Carlisle head for calmer waters after the deluge

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For Carlisle United, it has been a genuine struggle to keep heads above water this season - back in January, the floods which engulfed the city of Carlisle filled Brunton Park to the tips of its crossbars.

For Carlisle United, it has been a genuine struggle to keep heads above water this season. Back in January, the floods which engulfed the city of Carlisle filled Brunton Park to the tips of its crossbars. The two goldfish on display in the new reception area of the ground are not of the designer club-coloured variety Peter Ridsdale famously rented in the Viv Nicholson tribute days of spend, spend, spend at Leeds United. They were found swimming on the pitch by Emma Story, daughter of the club's owner, Fred Story.

One of them was christened Billy, in recognition of Billy Thomson, the half-man, half-fish goalkeeping hero of the comic strip Billy the Fish - as if Carlisle United needed another fantastical last line of defence, after Jimmy "the goal" Glass and the last-gasp strike which kept the club in the Football League six years ago. Having sunk into the Nationwide Conference last May, however, the Cumbrians have needed to perform heroics to overcome the mid-winter deluge and to keep on course for an instant return to the fourth-ranked division of English football.

On Monday they play the first leg of a Conference play-off semi-final at Aldershot, with a return at the flushed-out, impressively refurbished Brunton Park on Friday and the possibility of a final to follow against Hereford or Stevenage at the Britannia Stadium in Stoke on 14 May.

"We're delighted to be in the position we're in, where we can still be thinking about promotion," Paul Simpson, Carlisle's player-manager, said. "The whole football club was just wrecked by the floods. It was horrendous to see what it did to people's homes, and here at the ground everything was flooded. I had to use my car as a mobile office. It was a difficult time for everyone, but we got through it."

Simpson already has a plush new office. It was his - and Carlisle United's - good fortune that the club happened to be taken over last summer by the owner of a construction firm. "If we hadn't had Story Construction, or Fred Story, as our owner, this club would have been in real difficulties," Simpson reflected. "We would have had a major, major problem.

"The big thing that Fred did when he first took over was look at the insurance policies that were in place and change them all, because he didn't think we were covered sufficiently. If he hadn't done that, we wouldn't have been covered for a good deal of the claims we've made towards the cost of the repairs.

"The other big thing is that Fred has had access to all of the massive machinery that has been needed to get all of the work done. His lads were here for nine, 10 weeks - six, seven days a week - putting all the hours in to get the football club up and running again.

"We've got wonderful offices now, some more to be completed once the season finishes, and the pitch is going to be refurbished, with new drainage and a new irrigation system. Everything for next season should be fantastic. It would be even better if we could be back in the League."

If Carlisle were to regain League status it would be testimony not just to the rebuilding work performed by Story, a 6ft 8in former rugby union second-row with Aspatria and Cumbria (who also ranks equal 938th in the latest British Rich List, with one Simon Cowell), but also to the constructive management of Simpson, a Carlisle-born man who made his football name on the left wing for Manchester City.

Forced to concentrate on management for most of the season because of a torn cartilage, the one-time hero of the Kippax has successfully guided the Football League fall guys of 12 months ago to third place in the Conference table, behind Barnet, who clinched the one automatic promotion place, and Hereford. He has done so, while maintaining a full-time squad, with a forward line featuring the potent goalscoring talents of Karl Hawley, formerly of Walsall, and Magno Vieira, a 20-year-old Brazilian who is on loan from Wigan until the end of the season.

"If we're going to be honest, we didn't expect to come straight back up this season," Simpson said. "We all hoped we would; we just knew there were a lot of things that needed sorting out. But there's a hell of a lot of work gone on behind the scenes.

"The business side and the commercial side are starting to come good again. And now we're in a position where we could bounce back at the first attempt." After doing the hard part by keeping Carlisle United afloat, that is.