Carlisle prepare for fall after a century of ups, downs and inflatable sheep

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The Independent Online

I went to Carlisle United's first game of the season which was at home at Brunton Park. This was back in August. It was about 90C, so hot they had the air conditioning on in the directors' lounge. Air conditioning, in Carlisle? That was a surprise. In my childhood in Carlisle, it was freezing all the year round. On getting up, if you put your bare feet on the lino you could be stuck there for days.

I went to Carlisle United's first game of the season which was at home at Brunton Park. This was back in August. It was about 90C, so hot they had the air conditioning on in the directors' lounge. Air conditioning, in Carlisle? That was a surprise. In my childhood in Carlisle, it was freezing all the year round. On getting up, if you put your bare feet on the lino you could be stuck there for days.

The game was against York City and after 10 minutes, Carlisle were two down. The massed rank of York supporters, at least two car loads, immediately began chanting. "Going down, going down.''

I remember thinking: "cheeky sods". Only 10 minutes of the season gone and they've started already. But then for the last five years, Carlisle United Football Club has been going down, down, down, plunging almost immediately to the bottom of the Third Division, hanging around there all season, then at the last moment, managing miraculously to get a fingertip hold and cling on for another year.

Each season at this stage I've thought: "no chance, this is the end". Which it must be now. How can they possibly avoid the drop to the Conference? They must win today against Cheltenham, and also their last game, while just one of the three teams above them need only get one point from their last two games - and CUFC has had it. I hope that's clear. If so, end of story.

Which began in 1903, so they've just celebrated their centenary. They managed to get into the Football League in 1928 where they have remained ever since, one of nature's Third Division (North) clubs, despite that annus mirabilis of 1974-75 when they got into the top division. Even more mirabilisic, they were top of the First Division after three games, having beaten Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Spurs.

I have that League table pinned above my desk, beside the framed front page of the Carlisle Evening News and Star for 4 May 1974 when they got into the First Division. "What a tonic for the City'', cries one of the headlines. By chance, there's a little photo of me in the bottom left-hand corner of that historic front page. I just happened to be in Carlisle that day, promoting a book about Hadrian's Wall.

All British league clubs have their historic front pages, even if only in the minds of aged supporters, yellowing away, some little event from times past which will always be remembered - an exciting cup run, a player or a manager who started at their little club and went on to glory, or at least Division Two.

I find myself these days studying the Conference table, which until recently meant as much to me as the Botswana Sunday League, and I see there that the top six clubs are all ex-Football League. It must have been traumatic for the likes of Chester City, founded 1884, and Exeter, 1904, ancient cities with a league club just as historic as Carlisle's, to find their themselves demoted, out of sight, off the football map, at least as far as most other football fans and media are concerned.

Does CUFC deserve any more interest or sympathy than any other club? That foray into the First Division does make them rather special, it held out hope for all small clubs, everywhere, though alas it's unlikely ever to be repeated by any other similar sized club, unless they find themselves a Roman Abramovich.

We have also had more than our fair share of famous names, such as Bill Shankly as manager and star players like Peter Beardsley and Stan Bowles, and today in the Premiership we have old boys like Rory Delap and Matt Jansen. In the 1950s, when I was growing up in Carlisle, United had a player so famous you could make jokes about him even non-football fans understood. Which footballer needs a big sofa? Ivor Broadis. (I've a Broad Arse, gerrit?). Ivor played for England, plus two spells for Carlisle.

It was only seven years ago I was at Wembley, watching United win the Auto Windscreen Shield. Twice we got to Wembley. Each time I held aloft my inflatable plastic sheep with about 30,000 other CUFC fans. For about 10 minutes anyway, till it deflated. Cheap plastic, weird looking sheep, made in the Far East.

In 1951, we held Arsenal to a goalless draw at Highbury, "I'm disappointed,'' said Shankly afterwards. "We should have won. I'll give them what for in the dressing room.''

What excitement there was for the replay at Brunton Park - a Thursday afternoon, there being no floodlit games in those days. It was announced that schools in the area would be given the half-day off as it was feared the crowds would be enormous, so we were all well cheesed off when we heard that a young girl over at the Carlisle and County High School for Girls had protested against it, saying it was ridiculous to close schools for a silly football match. But she lost her campaign. (She was called Margaret Forster, by the way, later a jolly well-known author and my dear wife.)

The crowd that afternoon was an impressive 20,900. Arsenal won 2-0. I've still got my ticket, part of my CUFC collection. Collecting Carlisle stuff is actually very expensive, as it is with all small clubs, because few programmes and tickets were printed. A 1930s Carlisle programme will cost you £100 compared with say £50 for Arsenal.

One of the surprising features of this season, despite their dire League position, has been the big crowds. Their average is 5,500 which puts them well into the top half of the League. The devotion of the fans is surprising when you think Carlisle is a small city, population 70,000, in a totally rural area. Once Barrow and Workington departed, Carlisle became the last remaining League club in Cumbria, England's second largest county. If United now go down, fans will have a 150-mile round journey to see another English League team. Not that, of course, there's much chance of getting tickets for Newcastle. Gretna, in the Scottish Third, will be easier and cheaper.

I was brought up on the legend that Brunton Park had the finest turf in the Football League and supposedly, when they first laid Wembley, they took some of our local turf. When they unrolled it, out jumped some Solway shrimps. The finest turf in the Conference doesn't sound quite as impressive.

At that first match of this season, I was a guest of Lord Clark of Windermere, a Carlisle director, formerly the Labour MP and Cabinet Minister, David Clark. He's an active life peer, has an important position as chairman of the Forestry Commission, yet spends so much of his life, for no money, and so much of his time - the team coach to Yeovil and back can take up three days - purely because he loves the club, as his Dad before him did. "I think it's vital for the community for United to survive.''

All supporters think that about their local club, but no club this season deserves it more than Carlisle. At Christmas time, they were so far behind they were practically out of sight. I remember thinking that if by some fluke, they win the next five games, they'll still be bottom of the League.

Now, amazingly, they have pulled themselves up so dramatically in the last three months that they are no longer bottom. Such a shame two clubs will go down this season.

But guess who the bottom club are now? A club who started off the season so well, soaring into the top half. Yes, York City. That'll larn them. Don't mock the afflicted. As we all know, it could be your turn next...

Hunter Davies' next football book, "Gazza - My Story'', will be published by Headline in June

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