Carlisle is the most besieged place in Britain. I know this because prior to watching a superb Pompey display, I visited Carlisle Castle.
Now, you might be wondering what place castles have in a football match report. Don’t worry, we’ll get to the football. But first allow me to digress and talk about Carlisle Castle, because not only does the castle allow me to employ lots of warlike metaphors when I get round to telling you about the footy, it also enables me to discuss the Cumbria Police.
As Pompey fans were to find out, Cumbria’s finest were out in some force to welcome the 1,200 or so members of the Blue Army who travelled to the border city. Now, police presence is often necessary at football matches, but Pompey fans stepping off the train and into Carlisle city centre might have been forgiven for thinking they had wandered onto the set of The Wire.
To say the sheer number of police was over the top for division four football would be an understatement. Although I didn’t see evidence of any trouble, the cops were obviously preparing for it and Pompey fans arriving by train were fenced in to a certain route that took them away from the city centre and then corralled them into a designated pub.
As I’ve said, I went to see the castle. But this in itself proved to be some mission. I’m not in the habit of visiting castles on away days but having arrived at around 11 o’clock there was plenty of time to kill before pub and game. So I told one policeman that I wanted to break out of the Pompey holding pen in order to have a look. He told me to ‘keep moving’. So I kept moving. I then asked one of his colleagues the way to Carlisle Castle. He looked at me incredulously, as if I had just announced that to him that I was armed, dangerous and had taken his wife and kids hostage.
‘The Castle?’ he asked me.
‘Yes’ I replied.
‘Why?’ he asked me.
‘But … why?’
This went on for some time. Eventually I was allowed to break ranks and stroll up to the castle. I know this was a big game and I know Pompey have a certain *ahem* reputation but I think every Pompey fan who attended the game would agree that Saturday afternoon was clearly an Overtime Bonanza for the Cumbria Constabulary. The only place the police appeared not to be was at the excellent buffet organised by Clan Pompey, the club’s Scottish supporters branch, for whom Carlisle away is but a hop over the border.
So, onto the football. Quite simply, Carlisle away was one of the best away experiences I’ve had. The first half was scrappy and all indications were that the game was petering out to a draw, a result which, in a way, would have suited both teams. David Forde, who’s had his critics lately, made some superb saves and was our best player in the opening half, which says a lot about how underwhelming the opening action was. Pompey’s best opportunity came just before the break when Eoin Doyle blasted over when it would have been easier to score. In fact, no one could quite believe how – given the laws of physics – the Irishman managed to blast over from a yard out.
In the second half a different Pompey emerged. Critically, Paul Cook switched to 3-5-2 but as he admitted after the game it wasn’t so much tactical genius as Pompey wanting the game more. I was impressed with our desire after the break; we seemed to be first to every ball and didn’t shy away from hard tackles with the back four again putting in the hard graft.
The exception to the gutsiness was Amine Linganzi in the middle. This isn’t a criticism. Linganzi seems to play at a different pace, stroking the ball around languidly while colleagues around him do the chasing. And this was the key to Pompey’s success, in my opinion. Whereas so often Cook has hung everything off Gary Roberts, on Saturday it was Linganzi who dictated the pace and ensured Pompey were in command.
Pompey besieged Carlisle in the second half, to the delight of the travelling support. If there were any doubts about our ability to convert chances, the much-maligned Gary Roberts dispelled them with a wonderful left-footed solo effort with about twenty minutes left. When he was substituted later it was to massive acclaim from the Pompey faithful, which should save Roberts from scapegoating for a while at least.
I think everyone was then expecting us to immediately concede, as per usual. Instead, Pompey smelt blood and went for the kill. Linganzi marauded forward again and again and struck a beautiful, deliberate, composed hard strike past their helpless ‘keeper. Conor Chaplin appeared. The pressure didn’t let up.
In the castle I’d read about how the Scots who invaded Carlisle in 1745 were later – gruesomely – hung, drawn and quartered. Something similar was happening on the pitch. Carlisle just fell to pieces as Pompey launched the sort of all-out assault we’ve been hankering for all season. The Blues didn’t rest on their laurels, they went for more and more. Luckily for Carlisle, another certain goal was blocked at the last minute, not by the hapless Carlisle defence, but by little Conor Chaplin’s arse.
Then, minutes later, Bennett miscontrolled the ball but but squared it for Jack Whatmough and the towering blonde defender opened his account. If you look at the replay, Whatmough’s goal looks like a tap-in but I can tell you it was a very calm finish from quite a difficult angle when it would have been easier to sky the ball like Eoin Doyle did all afternoon. The fact that Whatmough doesn’t score much showed, when he cocked up his diving celebration and sort of fell in to the turf.
In doing so, he was mirroring the reaction of the delirious Pompey faithful were falling all over the place in sheer delight as we went three up. It could have been more. Four or five easily. Doyle did the hard work and expertly rounded the Carlisle goalie before, once again, inexplicably, hoofing the ball over the bar. By this stage, though, it didn’t matter as the Pompey fans, smiles plastered across their faces, were pinching themselves.
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Photo: Joe Pepler / Official PFC