United boss Keith Curle gave us his reaction to the Emirates FA Cup away draw at Gillingham shortly after full time on Saturday afternoon.
“I think we showed a level of resilience that was needed,” he said. “We played against a good team who are full of confidence and we had some good spells.
“Attacking wise we didn’t have the fluidity, but it was about organisation, discipline and the willingness to adhere to the roles and responsibilities within the team framework. I thought the players were excellent and, in the end, we changed our formation to 5-5, but that was the importance we placed on staying in the competition.”
Speaking about the preparation for the game, he told us: “We came down on Thursday and that gave us an extra training day down here. We also trained at Sheffield United on the way, and we have to say thank you to them for letting us do that.
“That meant we could do a full training session on Friday and the lads were even able to fit a bit of Christmas shopping in at the Bluewater shopping centre. The important thing was that we were able to do all of that because of the sense of unity that’s starting to grow.
“Colin Carter [club tannoy announcer and sponsor] had a conversation with me a few weeks ago and I mentioned to him that the ideal way for me to plan this trip was to go on Thursday. There are certain amounts you can claim back from the competition organisers, but the addition of another day away from Carlisle would have started to eat in to future budgets.
“He told me he would have a word with some of his associates and I have to say that the response was excellent. Within two days he’d funded the trip by talking to other club sponsors, and some of them plough a lot of money into the club already, because they all wanted to help us to get the overall trip right.
“This is a difficult place to come to travel wise. If you set off on the Friday, and get caught in the traffic, the time it takes to get here can be anything up to 11 or 12 hours. That means you miss meal times, you don’t get the journey out of your legs, and it can all have an impact.
“The players had it in the back of their minds that some of our supporters had pulled out all of the stops to give us the best chance possible, and we knew we needed a performance to match that. I thought we emptied the tank to stay in the competition.
“The club played their part as well because we stayed in a fantastic hotel, so there was no way we could have blamed poor preparation if we hadn’t performed on the day.”
And on the approach to the game from the players, he said: “Gillingham have good players, some of them are match winners, and you could see why they’ve only had one defeat in the last ten games.
“They showed us respect, they didn’t take us lightly, but that early goal would have given them a lift. It was a good response from us to that and we kept good shape and belief on a difficult playing surface.
“When the free kick went in I did think back to something Neil Warnock used to say. He spoke about the fact teams can score too early in a game, and it can change the mindset of the team that just scored.
“I actually turned around to Lee Dykes and said that to him, and when we equalised we had a period of time where we could have added to it.
“We set up to play with three central defenders, but it was in no means defensive. We wanted players to get forward and support the striker whenever we had the ball, and it was actually Tom Parkes getting forward and doing just that which won us the penalty. Then, in the last few minutes, we had Gary Liddle in advanced areas trying to find a way through for us.
“There were defensive players breaking left and right and you’re thinking – wow, that must be a session they put on for themselves in the afternoon when I’ve gone home! In all seriousness the players have licence and freedom to do what they think is right, and that comes down to decision making. If they do it and it’s the wrong decision, they know I’ll talk to them about it when they get back to the changing room.”
United’s own stubborn streak extended with the draw on Saturday afternoon and the manager admitted that there’s a good feeling in the dressing room as we head into a very busy period.
“There’s something coming together in there and it’s pleasing to see,” he commented. “They’re forging a unity and confidence is growing. They know they have the skillsets to match anybody if they play to their potential.
“They want to win games and mentally they’re growing stronger as the season goes on. We’ve come to a tough place and got a result, and that adds to the belief in where we’re going.
“We knew they had players at their disposal to allow them to play any formation they wanted and that’s why we needed to concentrate on ourselves. Some of our big players came good and they’ll also take confidence from that.
“I’d say Mike Jones was one of those. He’s a perfectionist, he puts high demands on himself and he gets frustrated if he doesn’t reach them. He was given licence to get us playing and I thought he got the balance of his own play right.
“Richie Bennett had a good shift working as our own striker. Sometimes we go with pace and mobility, but I felt we needed a physical presence, and he gave us that. The work rate of all of the players was exceptional and we played the game at our tempo.”
On the second half substitution of Danny Grainger, he told us: “He took a bang on the ribs and that started to affect his breathing and mobility. Some will ask how we spotted that, because he wasn’t the most mobile before the bang, but he was able to point at it – I’m being light-hearted there by the way.”
With 321 hardy Blues making the journey, the gaffer was quick to praise the level of support once again.
“It’s phenomenal and I think they deserve credit for being here in such good numbers,” he said. “As I was doing the TV interview just after full time I could still hear them behind me and that shows they were appreciative of the performance.
“We thank them for that because, as I’ve said before, supporting this club away from home doesn’t just happen on a whim. It’s a big task and they never let us down.”
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