Target men are hard to find - but could the Blues have made the search easier?

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After United’s defeat at Forest Green, manager Keith Millen said the Blues were short of an attacking “target” (photo: Richard Parkes)
After United’s defeat at Forest Green, manager Keith Millen said the Blues were short of an attacking “target” (photo: Richard Parkes)

The dates January 16, 2010 and April 14, 2012 won’t mean much at first inspection. At Carlisle United, though, they were occasions which signalled a great deal.

The first was a 3-1 defeat for the Blues at Brentford. The second, a 1-0 home loss to Charlton Athletic.

What connected them both was that they were the first games after United had seen influential target men whipped away from them.

The Brentford loss was Carlisle’s first game post-Vincent Pericard. The Charlton reverse came shortly after Lee Miller had been struck down by injury.

And yes, United were unfortunate to come up against a couple of decent sides in the immediate aftermath. But they were not, all the same, the force they had been. Straight away there was a clear weakening of their entire structure.

It was evident what Greg Abbott’s Carlisle needed and what they struggled to function without. The 2009/10 season went into a concerning decline until the tall figure and enhanced hairdo of Jason Price was brought in to fill Swindon-bound Pericard’s void.

The 2011/12 campaign, alas, never recovered from Miller’s loss. Carlisle still had good attacking players, but could not successfully operate in his absence. They lost four of their last five games, missing out on the play-offs as a result.

News and Star: The loss of target man Lee Miller derailed a play-off push in 2012 (photo: Paula Paisley)
News and Star: The loss of target man Lee Miller derailed a play-off push in 2012 (photo: Paula Paisley)

The loss of target man Lee Miller derailed a play-off push in 2012 (photo: Paula Paisley)

It is easy to simplify an argument but it is unavoidable how much evidence exists of how the modern Blues have benefited from someone of substance up top. In 2005/6, their line was led in different ways by the yeoman Derek Holmes and the supreme back-to-goal strength of Karl Hawley.

In 2007/8, a promotion push was built on the aggression of Joe Garner and lost gradual impetus after he was injured. Jabo Ibehre and Charlie Wyke were later line-leaders who Carlisle were better with, and progressively worse without.

Not every constructive season has been built this way – John Sheridan’s team in late 2018 hit form through the pace of Ashley Nadesan and Jerry Yates rather than more old-fashioned qualities – but later that season, United’s lack of a fit and capable No9 hurt them again.

Steven Pressley’s adoption of a “false nine” system attempted to make creative use of personnel, but with mediocre results, and another promotion push slid down the slope. The best of ‘Beech Ball’ under his successor relied on Joshua Kayode’s aerial willingness before a combination of factors took that team south.

News and Star: United have lacked Joshua Kayode's height in attack this season (photo: Stuart Walker)
News and Star: United have lacked Joshua Kayode's height in attack this season (photo: Stuart Walker)

United have lacked Joshua Kayode's height in attack this season (photo: Stuart Walker)

Yet what is also apparent, over the years, is that Carlisle, despite proof of what solid attacking presence can bring, have had a mixed relationship with the concept when it comes to recruitment.

Nobody could argue landing an effective up-front “target” is a doddle, let alone at this point in a season, but the fact Keith Millen identified the lack of one last Saturday did lead one to ask: how has it come to this, in late January 2022: a matter still unresolved?

It made you think that, with more coherent and connected recruitment in all departments, not least managerially, it wouldn’t need to be this way.

In the summer of 2019, for instance, it was widely understood that certain experienced centre-forwards were attainable, but manager Pressley preferred to wait. A priority young loan target from the Championship went elsewhere, and Carlisle ended up signing Elias Sorensen.

