There was no blood on the carpet of the ageing Brunton Park boardroom on Saturday night. When the end came for Greg Abbott, it was concluded with a handshake and the offer of a glowing reference from men who gave the impression that they were very reluctant executioners.
As managing director John Nixon admitted yesterday, “streetfighter” Abbott would have kept on swinging if the decision hadn’t been made to part company “mutually” after a 1-0 defeat to Port Vale on Saturday.
The fifth longest-serving manager in the Football League had boxed his way out of tighter corners than the one his team were forced into by their terrible start to the season but crowds were diminishing, the atmosphere had turned toxic and at the end of the day the long-term health of the business started to look in jeopardy.
“Following the defeat against Port Vale we looked at the detrimental effect on the business. It wasn’t a personality issue. Gates are going down and to keep the business as a viable proposition we had to look at that,” he said. “We had to do something to stop the business spiralling downwards.”
Even so, it was not an easy decision. Chairman Andrew Jenkins rated Abbott as in the “top half a dozen” managers the club had ever had and when the bile is drawn out of the debate, perhaps Carlisle supporters might come to agree.
Two Wembley visits, stabilisation in League One and the sniff of a play-off chase in 2011/12 were all in his favour. The budget was tight and the difficulty of persuading players to come to one of English football’s outposts made it difficult to sustain any momentum he had built up.
He could have walked away too: an informal offer from Bradford City was tabled before Phil Parkinson took over at the Bantams. Newcastle United might have offered him a job too, and there will be no shortage of interest when he dusts himself off in the coming days. He is an impressive and popular figure.
But not the right man for Carlisle any more, as evidenced from the dwindling crowds. “A lot of people did want change, you have to acknowledge that,” said Nixon. “Sometimes change brings success, sometimes it doesn’t.
“A lot of people have indicated that if the manager wasn’t here they’d come back to Carlisle and I hope that is true.
“If I listened to everyone who says they’d come back I don’t know if we could print enough tickets. But I firmly believe there will be an increase on Saturday because they will support the team and the people we have here.”
The problems at Carlisle United throw up bigger questions – issues about the direction of the lower echelons of England’s football pyramid.
For in so many ways the Cumbrians are a model club. They are run by fans who appreciate the importance of sticking to a budget and live and work in the local community. They have faith in their managers and the board are all “honourable” men.
So honourable, in fact, that they refused to countenance reneging on a verbal and written offer of a contract extension this summer despite the very real possibility of having to pull the trigger on Abbott in a few weeks. That decision – justified rigorously by Nixon on Monday afternoon – means they will have to honour Abbott’s contract in full.
When Premier League football fans unfurl their ‘Against Modern Football’ banners, perhaps they dream of a club run along the same lines of Carlisle: on the basis of honour, love and a sense of responsibility.
Yet Carlisle’s supporters are boycotting too: fed up of what they see as a lack of ambition. Many were staying away until Abbott got sacked and attendances dipped to such an extent that Nixon admits he had serious concerns about the bottom line of the business.
Could it be that English football is no longer a place for sober men of substance who run the business with a duty of care? Is it now an environment where even League One fans are waiting for an Emirati Prince to come and inject cash that can short-wire success?
There is an interesting debate to be had here, not least when you consider that under the new salary cap control regulations every League One club has to limit their wage spend to 60% of their income. Fine for Wolves, who can expect 20,000 crowds if they build a head of steam, but not quite so for Carlisle and their 4,300 average gate.
These were the “parameters” that Abbott had to work within. Whoever the next manager is, he will have to do exactly the same. There is no Roman Abramovich waiting in the wings to take over.
Yet Nixon insists there is ambition. “The ambition has always been the same: the first ambition is to move up to the next level and that’s the Championship.
“We want to do that and we have never changed on that – that is our aim. We still want to do that. Alongside that we need to prepare the club to have the facilities to go to that level and that means an all-seater stadium, better facilities to get families in.
“Those two criteria are absolutely vital to us and if we don’t have that as a target to improve the club and to improve the playing side to get to the next level we have nothing to give to the fans. They have got the same vision as I have, I’m sure of that.”
In the short-term, Carlisle just need to stay up. Graham Kavanagh, David Irons and Tony Caig have first-team responsibilities ahead of a hoped-for appointment before the Stevenage game a week on Saturday.
“The maximum number of points we can get is 122,” Nixon said. “When you’ve got two and you could get another 122 you have got to believe that we’re within touching distance of pulling ourselves out of this second-bottom position.
“If they don’t believe that and the new manager doesn’t believe that then we’ve appointed the wrong guy and we’ve got the wrong dressing room. I don’t believe either of those things to be the case.
“We’ve got to say we’ve got a realistic chance with 40 games to go to get ourselves back in the mix.”