CARLISLE is one of football’s outposts. Almost staring into Scotland, it is a mid-sized city with fewer distractions than some of the more metropolitan areas of the country.
Carlisle United, founded in 1904, is a small, somewhat homely club with a sizeable stadium – Brunton Park is the largest in England which is not all-seated. There’s an undoubted air of nostalgia about the city and it is hard to believe they once enjoyed a single season in the top flight in what was once dubbed “the happiest place in Britain”. Not only that, they won their first three games, including victories against Chelsea and Tottenham. But that was 46 years ago.
Today, Carlisle are representative of the 92-club concept that covers all corners of England. They’re not big, they’re not ever likely to be a major player and they have realistic aspirations aligned to their modest financial model. They are the sort of club that must be a little anxious about the immediate future at the moment. Two months without football, a significant part of their revenues, makes the Carlisles of this world very vulnerable.
Carlisle’s fan base may have shrunk since the days when they ran out at Anfield, Highbury and St. James’ Park in the old first division, but nobody can question the passion or loyalty of their supporters. The city has a population of 75,000 and in 2018-19, the football club averaged 4,700 people for home games at Brunton Park. In 1974-75, their brief flirtation with the big time, crowds were around the 14,500 mark.
Some fans are concerned that the club’s major backers, which includes the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, may not be able to prop-up Carlisle United through the crisis. A “fighting fund” has been established to help the club navigate its way through the current crisis. The idea, “Carlisle REunited” came from the Carlisle United Official Supporters’ Club to allow fans the chance to come to aid of “the Cumbrians” in their hour of need while developing closer ties.
Just one look at the 2018-19 financials highlights how fragile small clubs can be. Carlisle’s turnover was just £ 3.6 million, but 75% of that went to wages. Admittedly, that was an improvement on the £ 3.2 million (81% of income) paid to players in 2017-18, but the wage-to-income ratio is still too high. Indeed, the club admitted it spent more than it could afford from its own trading activities. The pre-tax loss for the year amounted to £ 667,000 and debt rose to around £ 2.9 million.
The club has consistently lost money over the past three years, which has largely been funded by equity and external funding. However, Carlisle’s board has also introduced some measures to restore some stability, described as “tough and unavoidable”. Hence, salaries came down by half a million pounds in 2018-19 and overall expenses fell from £ 3.5 million to £ 2.9 million. Carlisle’s Chief Executive, Nigel Clibbens, said the club has become financially stronger, more resilient and better prepared for the future. The coronavirus will surely test that theory.
Of course, the football world is that little bit more nervous this year given the Bury story. It showed that a club can fall off its perch quite easily and find itself consigned to history. Carlisle have faced hurdles before and even dropped out of the Football League for a solitary season in 2004. They’ve reached a few Football League Trophy finals, winning at Wembley in 2011, but they’ve become a mid-table League Two club in the past two years.
The coronavirus presents a huge challenge for football clubs, but it also tests the strength of English football. Those that treasure the 92-club structure will be hoping that institutions like Carlisle United come through unscathed.