Roger Lytollis reports on an odd sacking at Carlisle

It felt as if we’d seen it all. There was the talking alien who spoke to the chairman (“Michael, don’t be afraid”), the goalkeeper who kept us in the League with the season’s last kick, and the curry-house waiter who staged a bogus takeover. After a decade of owner Michael Knighton, Carlisle United fans are well versed in absurdity. But even these battle-scarred veterans found themselves stunned by events on the first Monday morning of the season. And all it took was a few words on the official website: “The board of Carlisle United Football Club regret to say that they have lost confidence in Neil McDonald and are ­terminating his contract forthwith.”

We thought it was a joke. Maybe someone had hacked into the club’s computers? What possible reason could there be for sacking our manager after just one match? And there’s the thing – a month on, we still don’t know. A club that became a laughing stock during the Knighton era had enjoyed success and ­stability of late, most recently thanks to McDonald. He arrived at Brunton Park last summer to replace Paul Simpson after spells as assistant to Sam Allardyce at Bolton and Iain Dowie at Crystal Palace. Those fans concerned by his lack of managerial experience were quickly won over. McDonald’s team played attractive football, finishing eighth in League One. It was the club’s highest position for 21 years. Home crowds were the biggest for 31 years. The sun shone brightly.

McDonald spent the summer strengthening his squad. On the eve of the new season, Carlisle’s board sanctioned the club-record £140,000 signing of Blackburn striker Joe Garner, a player McDonald had been pursuing for months. Three days later, after a decent opening-day draw at Walsall, McDonald was sacked.

The decision, and lack of explanation, caused messageboard meltdown. Baffled fans threw up every rumour imaginable. McDonald was falsely said to be sleeping with every woman in Cumbria, to have been legless in every pub in the county and to have had fisticuffs with every man in the Brunton Park dressing room and boardroom.

None of this sat neatly with owner Fred Story’s insistence that “this is not a personal issue or a disciplinary issue. There are no skeletons in the cupboard.”

It was, he stated, a footballing matter. Story has said little else in public, but his few further words have raised more questions than answers. “It’s not a knee-jerk reaction. It is our view on his role as manager of Carlisle United and all that entails.” The words “and all that entails” suggest it wasn’t results that sealed McDonald’s fate. So what does that leave? Dodgy dealings? Nope – no skeletons. Players’ revolt? Hardly – McDonald had built a squad whose spirit was a major strength.

Some wondered if the board had tired of McDonald’s failure to declare undying ­allegiance to Carlisle in the face of speculation linking him with Allardyce’s Newcastle. But would they have dismissed him rather than await an official approach and pursue compensation?

Story installed McDonald’s number two, Greg Abbott, as caretaker manager and said: “I’d ask people to have patience and a bit of faith.” Carlisle fans have had enormous faith in Story, a local building magnate. His three years at the club have seen successive promotions from Conference to League One and his down-to-earth style has endeared him to supporters who endured more than enough flamboyance under Knighton. But sacking a successful manager, refusing to tell the fans why you did it, then expecting them to keep turning up and handing over their money promises to test their faith to an unprecedented degree.

There may have been good reasons for Carlisle United to sack McDonald, but keeping them secret makes the club look at best complacent and at worst complicit in creating the blank page that has become a home for every slur and crackpot theory. So just what did cost one of English football’s most promising managers his job? McDonald has yet to give his side of the story, beyond expressing his amazement, and perhaps he never will if his contract settlement includes a ­confidentiality clause.

Meanwhile, it’s a rather depressing thought that if fans do turn against the board it won’t be because they object to the way in which McDonald was treated. It will be because his successor doesn’t win enough football matches.

From WSC 248 October 2007


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