The 8th of May 1999 was a big day for Carlisle United Football Club. Members of the Football League for just over seventy years, they were the only surviving club of the three Cumbrian clubs that had once been members of the Football League (Workington and Barrow having lost their places in the 1970s), but now their place in the League was on the line and they had to beat Plymouth Argyle at Brunton Park on the last day of the season to stay up. Into injury time, they won a corner and threw everybody, including on loan goalkeeper Jimmy Glass, forward. The corner fell to Glass who, from six yards out, slammed the ball into the bottom corner of the net and sent Scarborough down instead.
It was in some respects the ultimate football fairytale, but the truth was somewhat more complex than that. For one thing, Carlisle had been run into the ground by the maladministration of Michael Knighton over a period of the previous three or four years or so. Knighton had famously attempted to wrest control of Manchester United for £20m in 1989 to the extent of running onto the pitch at Old Trafford in a full United kit to demonstrate his “skills”. The deal fell through (and just think how different modern football might have been had it not done so), and Knighton’s spell at Brunton Park proved to be a ruinous one. Also, the respite for Carlisle that was provided by Glass’s goal was a short-lived one. They were relegated into the Conference in 2004, but were promoted back through the first Conference play-offs a year later, and it could be argued that it was the shock of this was the impetus behind their subsequent revival – fast forward four years and they are five points clear (with a game) of Doncaster Rovers in an automatic promotion place in League One, and are looking at playing in the top two divisions of English football for the first time since 1986.
Prior to Knighton’s period in control of the club, they had led a largely assuming life inhabiting all three of the “lower” divisions of the League for significant periods of time. Their moment in the sun came in 1974, when they were promoted into the First Division for the only time in their history. Led on the pitch by Chris Balderstone (who was simultaneously a professional footballer in the winter and a cricketer in the the summer), they made headlines at the start of the 1974/75 season with a televised win at Stamford Bridge that, because of the old practice of not publishing league tables until three matches of the season had been played, sent them briefly to the top of the first published league table of the season. Such excitement couldn’t last, however, and they were relegated in bottom place the following spring.
Monday’s win against Northampton Town, which was watched by a bumper crowd of over 9,000 (their biggest of the season – an astonishing 16,668 – saw them beat Leeds United 3-1 in November) allowed them to open a little daylight between themselves and Doncaster Rovers, who had a similarly wretched 1990s and also fell into the Conference, and the second automatic promotion place is now theirs to lose. The current squad is thin on big names (former Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion player Scott Dobie, who started his career at Brunton Park during that traumatic 1998/99 season is probably their best known player outside of Cumbria), which would indicate, on the surface at least, that their success is being achieved in a relatively sustainable fashion, and with nine wins and two draws from their last eleven matches, it is difficult to see them losing momentum to the extent that they would drop enough points to miss out on promotion. All Cumbria needs now is for Workington and Barrow to get their acts together and the circle will be complete.