Football: Carlisle on the brink of obscurity

Cumbrian club with a proud past could drop out of the League after unfulfilled pledges of fresh glory.
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BY NOON yesterday the local newspaper posters were up all around Carlisle town centre - "United face nightmare scenario."

Scarborough's defeat of Plymouth the previous night had left the players and staff of Carlisle United dangling over an abyss. A point adrift at the foot of the Nationwide Third Division, and with only one match remaining, the club which briefly headed the old First Division a quarter of a century ago is in imminent danger of ending its 71-year acquaintance with the Football League.

The News and Star, feverishly examining every possible escape route, pointed out that if Scarborough lose their final game tomorrow, at home to Peterborough, then Carlisle could conceivably escape by drawing their match against Plymouth at Brunton Park. Always assuming that they could score eight more goals than Scarborough to move ahead of them by virtue of goal difference. So, 8-8 might do the trick...

In reality, however, Carlisle's young team must win and hope that Scarborough do not.

One man and his dog watched United train behind their ground yesterday morning. "There will be a lynch mob waiting for this lot on Saturday night," he commented darkly, the man, that is.

If that prediction should come to pass - and local police have already drafted in extra officers to safeguard against any pitch invasion - the main target of all the gathered wrath is likely to be the club's enigmatic chairman, Michael Knighton.

The man who nearly bought Manchester United for pounds 10m stepped into the brink for Carlisle seven years ago when they found themselves in an almost identical position to their current plight. They finished bottom of the League, but Aldershot's financial collapse saved them from the drop.

Knighton is clearly not a man who believes in proceeding with caution. On taking over as Carlisle's chairman he bundled the following hostage to fortune into the glare of media attention. "I predict that within 10 years we will be among the 10 wealthiest clubs in the country," he said. "We will be competing in Europe and will have one of the best stadiums."

Unless fortune favours his players tomorrow they will soon find themselves competing against the likes of Dover and Forest Green in the Nationwide Conference. Although, of course, we are all Europeans now.

It is true that since Knighton's arrival a new east stand has been constructed at Brunton Park. But if the experience of former season ticket holder Ronnie McMinn is anything to go by, the addition, courtesy of the chairman's property company Knighton Holdings, has been far from satisfactory.

"I was one of many supporters who pledged pounds 18 a month for a year towards that stand," McMinn said. "We were told we would have named seats, free car parking and an executive bar. None of that has happened. I'm 30 now, and I've watched the team since I was four. But after the business with the stand I cancelled my season ticket. And that has happened to a hell of a lot of others."

He pointed to the steady sale of the club's most promising players - including Matt Jansen, whom Crystal Palace sold on to Blackburn for pounds 4.1m earlier this season - as evidence of the club's lack of ambition, and their chairman's lack of commitment. "Knighton is just a businessman," he said. "It's pound signs all the time for him, the club is going backwards."

Knighton's commitment appeared to have strengthened last season when he sacked Mervyn Day as manager and took over as director of coaching. But he relinquished his dual role in December, appointing Nigel Pearson as manager.

By that point the club was second from bottom, crowds had dwindled to the 2,000 mark, and Knighton, who had put many of his local properties on the market, was voicing doubts about his continuing involvement with the club. "Do you throw in the towel and walk away?" he mused in November. "Do you simply cave in to the critics?" Knighton, for now, remains. But so do the critics, who may have a chance to have some questions answered by the chairman in an open forum at the club tonight. "People think he'll do a runner at the end of the season," said McMinn's friend, who saw both Carlisle's Wembley appearances in 1995 and 1997, when they were runners- up, then winners of the Auto Windscreens Shield.

"The team that won at Wembley has been sold," McMinn said. "How many teams can you think of that have sold their last three captains?"

