SO, CARLISLE UNITED, HOW HAVE THINGS BEEN GOING FOR THEM THIS YEAR?
Ah, Carlisle United, the side who are, along with our fine selves, proving just how mediocre nineteen teams are in League One this season. When NCM made the long, arduous treck through a load of fields and past some lakes to visit Brunton Park on the opening day of the season, Greg Abbott's side put in the sort of performance that, genuinely, made me lose all faith in this great game. A defence who couldn't defend, a midfield who couldn't pass and a strike force who were so peripheral that they may have been tottering merrily along Hadrian's Wall as trying to occupy whatever our central defensive partnership was way back then. Yet, here we are in March, and Carlisle have genuine asprations of sealing that coveted sixth place and earning the opportunity to be comprehensively beaten in the play-offs by one of this division's proper teams.
In truth, we are well aware that Carlisle United aren't actually as bad as they were on that fine afternoon in Cumbria. That is, mainly, down to the acquisition of one man who should be familiar to us all. Lee Miller, the striker who we had on loan briefly last season, then had on loan for the whole of last season, then mysteriously didn't have at all half an hour later, is the fulcrum of this Carlisle side and the only real reason that they hold out hopes of reaching the play-offs. His ability to hold the ball up, link play and turn in consistent performances is just what you need when partnering the enigmatic, unpredictable Ivorian Francois Zoko. The two lead one of the division's better attacking forces, with the goals of James Berrett from midfield also proving vital to their hopes.
Things aren't quite so cheerful for Carlisle at the other end of the field though, with their porous defence being Greg Abbott's biggest worry. Recent away games at Brentford and Hartlepool United both ended in 4-0 thumpings, and the Cumbrians' defensive record is one of the worst in the division. This is slightly strange as, individually, they do have some useful players in that area. Lubomir Michalik may be a bumbling Slovakian giant, but the likes of Frank Simek and Danny Livesey are reasonable players for this level.
WHO'S RUNNING THE SHOW AT BRUNTON PARK?
As the Football League manager who looks most like the Fat Controller from Thomas the Tank Engine, it is somewhat fitting that Greg Abbott's spell in charge of Carlisle United has been turbulent at best. Abbott never seems to be far from the sack and, at no point in his tenure, has fully had the support of the Carlisle faithful. Yet, every terrible run seems to end with a good run and vice versa. The only consistency on show in Abbott's reign has been the ability to veer wildly between good and bad form for no obvious reason.
Carlisle is Abbott's first real managerial job, having spent years on the coaching staff at Leeds United. Having initially joined as assistant to Neil McDonald in 2006, he took over fully two years later having also worked under John Ward and has guided Carlisle to successive dull, mid-table finishes ever since. Looking at the side he has been able to build there, he really should be doing better. On paper, that Carlisle side is not just fully Abbott's own creation, but also one of the better sides in the league. That they are only in the play-off hunt due to the lack of a sixth decent team in the division is hardly testament to Abbott's ability.
WHO'D GET IN OUR TEAM, THEN?
It was actually reasonably difficult to pick a star man for Carlisle - they are a side full of useful players but with the lack of a true stand-out performer. That is, apart from Lee Miller, who we really have to choose for this. We do, of course, know all about the quality of the former Aberdeen and Middlesbrough man - and we can only congratulate Carlisle for persuading Miller to relocate anywhere south of the Shetland Islands.
Miller is a particularly good striker at League One level, possessing a fine touch and the ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play. He makes Carlisle tick - it is telling that their form collapsed recently following his harsh sending off at Hartlepool United. Coupled with a goal haul that has recently crept into double figures and Miller is the one Carlisle player who can be considered as being up there with the best in the division.
HOW WILL THEY LINE UP (POSSIBLY, MAYBE)?
Carlisle seem to line up in a 4-4-2 diamond formation sort of thing, we think.
GK - Adam Collin
RB - Frank Simek
CB - Danny Livesey
CB - Peter Murphy
LB - Ben Parker
DMC - Tom Taiwo
CM - Jon-Paul McGovern
CM - James Berrett
AMC - Paddy Madden
SC - Lee Miller
SC - Francois Zoko
They lined up just like that against Yeovil Town last weekend. You never know, they might do the same again.