FOR a naturally confident man, Greg Abbott does a cracking line in self-deprecating humour.
Ask the Carlisle boss to describe the way his team plays football and the answer that snaps back speaks of his pride in the team that he’s built – and the humour that would make him a natural on the after-dinner circuit.
“My football team is exactly what I’m not – attractive and pleasing on the eye,” Abbott says.
Perhaps that is what the job does to you. This is the second week of his supposed summer holiday but by 9.15am Abbott has already taken six calls.
“One fantastic, two average and three dreadful,” he says. It is a work ethic and thirst for the job that has served Carlisle United well in his four years in charge – enabling him to pick up good players without the premium and post year-on-year improvements at Brunton Park.
It did not end in the promotion he craved but ultimately, this was another season of progress for Carlisle and Abbott.
The cup successes of the last two years were transformed into a consistency in the league that meant the club was more than a match for the division’s bigger spenders over the course of a 46-game season.
It was not quite enough to bring about the play-off finish that during much of the autumn and early spring seemed possible, but it represents another step forward on Abbott’s watch. It was – in short – a qualified success.
“It was a season that probably ended with disappointment – probably a bit like Newcastle United,” Abbott said.
“Look at the bigger picture, though, and it was a big success. The infrastructure here is better, the team is better and the club has moved forward in all respects.
“There are sound foundations there and now the challenge is to move things forward from here – which will be tough to do because our budget won’t be the biggest in the league.
“Yet the chairman and managing director now see the budget as one that we can compete on, which is part of the challenge that faces us. So we’ll roll up our sleeves and get on with it.”
A key factor was turning Brunton Park into a tough place to play again. After an inauspicious start to their home campaign, they subsequently racked up eye-catching defeats of both Sheffield clubs and play-off finalists Huddersfield.
Geography means it will always be a long trip for opposition teams but too often in recent years it wasn’t a particularly taxing one.
Award-winning groundsman David Mitchell might be partly responsible for that – “Our surface is as good as Wembley,” Abbott contends – but Carlisle now have a team that can make the most of that. We lost one home game in 20, which is an excellent record. Brunton Park is a fortress again,” Abbott said.
“I don’t think you could say that two years ago which was maybe down to the quality of our surface.
“Our groundstaff are some of the best in the business and I think teams used to enjoy coming to play here because the pitch was so good.
“Now we’ve got a team that is good enough to play on that pitch and we’re starting to make it difficult for teams to come here again.” Surprisingly for those of us peering in on the Football League’s most northerly outpost, it has been something of a battle to win over some Carlisle fans.
Perhaps some still look at the fraught battle with relegation at the end of his first season – or feel that the Cumbrians should be scrapping it out with the division’s richer clubs. Those critics might point to Stevenage as a possible example of what can be done on a small budget.
But with respect, they need to see the bigger picture – which is a unified club in rude health and with one of the Football League’s most underrated managers in charge.
It has been noted in East Yorkshire, where Hull have included him as a candidate for their vacancy. It is surprising that thus far only one job has been offered to him – at another of his former clubs Bradford City.
“My employers are Carlisle United and I will break a leg to try and take them forward,” he says when asked about future job opportunities.
“Whoever employs me gets 100% Greg Abbott. It has to be seen as a positive for the football club if the manager is getting mentioned with a vacancy because it means the football club has had a little bit of success.
“Football is a very delicate industry and if next season doesn’t go well, they might be looking for a scapegoat and that might be me. At the moment maybe the opposite is true.
“But I will always give 100% of myself to this football club.”
The message that emerged from last season is that 100% of Abbott currently suits Carlisle very nicely indeed.
HERO: Lee Miller. After failing to make the breakthrough at Middlesbrough, it would have been easy to slope off back to Scotland or simply sit and collect his Riverside pay check. His move to Carlisle brought success – he scored 15 goals – against the backdrop of the most tragic circumstances imaginable.
VILLAIN: Gary Madine. It is water under the bridge now but there was a distinct lack of class about the way the Sheffield Wednesday striker reacted to barracking after October’s defeat at his old club. Branding the supporters who once paid his wages “useless” was undignified.
BEST MOMENT: That injury-time winner against Huddersfield in April was dramatic, deserved and illustrated that on their day Carlisle are a match for anyone in League One. Had Miller stayed fit, who knows?
WORST MOMENT: Oldham away on the final day of the season. Just missing out on the play-offs seemed harsh on a team who had been engaged in the battle at the top for most of the season.
WHAT THEY NEED FOR NEXT SEASON: Greg Abbott. The Carlisle boss is well thought of in the world of football and Hull are looking at him, which would be a sizeable blow for Carlisle. If he stays, he will place a premium on recruiting experienced heads – and adding a bit more strength-in-depth.
THEY SAID IT: “My football team is the exact opposite of me – lovely to look at,” Abbott talks footballing philosophies.