanbase. It is difficult to put a finger on exactly why some fans have failed to warm to a man who has delivered a steady improvement in league position, two Wembley appearances, effective use of the loan system and more useful signings than misfits.
But even allowing for the ambivalence towards Abbott and the economic downturn, crowds have been disappointing. For a side flirting with a shot at the second tier, the current average gate of 5,180 is fractionally down on the past two mid-table campaigns. It is also well below the numbers who were flocking to watch an arguably inferior team battle their way out of League Two in the middle of the last decade. Quality football of a good standard may not be as important to the fans as the prospect of a home win every week.
It is possible to get out of League One on small crowds, but amid the cluster of better supported and financed clubs at the top of table Carlisle seem to be punching above their weight. Abbott and his players deserve better support for their efforts.
Hopefully the visit of the league leaders will entice a bumper crowd to Brunton Park on Saturday. It would be entirely in keeping with the unpredictable nature of Carlisle’s season if they were to rebound from two disappointing results and rekindle play-off hopes with another win against the odds. Rob Lees