RR: Carlisle have enjoyed a good run of form recently, seeing off three opponents on the trot. Is this the expected result of hard work from the manager and the team, and do you think it's sustainable?
TCN: Expectations were high last summer as we made some excellent signings but after bottling a top three place at Christmas and just about scrapping into the play-offs, I think our fans are being a tad more realistic this season. The opening day defeat to Swindon was disappointing but we weren’t a million miles away from a decent performance and the last three games have shown signs of improvement – Saturday was our first clean sheet since March, and our last before that was last October! Our biggest worry is the lack of depth and balance in our squad – we have 12 midfielders/wingers but just five defenders (and one of whom is arguably a better midfielder). With funds limited, we’re relying on avoiding any major injuries to do well… and making money from cup runs.
RR: Your transfer business so far has been largely in the free agent market - what's the mood like in the stands, with that in mind? Sunderland fans know only too well the underwhelming anticlimax of being skint - is it fair to say expectations are being tempered with a healthy dose of realism?
TCN: We signed striker Richie Bennett from Barrow for an undisclosed fee this summer (reportedly it will reach up to £50k). He’s a player our manager has tracked for a while and we had two “derisory” offers turned down at the start of the close season.
Up until he signed, there was a fair bit of gloom amongst supporters – it probably wasn’t helped by the fact that the previous summer we made a number of exciting and quality (well, for our level!) signings that had us believing we could challenge for promotion. This summer it’s been a lot quieter but the basis of the squad was already there. The problem is, Curle opted to strengthen up front (where we were admittedly short) and in midfield (where we were already overloaded). He signed just one defender and again, that lack of depth at the back is a big concern. Our start has been solid but we’re well aware that we’re just a couple of injuries to defenders away from a bit of a crisis.
RR: We meet tonight in the rather cheap-sounding Carabao Cup. What do you make of the competition, and the fixture itself? Is it something you'll be focusing on as fans or is it just another distraction from the important stuff?
TCN: The cup competitions are vital to us as a club – every season, the club budgets for going out in the first round of every competition. That way, any additional income from those games goes straight to the manager to strengthen his squad, which as you can already see, is something we desperately need to do. So success in the FA Cup and League Cup in particular are very important.
A lot of clubs scoff at the League Cup but it’s been pretty good to us in recent seasons. Keith Curle tends to take it very seriously and we’ve had some cracking results against higher league opposition. The highlight of course was the game against Liverpool at Anfield a few seasons ago. I actually live in Liverpool so it was great for me and I remember arriving the at the ground and seeing their team (expecting them to rest players only for them to name a nearly full-strength side) and thinking “They’re going to f***ing batter us!”. As it is, they did dominate possession and had 40 odd shots but we defended magnificently, and barely looked like conceding. It finished 1-1 (the goal was a moment I don’t think any of us will forget) and we lost on penalties but we certainly did ourselves proud (backed by nearly 7,000 away fans). I totally understand why they need to get a sponsor for the competition but so far, under “Carabao” it’s been a bit of a shambles and this whole 4:15am draw from Beijing just about sums it up.
As for the game itself – I think a lot of our fans remember those great FA Cup ties against Sunderland in the mid-1990s and are really looking forward to tonight’s match. Dare I say it – I think some of our fans think we have a decent chance of causing an upset too. Looking at your fixtures to start the season, it’s been pretty congested so it would hardly be a surprised if you rested key players. It’s always good at Brunton Park under the lights and it’s nice to play a side with a big away following for once.
RR: You've been down in League Two for a few years now - in your eyes is there a plan in place to break through that glass ceiling and stake a claim for Carlisle as more than a team drifting around the lower tiers? Do you think the infrastructure and commitment is in place to push for a return to the lofty heights of League One and then onwards to the Championship, or is that a bit of an ask at the moment?
TCN: The short answer is no. The big thing holding us back (and it has been for a long time now) is our ground. I love Brunton Park, as do many of our fans, but it is undoubtedly a s***hole in terms of facilities. A lot of our fans bang on about it having “character” but that doesn’t bring in the commercial money 365 days a year to help fund better players. Other clubs in our division and above have moved to new stadiums, and with that extra income plus often bigger crowds, they are a bigger attraction to players we target. That and the fact that it’s flooded twice in the space of 11 years means something needs to change.
It’s fair to say our owners/board of directors “divide” opinion amongst our fans. Andrew Jenkins, our Chairman and defacto majority shareholder has been involved with the club for 58 years and his heart is in the right place, but sometimes there’s a feeling he doesn’t quite grasp modern football. That said, he consistently puts his hand in his pocket to fund the club during sticky patches and even helped fund the signing of Gary Liddle in January of this year.
There are accusations that Jenkins and his fellow owners John Nixon and Steve Pattison aren’t making enough effort (or even actively blocking) any future investment in the club (with a few takeovers failing in recent years, most recently a fiasco involving an alleged “billionaire” who turned out to be a Syrian-Canadian businessman who owned a Pizza takeaway franchise). But towards the end of last season, we opened up a financial “facility” with Edinburgh Woollen Mill (i.e. we can take out a loan with them and already have) and there are some suggestions that they will end up taking over the club in the future, but so far that’s not happened. Either way, the club badly needs investment both on and off the field.
RR: Sunderland are favourites for the match, barely, and it's fair to say we're expecting a victory even with a weakened squad. But the cup exists to upset and Sunderland are nothing if not inconsistent - there's a strong case for Carlisle to make it through to the next round. How do you rate your chances?
TCN: It really depends. We tend to do well in this competition against higher league opposition – Curle often plays what he calls his “box” formation – three centre-backs, two wing-backs, a lone striker and the four centre midfielders in a “box” – two attacking, two defensive, fairly interchangeable and fluid and it actually leads to good possession football (he used it to great effect at Anfield for the cup tie there, we even kept the ball for 31 passes in extra-time and were giving it the “oles”). It really does depend what side you put out – anywhere near your full strength and you should have enough to see us off.
RR: Looking at the Sunderland squad, is there anyone you're worried about going into the match? It's not as if we're overflowing with talent right now but surely there are some players there that can only be a danger to you.
TCN: Lewis Grabban has always been a player who has impressed me (even if his decisions over transfers often seem puzzling). George Honeyman looks a good prospect from what I’ve seen of him so far too, I was impressed with how he did in your game in the last round that was broadcast live on TV. To be honest, I’m just hoping Lee Cattermole doesn’t play or at the very least doesn’t crock any of our defenders!
RR: Is there anyone from your side you think Sunderland fans should keep an eye out for during the game? Anyone that's perhaps showing they're better than the fourth tier?
TCN: Nicky Adams. The lad is far, far too good for this level and we’re very lucky to have him. He’s got nearly 20 assists in each of last the last few seasons at this level and can cross the ball in with both feet at an equal level. Stop him, and you annul one of our biggest threats. His ability to put the ball into the right areas is the main reason we made the play-offs last season.
Beyond him, Danny Grainger might not have much pace, but he has a wand of a left-foot and puts in a great set-piece. The aforementioned Richie Bennett is a big, bustling centre-forward who is still looking for his first goal and Tom Miller at right-back offers a goal threat on set-pieces with his heading ability and also has a long-throw that Rory Delap would be proud of.
RR: Lastly, we'll take your predictions...
TCN: I’m going for 2-2, with CUFC winning 4-2 on penalties!