Carlisle crumble in sight of safety

Carlisle United 1 Cheltenham Town 1
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The Independent Football

In one respect at least, Michael Knighton was not too far off beam with his grandiose vision for Carlisle United. Back in 1994, the great ball-juggler predicted in these very pages: "In 10 years time we will be buying the best players in the world. We'll be in the Premiership, in the European Cup, and people will be flocking to this stadium."

They turned up in droves at Brunton Park yesterday - 9,524 of them, Carlisle's biggest crowd of the season. It was not quite the kind of sell-out that Knighton foresaw in the 28,000-seater "Carlisle Amphitheatre" he pledged to have ready for the Cumbrians' centenary season. But, then, Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane have not been beating a path to join the staff at Brunton Park in 2004.

From August, it will be the Conference of England, rather than the Champions' League of Europe, for the club from the far north-west. Their years of broken dreams finally gave way to nightmare reality in the last five heartbreaking minutes at Brunton Park yesterday.

At the start of the 85th minute, Carlisle were still clinging to Football League status. They were leading 1-0, courtesy of Brendan McGill's early goal, and with Scunthorpe heading for defeat at Cambridge, they were preparing to head to Doncaster next Saturday with a chance of survival on the final day of the season.

But then their world came crashing in on them. Grant McCann hoisted a corner from the right and Kayode Odejayi headed in the Cheltenham equaliser off the underside of Matty Glennon's crossbar. It came at the Waterworks End, where Jimmy Glass volleyed his last-gasp saver against Plymouth five years ago. Glass was among the crowd yesterday, but there was to be no dramatic reprieve this time. The final whistle was sounded in otherwise funereal silence.

The trip to Doncaster will formally bring to an end a stay in the Football League that started with a 3-2 victory at Accrington Stanley in August 1928, and which was followed by an 8-0 win against Hartlepool, still Carlisle's record League victory.

There have been other high points in the intervening years: standing top of the old First Division three matches into the 1974-75 season (the club's one and only term in the top-flight) courtesy of Chris Balderstone's penalty-spot winner at White Hart Lane, and winning an Anglo-Italian Cup tie away to Roma, 3-2. Amid the sadness yesterday, though, there was hope of high points to come.

Since recovering from the financial wreckage of the Knighton years, with the lifting of a bar on signing new players last November, Carlisle have been a team transformed. In December, they had five points from 21 games and were 16 points short of safety. Since then they have gathered 40 points from 24 games - promotion form - under the inspired player-management of Paul Simpson, local lad and one-time Manchester City winger.

Now 37, Simpson endured an uncomfortable afternoon on the left side of midfield yesterday, watching his side sweep into a ninth-minute lead, thanks to McGill, but then suffer an increasingly acute case of nerves against a Cheltenham side managed by the Carlisle player-manager's former assistant, John Ward. It took a brilliant covering tackle by Tom Cowan and a goal-line clearance by Lee Andrews to keep Carlisle in front. The equaliser, when it came, was shrouded in an air of inevitability.

After the initial deflation, Simpson and his players re-emerged from the dressing room to acknowledge the support of the fans who had swarmed on to the pitch.

"We haven't been relegated because we couldn't beat Cheltenham, but because of what happened in our first 21 games," Simpson reflected. "We can all come back stronger from this. We've got the spirit to come straight back from the Conference and to be all the better for this."

Carlisle United 1
McGill 9

Cheltenham Town 1
Odejayi 85

Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 9,524