United’s under-18s battled through a tough encounter against Cleator Moor Celtic on Wednesday night to book their place in the semi-finals of the Cumberland Cup courtesy of goals from Mason Hardy and Nic Bollado.
We caught up with youth boss Mark Birch to get his take on the game.
“Do you know what, I’ve just said to the lads that I’m so proud of them,” he said. “We probably don’t say that to them enough.
“We’ve come here and you know what you’re going to be up against. We had key players missing and we had a lot of first years involved, and even some under-16s on the bench.
“They dealt with everything that was thrown at them, and they were always going to come under pressure, we knew that. They stood up to it and got through the game.”
Celtic were reduced to ten men with just 20 minutes on the clock when Brad Tatton was sent off for a tug on Mason Hardy when he was clean through, but the Carlisle boss conceded that it was the visitors who had been unsettled by the incident.
“If it had happened against us we’d probably be disappointed and feel it was harsh,” he commented. “I think it affected us more than it affected them through the first half, we didn’t settle at all.
“It was disappointing that we didn’t manage the game at all when they had ten men through that initial period.
“We kept reminding the players that we don’t have to score every time we get the ball. I wanted them to keep it, try to move them about, and get them running after it a little bit.
“We got impatient and things got a bit ragged where we never really got control of the ball. I was pleased that we looked a lot better in the second half with our possession.”
And a late goal from Hardy appeared to have secured the win when he latched onto a rebound from a save from a Bollado toe-poke.
“That’s Mason, he’s a goal scorer and he probably doesn’t get enough credit for it,” he told us. “Nic has scored a few more, and he gets the plaudits, but from both of them the goal tally is stacking up quite nicely.
“It was good to go ahead but we just felt that they would get another chance. They chucked the big lad up front, and they were sending it forward, and he caused a bit of carnage, to be honest.
“They got that equaliser and it’s something else to deal with. Overall it’s an experience that they’ve overcome and they’ve done well to see it through.”
Into extra time and fitness was always going to be a factor.
“The fitness levels of the lads are fantastic and you have to applaud Jamie Roper [strength coach] and Dave Cullen [physio] for the work they do on that,” he said. “The lads listen to them and work with them, and they get the benefit from that in situations like this.
“Jamie and Dave do a great job and they need to be thanked for that. They all kept going and Nic’s got his goal again. He was one of a few who played in three or four different positions for the team, and it was a solid team effort. That was really good to see.
“That’s why we told them that we’re really pleased they stood up to it. Kai Nugent has been hit on the head, Harvey Gordon is the same, and we looked to the ref to protect them a little bit more.
“We told them that it’s an experience they’ve never had before and they’ll learn a lot from it.”
The victory saw the lads into the semi-finals with the mission to retain the trophy, if at all possible.
“We want to win every game we play and it’s a competition we want to win,” he confirmed. “The lads have got to learn the importance of winning games of football.
“If you find different ways of doing that it becomes a habit. In this they showed the enthusiasm to stand up to a tough test and they’ve come out on top because of it. I can’t fault them at all.
“And experiencing something like this is priceless. It’s an experience they’ve never had before, but one they have to have.
“If they want a career they have to do this. We talk about sending them out on loan to get this type of experience and they’ll play in games like that.
“It’s much easier for them if they know what to expect, even if it isn’t as rough and brutal as that, so it really is a priceless experience because they stood up to it.
“You know what you’re getting when you come here because that’s what they do. Fair play to them, it’s in their makeup and their spirit, it’s very much the spirit of their game, and I thought we went at it in a controlled way.
“It was an emotional game, they were emotional, and Cleator Moor wanted to win it as much as we did. We knew they were never going to make it easy for us, and we had to deal with everything without getting too involved, so it was good to go on and win in the way we did.”
Aldo on the agenda for the under-17 group of players last week was a game against Garuda Select, and Indonesian touring team managed by Des Walker and Dennis Wise.
“Dennis approached Eric to see if we wanted to play the game,” he explained. “We actually thought it was just a touring side that wanted a game of football.
“A few days before they told us they were sending a camera crew and next thing I think everyone in Gretna was wondering who their next big signing was, because there were cameras everywhere.
“We found out it was streamed to eight-and-a-half mill people back in Indonesia. Again that was a great experience for them.
“They had to cope with the distraction of seven cameras pitchside and the fact that it was going out live with extensive coverage, and they had to get on with it.
“They handled it really well and hopefully it’s something else they’ll learn from.”