You Can't Take Carlisle From the Boy

I'd better start with an apology and some announcements:

Firstly, apologies to Kristina, AKA Sausage Fingers Kev. Wrongly accused in the last of these columns of having a Christian name starting with 'Ch'. I stand corrected on the spelling and a few other things besides after much intense discussion at Northampton and Brentford. I'd make a few more points but then I saw the pictures on the message board of the poor girl in the hands of first aiders at Cheltenham, so the only thing that really needs saying is; 'Go well Kristina!'

Secondly, 'hello' to the poster known as Santiago. In answer to your question a week or so back; 'yes' I do post on the messageboard, not as often as I'd like, but I am involved. As a rule I like the anonymity, especially when there's a post along the lines of; 'who does that wanker writing a column think he is?' But, thanks for your kind words about Singin' The Blues and - indeed - thanks to everyone else who has e-mailed with positive comments. The book has just earned a nomination towards Border Television Book of the Year. I can't realistically see it winning, but it's the taking part eh?

Speaking of which, let's talk League One and play-offs. I'm putting these words down after a weekend of almost unimaginable good luck. A superb strike from Joe Garner netting us points in a game where we were rattled, and lucky not to go one behind in the opening minutes. A great string of results elsewhere that put us back in the driving seat, capable of determining our own play-off luck and the amazing sight of our ex-goalie Matty Glennon pulling off three penalty saves in one game for Huddersfield against Crewe. Okay, one of them didn't count since the referee demanded a re-take, but it brought back those Aldershot memories. And Huddersfield still lost, allowing us to pull clear of them.

So, our inconsistent season might have a revved up ending. If I'm honest, I'd be really worried by us fluking a promotion at the death. The finale away at Scunthorpe might - just - be a game too far if we're still in the running in the final week. If we do make the play-offs I'd be surprised to see us in the final simply because we've often looked like we were stretched for class against the very best sides in the division. But - for all that - I think there is one positive emerging strongly from this season. Something we can usefully look to for the future, and -hopefully - a better performance over all next year.

The Carlisle team I started to support were famous for their ability to bring on players and find the best in them. It's hardly unique for a club at our level to emphasise youth and use the transfer fees as a means of stabilising the budget. But Carlisle, and a few managers, notably Bob Stokoe, had a reputation for real flair in this area. Given the desperation, free-fall and uncertainties of the last few years we've not made the best of the young talent. When the real prospects came along we either missed out, as with Grant Holt or ended up - in my opinion at least - under-selling the likes of Scott Dobie. Okay, I wasn't party to the transfer talks for the likes of Dobie and Matt Jansen but it has often appeared to be the case over the last decade that no reasonable offer would be refused. Now we're established at a higher level than we've sustained in twenty years we might finally look something like the club I started to support.

I once overheard a discussion coming out of a Carlisle game. The gist of it was that an experienced supporter was explaining to a novice that 'some of them greats' started with us. The examples of our youth policy he cited were Stan Bowles and Peter Beardsley, both going on to play for England. It'd be a great story if it was true. We signed Beardsley from Wallsend Boys Club when he was 17, and captured Bowles from Crewe, then a club well short of our standards. They were never schoolboy or youth players for us. They came because we offered good prospects for them to develop.

Now with Karl Hawley's ankle ligaments looking like a long-term problem, we're more reliant on youth than we expected and it seems to me that Neil McDonald has already shown a few signs of having a Bob Stokoe eye for young talent. More importantly, if the not always reliable rumour mill is to be believed - the likes of Johann Smith are arriving at Brunton Park with an open understanding that we can have first refusal on a permanent deal. It's easy to overlook one part of the process when this happens. These loan moves involve players who have an agent talking into one ear, and parents into the other. If they're thinking of coming to Carlisle with a view to a permanent stay that's because the people they trust see stability and shape to what's going on at the club. Not something that young players would have noticed - say - half a decade ago.

It's not the brightest thought, that we'll give some young talent a chance to shine only to see their best days played out on television in someone else's shirt. But that's the real world and we've made progress in terms of what we can offer such talent. If we pick well, we'll benefit hugely.

How good is Johann Smith? To be honest I don't know. I don't think he's Beardsley standard. At best maybe he'll find himself bouncing one of his kids on his knee and looking at a squad picture for the 2014 World Cup finals, his face amongst the USA players. Maybe he'll think back to 25 minutes on the pitch against Estonia and know that he played in the greatest tournament in football, just once. That outcome wouldn't totally surprise me. Then again, who knows? The Blue Army were close enough to the Leyton Orient defence a couple of weeks back. Johann Smith made sure of that in the first half by pulling the play right out to the touchline and then slipping the challenges a few times. I was close enough to see real concern amongst those defenders faced with that pace and skill. And if we can take one strength from this season it's the way we're moving to bring youth and skill back on such a scale. I'd go with Hindmarch, Smith and Garner as better in quality and potential than most of the players of the same age we've fielded over the last few years. And it seems the present management are set on this route to identifying and building a substantial part of the squad.

If, as the rumour mill suggests, we'll see more young loanees than in the past turning into fully fledged Carlisle players we may be able to look back on this season and count it as a campaign where something really good was achieved.

Go well!

Neil Nixon