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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

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Carlisle United must respond if this Celtic Nation grows

There was a time, in some people’s eyes, when Gretna FC stopped being a fairytale up the road and instead became a danger. That time can be traced to the period when Carlisle United started winning again.

Mick Wadsworth photo
Mick Wadsworth

“People always want to attract themselves to success and I probably did feel a bit threatened by it. But the way to address it was to be successful ourselves. If there was a threat from Gretna, we fended them off. That gave me a great deal of satisfaction.”

Fred Story, the former Carlisle owner, July 2008. It was not until Gretna had imploded, the Blues had almost reached the Championship and Story had relinquished ownership that he admitted this openly.

Although it is true that Gretna’s bankroller was someone Story did not particularly care for, there was no way for United directly to crush their big-spending neighbours over the border. The best the Blues could do was succeed on their own terms: feed the fanbase, be exciting, lift a few trophies, guard against outside distractions.

The threat, as Story perceived, was to Carlisle’s status as the biggest tale in town. Had the Gretna project been sustained and enhanced, instead of collapsing, the raid on United’s supporter catchment area could have been ever more damaging to the Brunton Park club – provided they were unable to keep responding themselves.

Celtic Nation FC are in the Northern League Division One, five tiers below the Football League. With weekly gates between 40 and 80, there would appear to be little of concern to United here.

Yet saplings can grow. The club formerly known as Gillford Park may not have a fanbase to speak of but what they do seem to have is money. Pots of it.

Nobody can be sure precisely why the Scottish-born, America-based entrepreneur Frank Lynch alighted on Celtic Nation, other than his account last August of a “chance meeting” which led him to throw his fortune at “these guys with their little dream.” Nor can we know how long the project will last.

What we do know is that he is there, now, and that money is being spent, now. Next season they will be managed by Mick Wadsworth and Davie Irons, two experienced men with good pedigree. New players are certain to be acquired, on wages that will be the envy of their division. Off-field staff numbers are increasing. Steven Skinner, the chairman, wants two promotions in two years.

And then what? Let us imagine that it continues, that 73-year-old Lynch wishes to take things further and has the resources to make it happen? At what point does this become an issue for the bigger club in their city?

The worst thing Carlisle and their controllers could do is nod off while all this is happening. Currently there is no rivalry between the clubs. Given the gap in status they are far more likely to be friends than enemies.

Skinner has even suggested that people watch them both. When United are away on a Saturday, come and see the Nation, is the message. That way nobody loses.

It would clearly not do to be any more aggressive. Imagine if Skinner was calling on disaffected fans to give up on the Blues and instead come and have a look at the exciting new happenings a couple of postcodes away. There would be uproar. It would create controversy Celtic Nation do not currently need.

But here’s the thing. If you don’t have a fanbase, you have to acquire one. And that may still be somebody else’s. For the majority of football history in Carlisle, the latent, live football-watching audience has essentially been United’s alone. In the good times, they’ve pulled more of them in. When things go badly, off they drift.

But, in terms of another place to watch football of a decent level, there has not really been anywhere for them to drift to. If Wadsworth and Irons build an attractive non-league team, who make ever more positive headlines with their signings and promotions, that may change.

It is true that old loyalties would not shift easily, but equally the case, as Story observed, that some are lured to success like a magnet.

This may not be heard much around the Northern League now, but: good luck to Celtic Nation. If this is how Lynch wishes to spend his money, if all is fair and with the long-term in mind, then the only objection can be envy. If Skinner is able to dispense this money on the right people, and can build up a club almost from scratch, it will at the very least be fascinating to watch.

Reservations are natural when a club emerges in this fashion but nor should we write off a potential local success story before it has had the chance to unfold, before all the detail is known.

But be no doubt that if Celtic Nation ever reach a position where they can call on several hundred fans, that will be a problem for United. Story knew this about Gretna’s rise through the Scottish league. Under his ownership, Carlisle tended to be as sharp as tacks.

Regularly there was a new spin, a new sponsorship, a new statement of intent, a new message of realistic ambition, lots of winning football. Supporters, by and large, hoovered it up. The local agenda remained Carlisle’s, but only just, for Gretna were singing and dancing at this point.

It showed the importance of being forthright and confident, as Story unquestionably was. United do not possess such a commanding figurehead now and one wonders how this would affect things if a competitor appeared on the lawn.

Attempts to flatter and persuade more people to come to Brunton Park are not exactly scintillating right now, and not just because of the team’s performances. The Tottenham game in the Capital One Cup, which drew a big one-off crowd of 12,625, was followed by a kind of promotional inertia. With feedback panels and season ticket discounts there are efforts being made to connect, but mainly with the already converted.

How are they going to reach out to those people who have turned off, or who have not yet decided to turn on? And how might they do it in a few years’ time, if they no longer rule the city alone?

With Gretna, the competition proved to be a good thing for United in the end. It could be so again. But only if they stay awake at the wheel.

Have your say

What a joke thinking that this club has any affiliation with celtic fc its a celtic mans little toy lynch has got too much money its another story like gretna only this time we can all see through it were english down here and that's how its gonna stay , dream on timmy. WE ARE THE PEOPLE

Posted by ian mackenzie on 21 September 2013 at 17:35

Good luck to Celtic Nation , like Will says , any cash into the game has to be welcomed. As for his silly point about fans of Celtic FC , well , those fans attend cities throughout England on a yearly basis ,be it for friendlies , testimonials or Champions League games. There is very little trouble and they are welcomed back with open arms. No cities have been "destroyed". Not by Celtic fans at any rate.

Posted by Jamie Harris on 30 July 2013 at 18:15

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