McMinn, at least, intends to watch Carlisle on the occasion that Pearson describes as "the biggest day in the club's recent history". Mark Proudfoot will not be there to see the team, for reasons he explains succinctly. "They're shite," he said, as he cleaned the windows of one of the many bed and breakfasts along the road from the Brunton Park ground. "Knighton is the problem because he's a businessman, not a chairman. He has drained the club."

Proudfoot first saw Carlisle play during their annus mirabilas of 1974, when victory in their first three matches against Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Spurs saw them top of the whole League structure, though they subsequently slid to the other end of the table and straight back into the Second Division. He does not watch them any more.

"The new stand has never been full since it was built," he added. "They might as well take the seats out and use it as a ski slope next season. If Knighton had spent pounds 2.4m on players rather than that stand, the club wouldn't be in the predicament it is in now."

Sitting in that same stand after training, Pearson stared out over the pitch upon which his immediate destiny would be decided 48 hours later. The players had prepared with an almost light-hearted air, although one sudden outburst of anger and bad language evidenced the tension underlying the occasion.

"They are a very young squad and they have given their all," Pearson said. "They are playing to their maximum, and I still believe we are a decent side. But we are in the situation we are in..."

Pearson, whose contract ends tomorrow, is understandably wary of making any criticism of the support he has received in his first managerial role. But when it is put to him that all the other sides struggling at the foot of the League have spent money to get out of trouble and he has not received a penny, he cannot deny the truth of it.

There seems to be a shared perception about Carlisle United FC among many of its supporters. Gerald Sloan is another who remembers the fabulous 1974-75 season, when he would watch the likes of Chris Balderstone and Ray Train lording it in what the local paper must surely have referred to as a dream scenario. But he has not watched them since. "Alan Ashman, the manager at the time, said that they wouldn't spend pounds 100,000 on a forward to keep them in the First Division. I thought: "What kind of an attitude is that?" I've supported Manchester United ever since."

History appears to be repeating itself at Brunton Park. This time, however, the price may be an even heavier one.


Carlisle was originally a Celtic settlement and became a Roman town during the building of Hadrian's wall. Michael Knighton arrived in 1997.

In 1568, Elizabeth I kept Mary Queen of Scots as her "guest" in the Castle, in a state of anxiety and discomfort. It is a coincidence that Carlisle fans have been in a similar state for many years.

"You'll take the high road and I'll take the low road" was reportedly first sung by 18th century Scottish prisoners in Carlisle lamenting their chances of going home alive. There is no confirmation that Carlisle fans have a new terrace chant to sing at their Scarborough counterparts: "You'll take the League place, and we'll head off for the Conference."

The "Carlisle experiment" started in the town in WWI, and aimed to regulate state ownership of licensed premises, to stop the town's munitions workers drinking all day and night. Our current licensing laws - draconian by European standards - are partially a result of this.

The town's football club, (England's most northerly) began as Shaddongate United in 1903.

Having played in the Lancashire League, Carlisle were eventually moved to the North Eastern League. After four applications to the Football League, they were accepted in 1927.

Bill Shankly's first managerial job was at Carlisle, in 1949. He endeared himself to fans by addressing them with team news over the PA before each game. In his final season, 1950-51, Carlisle finished 3rd in the Third Division (north).

The club had the youngest ever player-manager, Ivor Broadis, who played for Spurs during the war and took over at Carlisle in 1946, aged 23. He sold himself to Sunderland in 1949 for pounds 18,000 and later worked for the Carlisle Evening News and Star as a journalist.

Carlisle was the first floodlit club outside London, in 1952.

Stan Bowles came to prominence with the club, having previously been with Manchester City, Bury and Crewe.

Carlisle spent one year in the top flight (the then-First Division) from 1974-75, having been in the Fourth Division only 11 years earlier. After three wins in the top flight they topped the division, but finished the season bottom.

Carlisle are the only remaining Cumbrian club of three to remain in the football League. Barrow (1972) and Workington (1977) were voted out. Carlisle's nearest League opponents are now Newcastle, 58 miles away, the furthest distance between any two League clubs.