Carlisle United fans demonstrate love in the time of coronavirus

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.

Carlisle United 1974-75.

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.




Photo: PA



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