News and Star: Steven Pressley waited for strikers in the summer of 2019 and ended up with the goal-shy Elias Sorensen (photo: Barbara Abbott)
News and Star: Steven Pressley waited for strikers in the summer of 2019 and ended up with the goal-shy Elias Sorensen (photo: Barbara Abbott)

Steven Pressley waited for strikers in the summer of 2019 and ended up with the goal-shy Elias Sorensen (photo: Barbara Abbott)

No need to waste words describing how that went. United went into that campaign with certain attacking attributes, such as Harry McKirdy and Nathan Thomas, but lacked the consistent authority of a No9. Ryan Loft was too young and too raw to be a kingpin in that respect, with Olufela Olomola the nearest the team had to an effective one. Carlisle struggled and Pressley was sacked.

The recruitment of the most recent summer was perplexing in its own way given the muscular style Chris Beech had adopted in the best of his reign during 2020/21. Tristan Abrahams and Zach Clough, the main attacking signings, were not ‘Beech Ball’ forwards and nor, in particular, was Brad Young, the early-season loan addition.

Beech, asked about the lack of a bigger frontman in September, suggested such a figure was not the be-all and end-all, citing the “focal point” provided by other attackers in a victory at Swindon.

News and Star: Chris Beech made Tristan Abrahams a priority signing in the summer, but the striker is now on loan in the National League (photo: Gareth Williams/AHPIX)
News and Star: Chris Beech made Tristan Abrahams a priority signing in the summer, but the striker is now on loan in the National League (photo: Gareth Williams/AHPIX)

Chris Beech made Tristan Abrahams a priority signing in the summer, but the striker is now on loan in the National League (photo: Gareth Williams/AHPIX)

United, though, were not functioning well at all, and Beech’s reign turned out to have only a month left in it. By the end, the team’s sense of itself was broken.

So: would it not be better if the Blues, instead of moving between managers of different and movable priorities, backing their whims as they change, had an identity that was more clearly laid down over time?

One that made recruitment more tailored, co-ordinated, had certain playing principles in mind and as a result meant that an understanding between director of football and boss was not subject to the frustrations that have been quite apparent in the relatively recent past?

It may be that such an identity is harder to carve into stone in the lower leagues, where things often seem precarious. That doesn’t, though, mean it should not be at the very least desirable, and in fact the point of having a certain footballing structure inside your club.

Imagine if the Blues had set off this summer with a consistent, collective focus on the profile of striker they needed, instead of the diversion they appeared to take.

Imagine if they had identified such a person from minute one. There would have been no guarantees of success by any means, but presumably we wouldn’t have reached the back end of the January transfer window contemplating that what this team could do with is a target man of some description.

There is a certain irony in such a player being the hardest to find. In which case, why not do all you can to make it easier?

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FOCUS MUST REMAIN ON THE BIG QUESTIONS

It doesn’t require Columbo to detect a small note of tension in the response from supporters’ trust CUOSC to the launch of new Blues fan group Unita Fortior.

The trust said they were “disappointed” not to gain agreement for a face-to-face meeting with the new movement’s 12-man working group.

Unita Fortior, for their part, said they preferred a meeting open to all fans and trust members. Such a meeting is taking place in Carlisle Rugby Club today from 1.30pm.

The trust said they would be adopting a “listening brief” at this afternoon’s gathering, which clashes with CUOSC’s regular pre-match “surgery” at Brunton Park.

In the meantime, Unita Fortior are actively canvassing for more trust members. After achieving a spike of about 100 already, they are set to issue flyers and posters in their bid to make CUOSC more “representative” of the Blues fanbase.

On principle there can be no credible objection to plans and activities designed to make the supporters’ trust, with its 25.4 per cent shareholding, greater in number and therefore clout.

What happens from here remains to be seen, in terms of a new influx of fans and any impact on the future make-up of CUOSC’s board.

One hopes the possibility of positive change does not meet with undue friction. Proactivity, from whichever angle, need not be turned away.

Above all, one hopes any strains exposed by these fresh events do not distract supporters too much from the dominant questions at Brunton Park, which reside not in fan meetings but the boardroom, such as: what’s happening next with “succession”? What’s happened to John Nixon’s “plan B and C”?

Let those matters remain in clear sight even as fan representation enters new and interesting times.

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