Calling in on….Carlisle United

A big barn amid farming country...Brunton Park
A big barn amid farming country…Brunton Park

It’s an outpost, is Carlisle. For most football teams visiting the Cumbrians, it is the journey from hell. Certainly, if you take the train, it’s a seven hour-plus round-trip and by the time to get beyond the Prestons and Warringtons of this world, the carriages thin-out as you hurtle towards the last frontier.

When Carlisle were relegated from the Football League in 2004, a lot of people sighed with relief. No more trips to the frozen north. But they came back at the first attempt from the non-league wilderness and they’re on the fixture list once more.

Carlisle, as a town, is something of a throwback. It’s essentially the sort of place where net curtains still twitch and shops sell hardware and groceries. It’s also the kind of town that would appeal to those that go a little misty-eyed about an England of church spires, cricket and warm beer. If it wasn’t for the website addresses adorning the odd shop window, you could easily – with a squint – imagine you were back in the 1970s. There’s a certain charm to it all.

Carlisle United’s Brunton Park is also of another, simpler, perhaps more gentle, time. They’ve had their highs, most famously when they won their first three games in their only season in the top flight. That was 1974-75. Carlisle beat Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Tottenham to open the season, but ended up relegated and have never been remotely near a return.

Carlisle has invariably been a training ground for football people who would go on to greater things. Bill Shankly, for example, cut his managerial teeth at Brunton Park. But any thoughts that this was where he discovered that football “is more important than life”, are misguided. In Carlisle, you get the impression that farming is life. Brunton Park is possibly the only football ground where farming supplies and livestock shows are advertised. Quite what Brentford fans – with their own club’s proximity to Heathrow Airport – made of it on the day Game of the People visited Carlisle, is anyone’s guess.

The crowd at Carlisle can be forgiven for being torn between England and Scotland for their allegiance. Carlisle is, after all, just 10 miles south of the border. The flag of St.Andrews was visible at the Warwick Road end of the ground and there was the odd chant of “Scotland…Scotland” coming from the horde of youngsters who banged a drum incessantly for 90 minutes. There may be a trace of the Scottish accent on the terraces but on the day Carlisle met Brentford, a gaggle of Dutch fans – with Carlisle scarves – was also present!

As for the game, Brentford arrived at Brunton Park in fifth place in League One, some 11 places higher than their hosts. Their recent FA Cup run earned them considerable praise after a battling game and a half against illustrious neighbours, Chelsea. But they lost 1-0 at out-of-sorts Stevenage a few days before travelling North. Carlisle’s season had been largely featureless, hovering just above the danger zone – before playing Brentford, they had not won for seven games.

Brentford have gained a reputation for good football, the influence of German manager Uwe Roesler. They certainly passed the ball around nicely, but up front, they lacked the control and decisiveness to cause Carlisle any problems. Nevertheless, it was a surprise when Carlisle took the lead in the 23rd minute, a looping header by limited central defender Sean Hanlon (apparently his first for the club) from JP McGovern’s free kick. A soft one that Brentford goalkeeper Simon Moore could have dealt with better.

Brentford should have better exploited their possession and Clayton Donaldson really ought to have scored with a free header just after the [very cold] interval. Nine minutes into the half, gangling and uncomfortable-looking forward Mark Beck scored Carlisle’s second when Brad Potts passed across goal to the far post to the ginger-haired teenager. That was about it for Brentford, who did little to warm the small band of Bees’ fans high in the “new” stand.

Overall, the game highlighted the gulf in class between the very top flight and League One, but at £19 a head, it was reasonable fare. Carlisle will not be relegated and, on the evidence of this 90-minute session, Brentford will not go up. But those predictions could be blown out of the water by a couple of results. The game changes far quicker than life seems to have changed at Brunton Park, and that’s not a criticism. I would like to say, “I will return”, but I won’t – seven hours on Virgin Trains is too much to ask…..

The teams were:
Carlisle: Gillespie, Simek, Mustoe, O’Hanlon, Livesey, Thirlwell, Potts, Berrett, McGovern, Robson, Beck. Subs: Collin, Murphy, Welsh, Loy, Cadamarteri, Edwards, Symington.

Brentford: S Moore, Logan, L Moore, Craig, Dean, Douglas, Forshaw, Diagouraga, Dallas, Trotta, Donaldson. Subs: Lee, Adeyemi, Wright-Phillips, Hodson, Reeves, Hayes, Adams.

The attendance was: 3,858

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