HE described it beforehand as “the best worst-case scenario” and all Carlisle United manager Greg Abbott’s sweetest nightmares came true at the Galpharm Stadium.
For the second time in 12 months, Abbott will be leading his side out at Wembley’s Johnstone’s Paints Trophy final, but his players could scarcely have made harder work of it.
You could feel the relief as he punched the air at the end of 90 fraught minutes.
With 70 minutes gone in last night’s Johnstone’s Paints Northern Area final, Huddersfield’s hardy supporters seemed to have given up hope.
Having listened to Carlisle’s fans que sera-ing throughout, all they could do in response was sing about promotion. Wembley would have to wait.
However, 15 minutes later when a flare from the home fans went up in smoke, it looked like Carlisle’s April plans might do likewise.
With Alan Lee looking like scoring every time the ball went near his head, it ought to have been their visitors releasing a distress signal.
Defending a 4-0 first-leg lead, Carlisle managed to lose by only the three goals, but in a panic-stricken final 20 minutes it could easily have been more.
Not that it mattered to any Cumbrian in West Yorkshire last night. Carlisle are on their way to a record sixth final.
If the away fans had begun signing about Wembley with indecent haste, none of their players were willing to rush into anything, going into super slo-mo mode every time the ball went dead. Huddersfield’s multiball system played into their hands, overeager ballboys often slowing down a game they were meant to speed up.
Needless to say, the home fans were not happy when only two minutes were added to the first half. By then though, Anthony Pilkington had given his side a lead.
Carlisle made all the right pre-match noises about not sitting back too much but it was inevitable Huddersfield – third in League One and with a good cup pedigree this season – would make the early running.
Scott Arfield blasted a 30-yard free-kick over and it took a good interception from left-back Gary Borrowdale – signed on loan from Queens Park Ranger too late to make the programme but early enough to make his debut – to keep the ball from Gary Roberts as the Terriers tried to counter-attack. Eventually Carlisle fought back, Ben Marshall’s cross causing Peter Clarke to slice the ball out midway through the first half.
When James Berrett won the ball on the byline, his cross was just in front of Craig Curran.
Huddersfield refused to be downhearted and, with manager Lee Clark an enthusiastic cheerleader, they continued to push on, buffeting Adam Collin at a corner and giving Carlisle another chance to delay the game as they discussed the why and wherefores with the referee. As if they needed any encouragement, Huddersfield’s half-time announcer only wound up the away fans even more by asking the “muppet” (as he put it) taking part in a shooting competition, “Did you see Newcastle on Saturday?” then, after he beat off the local competitors telling him, “You just managed to put in far more effort than most of your players.”
Abbott must have had a similar effect in the away dressing room, because his players started the second half much better than the first.
Barely a minute had gone when Curran ran at Huddersfield, his shot ballooning out for a corner.
From it, Lubomir Michalik stabbed goalwards and when Arfield cleared Curran’s effort on the rebound clear, only for the same player to stab wide.
Gudjonsson shot over when Berrett failed to control a left-wing cross and, when the giant Jamie McCombe held his head in his hands on 64 minutes after clearing the bar when the ball bounced around the box, it looked like that was that.
Soon, though, the home fans’ minds were back on the game, Alan Lee running unmarked on to Roberts’ near-post corner.
A minute later Collin had to tip another Roberts’ cross off the striker’s head as he closed in on Huddersfield’s third. He should have had it with 15 minutes left, but was unable to direct his header from Pilkington’s cross yards from goal.
Mission Impossible was starting to look uncomfortably feasible.
Peter Murphy threw himself in front of Lee’s 80th-minute effort, allowing Collin to tip it over, then headed in the corner.
The same player ought to have taken the tie to penalties, but his diving header from Roberts’ volleyed cross flew wide. There were five minutes left on the clock, but double that to be played.
Clarke forced another save after 88 minutes until finally Carlisle managed something in response, Marshall – injured for last season’s final – forcing a save and a corner in the third added minute.
HUDDERSFIELD: Colgan, Peltier, Peter Clarke, McCombe, Kilbane, Gudjonsson, Kay (Cadamarteri 57), Arfield, Pilkington, Lee, Roberts. Subs (not used): Bennett, Novak, Atkinson, Chippendale.
Booked: Roberts, Lee.
Goals: Pilkington 30, Lee 70, 81.
CARLISLE: Collin, Murphy, Michalik, Simek, Borrowdale, Marshall, Zoko (Taiwo 85), Berrett, Noble, Loy (Robson 67), Curran. Subs (not used): Caig, Livesey, Madden. Booked: Noble.
Ref: Steve Tanner (Somerset) Att: 6,528