THE first of Argyle’s two remaining routes to Wembley was blocked off by Carlisle, who made the longest journey in English league football worth it by knocking Derek Adams’ out-of-sorts Pilgrims out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle.
First-half goals from Antony Sweeney and Hallam Hope gave the Cumbrians victory in their second game at Home Park this season, following a 4-1 Sky Bet League 2 defeat in August.
As a measure of where the result figured on the FA Cup shockometer, consider this: the game before United’s previous visit, against Portsmouth nine long matches ago, was the last time that league leaders Argyle had conceded two goals in a Home Park match.
Indeed, such has been the Pilgrims’ dominance of their division this season that this 2-0 reversal represented their heaviest defeat of the campaign: their previous four losses (three in the league and one in the Capital One Cup) had been by a single goal.
Argyle made one change to the side that had lifted them five points clear at the top of the division, with Josh Simpson replacing the absent, but not cup-tied, Hiram Boateng in central midfield.
With Reuben Reid still nursing a hip problem, Ryan Brunt continued to take the central striking role, while Craig Tanner was again named on the right side of the Pilgrims’ attack despite Gregg Wylde’s return to fitness.
Both sides started as though a replay in Cumbria on a Tuesday night in late November was the last thing they wanted, although it is difficult to imagine why. There were early last-line interventions at both ends of the pitch, with Argyle skipper Curtis Nelson stretching to thwart Derek Asamoah, before Carlisle goalkeeper Dan Hanford mopped up at the feet of Graham Carey.
Nelson came close to giving the Pilgrims the lead when he got his head to a Tanner free-kick and directed the ball across Hanford only for it to spin away from the goal like a fizzing leg-break after it hit the turf.
Familiarity had certainly not bred circumspection as both sides continued to go at each other and Carlisle got the break some similar enterprise two months earlier had failed to elicit when Kelvin Mellor conceded a free-kick midway inside his own half. The ball was hoisted into the danger zone; Argyle failed to deal with it; Alex Gilliead nodded on; and Sweeney wrong-footed McCormick to volley home from five yards.
Going behind and finding Carlisle in their faces appeared to have a clear unsettling affect on the League 2 leaders, who found themselves further behind before the break.
The Pilgrims were undone by a long ball over the top to Asamoah, whose pace was proving a key weapon for the Cumbrians, and although McCormick rescued the initial situation with a smart low save, his fellow defenders were not as alert or nimble and Hope swept up the loose ball.
Adams’ immediate response was switch to a 4-4-2 shape, keeping the same personnel for the remaining four minutes of the half before the opportunity to regroup and go again in the second 45 minutes.
It was impossible to fault the effort but, for an indiscernible reason, it was not happening for the men in stripes. Individually and collectively, they were not quite on the pace. Seven days earlier, their swagger had bordered on showboating; now they had to work hard merely to compete as equals.
Carlisle were content with their lead and competent enough to protect it. Chances at either end all but dried up as the visitors satisfied themselves with denying the Pilgrims’ openings, rather than creating any for themselves.
Carey, the subject of an apparent winding-up order at which he nibbled, broke free of the shackles to send in a low shot that zipped wide of Hanford’s post, but there was not much else of a clear-cut nature.
The general frustration of the day was added to by some time-wasting by United that was as crude as their attempts to get under Carey’s skin, and as unnecessary.
As the game ebbed away, there was a rare appearance from the bench for Tyler Harvey and Oscar Threlkeld but their efforts, too, foundered on a determined blue wall of resilience.
Ah well (cliché alert), we can always concentrate on the league...after the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, of course.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 23 Luke McCormick; 2 Kelvin Mellor, 5 Curtis Nelson (capt), 6 Peter Hartley, 3 Gary Sawyer; 8 Josh Simpson (11 Gregg Wylde 72), 4 Carl McHugh; 27 Craig Tanner (26 Oscar Threlkeld 86), 10 Graham Carey, 14 Jake Jervis; 17 Ryan Brunt (15 Tyler Harvey 85). Substitutes (not used): 7 Lee Cox, 16 Ben Purrington, 21 James Bittner (gk), 24 Louis Rooney.
Booked: Mellor 22, Carey 62, McHugh 77.
Carlisle United (4-4-1-1): 13 Dan Hanford (gk); 6 David Atkinson, 5 Michael Raynes, 27 Mark Ellis, 3 Danny Grainger (capt, 2 Tom Miller 78); 17 Alex Gilliead (23 Joe Thompson 84), 7 Jason Kennedy, 16 Gary Dicker, 24 Hallam Hope; 12 Antony Sweeney (10 Bastien Hery 74); 25 Derek Asamoah. Substitutes (not used): 1 Mark Gillespie, 9 Charlie Wyke, 20 Troy Archibald-Henville, 44 Alexander McQueen.
Booked: Raynes 15, Sweeney 73.
Referee: Charles Breakspear.
Attendance: 6,005 (176 away).