Carlisle lifted by sheep thrills

Charles Burgess looks at a small club braced for their big day at Wembley
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The Independent Online
THERE is a joke shop in Carlisle, opposite the Castle, which has sold nearly 3,000 inflatable plastic sheep in the past few weeks, retailing at £6.99. In the Pink Panther record shop CDs of "Blue Army" have outstripped Take That's new single by three to one. And in the city's sports shops, they have shifted 10,000 Carlisle United away shirts. Carlisle, and the surrounding bits of rural Cumbria - population 104,000 and lots of sheep - have gone Wembley potty.

For the many who do not know, today sees the final of the Auto Windscreens Shield, the competition exclusively for those in the now Second and Third Divisions of the Endsleigh League. The Venue of Legends will be full - 26,000 from Carlisle and 49,000 from Birmingham - for a private celebration in one of the most public of places.

The competition used to be the Freight Rover, then the Sherpa Van, then the Leyland-Daf, then the Autoglass (who are Auto Windscreens' deadliest of rivals). But to those who support the likes of Carlisle United, average gate 7,000, it provides the only realistic opportunity to see their club play under the twin towers. To recognise this unique experience, the Cumberland News provided a two-page "Ultimate guide to your Wembley weekend", including advice like: "Pubs and clubs: over-priced, no taste and badly pulled, beer in London can taste more like lighter fuel ... Kensington: it's posh, it's swanky and it's where you will find Princess Di eating, shopping and hiding from photographers."

There are also instructions about how to get to London by road (which might have read: "take the M6 and put your foot down for 300 miles").

Carlisle's "Blue Army" CD, on the Red Fox label, has additional vocals by Michael Knighton, the club chairman: "The buzz is back. We are all excited. I will prove to them there's only one United." The club badge is a fox and there's a stuffed one called Olga in the lobby of Brunton Park. In the Sixties and and Seventies, Olga used to be placed on the centre circle before the match by a man dressed in blue and white tails with top hat. He was a Carlisle dustbin man known as Twinkletoes.

The Red Fox is going to be the logo on a range of leisure wear, part of Knighton's 10-year plan for Carlisle. By then, they will be playing in the Premier League in a rebuilt stadium, which will also house the Museum of British Football and an International Academy of Sporting Excellence.

This may seem a Walter Mitty fantasy. But, two years ago, Carlisle were 92nd in the Football League and losing £6,000 a week. Now, they are running away with the Third Division and are on their way to Wembley, where their share of gate receipts is likely to be £500,000. Meanwhile, playing matters are left to the director of coaching, Mick Wadsworth. The Yorkshireman was not a player of note, having turned out 28 times for Scunthorpe, but, says Knighton, "he is an outstanding coach. I wouldn't dream of walking into the dressing-room and telling him how to do his job. And he has nothing to do with contracts."

Carlisle have bought cheaply; today's side was built for less than £150,000 and includes what is recognised as one of the most effective front lines in the Endsleigh League with David Reeves, the club's record signing at £120,000, and David Currie, who cost Carlisle nothing but for whom Brian Clough once paid £750,000. At the centre of the defence is the former Everton Championship winner Derek Mountfield.

Europe in 10 years' time? Pigs might fly. But who thought there would be inflatable sheep over Wembley today? They're not official merchandise, you understand. There was talk of them being sold in the club shop until it was discovered they had, ahem, working bits.