Fan's Eye View : Messiah works a miracle

No 99: Carlisle United
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Saturday, 24 August, 1974: Chris Balderstone's penalty beat Pat Jennings and Spurs at a packed Brunton Park and Carlisle United were top of the First Division.

It was a special moment for the homely club that had risen from the lower divisions in the expansive 1960s. Shrewd housekeeping and attractive football had contributed to what Bill Shankly called ``the greatest feat in the history of the game". This was the stuff of dreams, become reality.

The fates were weaving a tragic fall, as if to punish such hubris. For the want of a goalscorer, United were relegated at the end of that season. Two years later, they were demoted further.

Apart from a brief, Bob Stokoe-inspired resurgence in the early 80s, the next 15 years saw a steady decline. The nadir was reached in 1992.

Bottom of the entire Football League, with dwindling support and no money to strengthen a desperately poor squad, the club was put on the market. The end was surely nigh.

And then came Knighton, of the ball-juggling, alleged financial shenanigans and take-over fiasco at Old Trafford. He came in clouds of vainglory, predicting the Premier League within 10 years. He would make Carlisle United a model club.

The world looked on. They saw a derelict relic of the Third Division North, lost in the wilds of Cumbria; they saw Michael Knighton, on the rebound from Manchester United. They called him the Walter Mitty of football. In the face of scorn, the great man's pulpitry was seamless and spellbinding, and spoke of geographic potential, 10-year plans and Europe.

We supporters waited, to see how results matched the rhetoric. He promised a win in his first game. A big crowd saw Carlisle score 3, and Walsall get 4. ``Knighton, Knighton, what's the score?", taunted the Walsall fans. A team of free transfers and cast-offs eventually finished 18th.

But the money began to flow in thrilling fashion in the summer of 1993. Mick Wadsworth, an experienced and highly rated coach was made Director of Coaching in an ambitious, "continental'', management structure. Mervyn Day came as player-coach to join David McCreery. Exciting players arrived for the start of the season. In September the club's transfer record was broken, when £121,000 was paid for Notts County's David Reeves.

Wadsworth talked about stylish football, but for a few months it seemed that the passing game he was trying to inculcate was too complex for the crude urgencies of the Third Division, and the team opened 1994 in mid- table. Still the cynics mocked; and still Knighton held forth with evangelical zeal at every opportunity.

But nobody was sneering when we took 5,000 to Roker Park for an FA Cup third-round tie (Darren Edmondson's late equaliser that day and the ensuing celebrations were surely the greatest thing since the mid-1970s), or when, in a superb late-season winning League run, United drew the teeth of John Beck's paper Preston tigers at dilapidated Deepdale, beat champions Shrewsbury and made the play-offs. If exemplary, upwardly mobile Wycombe were too good for us in the end-of-season knock-out, at least we had arrived.

And how. Derek Mountfield and David Currie (we could only have dreamed of such names at one time) have added class and experience this season, and the momentum has been maintained with a vengeance in the League. One defeat in 27 games up to the start of February, 18 matches unbeaten, and a 16-point lead at the top - it tells, as they say, its own story. Though a lot of results have had to be scraped and scrapped for, the golden rule of League success - consistency - has been the guiding principle.

So what about Knighton, then? Are we being conned? In cloud cuckoo land? As a supporter, all I'll say is, this messiah of positive thinking has worked a minor miracle to revive a moribund club and transform it into a thriving enterprise. We have got a big, developing, stadium, growing commercial strength, ambitious boardroom leadership, a high-class management team, a fertile youth policy, a quality first-team squad, and a level of passionate support matched only by Preston North End at this level.

For a football fan, well, you really can't ask for anything more.