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Saturday, 25 October 2014

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Carlisle need to right a 50-year-old wrong in FA Cup

‘Ebbsfleet, is it?” asks Peter McConnell, eagerly down the phone. “They won’t be any mugs, them.” Carlisle United’s former captain, now 75, speaks with wisdom that is now precisely 50 seasons old when he learns of the Blues’ latest FA Cup mission this weekend.

McConnell’s long-ago time with United was mostly happy and successful, but this is a more tentative step down memory lane. In January 1963 the Blues faced the very same opponents, in the very same competition, and embarked upon one of the bleakest days in their history.

A convulsive time it was, too: a 1-0 giantkilling defeat which tipped one manager (Ivor Powell) from office and led Carlisle’s greatest of all bosses (Alan Ashman) into the chair for the first time. When United and Ebbsfleet were the last balls out of this season’s first round draw these ancient recollections were sifted through anew.

McConnell would love to be at Brunton Park to watch Greg Abbott’s team try to right a half-century-old wrong, but that will probably be a challenge too far for a man who used to overcome them weekly in Carlisle’s XI. “I used to think I was tough,” he says, ruefully. “I’ve got two new knees, I’ve had prostate cancer and eye surgery and I’m still here. Now this.”

‘This’ is a problem with his spine which has required surgery and a programme of medication that has left McConnell frustratedly infirm. “It’s made my legs like jelly,” he says, before recounting, with laughter, a recent mishap when he suddenly toppled backwards in his garden, taking him clean through a hedge. “They should have had the television cameras there for that,” he says.

The following 45-minute conversation confirms the talkative McConnell’s insistence that “I’ve lost nothing except a bit of my mobility”. The drive from his Yorkshire home in Rothwell to Carlisle is currently too arduous to undertake but he declares himself determined to return the moment he can. Life without the game, and, at present, an inability to swing his golf clubs in anger, has left the old wing-half with much to ponder.

“I have my down times, but that’s when I’m on my own,” he says. “I’m usually in good spirits. My eldest daughter has my old pub in the village and I go on a Friday, collect some glasses, have a sit down and a natter.

“Generally I get better and better when I’m in company. You ringing me now will do me the world of good. It’s better than any paracetamol.”

Twenty minutes pass before the reason for the call can get an airing. The next tangent sees McConnell recall the spot of after-dinner speaking he delivered in Foxy’s Restaurant before the Norwich City game in 2009, when he teased the Canaries’ Delia Smith with an impromptu burst of “Let’s be avin’ you!” (“she loved it,” he insists).

When the infamous day of January 29, 1963 is eventually mentioned, though, the switch is instantly flicked and light is shone on darker times. “Really, it’s one of those games you want to forget,” he says. “But you can’t.”

The setting was a boggy Brunton Park, only just recovering after an extraordinarily harsh winter, for a much-rearranged test for Powell’s United – recently promoted to the third tier for the first time – against Gravesend and Northfleet (Ebbsfleet’s former incarnation) of the Southern League.

The surface, reports McConnell, bore not the slightest comparison to the carpet on which Liam Daish’s Blue Square Premier team will compete this Saturday. “Without a shadow of a doubt it wouldn’t have been played today,” he says.

“Normally the pitch was one of the best in the country but that night the conditions were so poor. It was a good leveller, I think, and we couldn’t play our normal game. It was just a case of getting the ball and hitting it as far as we could. But I’m not making excuses – it was the same for both teams and we just weren’t up for it.”

Those classic, hellish, cup-upset conditions led Gravesend forward in confidence, stunning the 9,115 crowd with a fierce finish from Tony Sitford in the 20th minute. “It rocketed against the back iron to come back out,” ran the report in the Evening News the next day.

Carlisle, whose team included greats like Terry Caldwell and Ginger Thompson, came stodging back through the quagmire, forcing many chances, but to no avail. “The longer we went without an equaliser, the worse it got and the shyer some of our players got,” says McConnell. “They disappeared, didn’t want to make any mistakes.

“When it came down to it, Gravesend had nothing to lose, and we had. They had this do-or-die attitude and it worked.

“That game stung for a while. It were a shock.”

Even in the much less shrill media days of the 1960s, the verdict was damning. While Gravesend entered folklore and secured a fourth-round game against Sunderland, Carlisle were accused by Evening News writer Bob Wood of “one of their bleakest performances ever”.

“They started as though they were going to swamp Gravesend in the mud,” Wood continued. “But ended an exasperated, frustrated and often clueless combination.” Nor were supporters any less grumpy at the outcome. “The gates will drop to nothing after this,” argued one, Gordon Litherland. “I think they are doomed to relegation.”

The forecast was accurate, and not just for the team, who finished second bottom in the league. Four days after the cup humbling and Welshman Powell was sacked. “He told me he knew it was coming from the day he argued with the vice-chairman on the team bus,” McConnell says.

“It was a shame for Ivor. He was a big, fearsome guy, as tough as old rope. In the gym we had these big, seven-pound medicine balls which looked a bit like footballs. He was doing heading practice once and telling big Joe Livingstone ‘just put your bloody neck into it and head it for Christ’s sake’.

“I sneaked this brown medicine ball in and said ‘show us another one, Ivor’. I threw it and it knocked him back about 10ft. I thought he was gonna kill me. But he didn’t go down.

“He had some sayings, did Ivor. When somebody asked him for directions to the ground he’d say ‘veer straight ahead’. At half-time in a game he said something like ‘take a leaf out of the Barnsley forwards’ book, they’re shooting from every Tom, Dick and angle’. And there was another time when he said a poor widow was ‘prostitute with grief’.”

McConnell cackles at these memories of the famously tongue-twisted manager who in 1962 had brought him to Carlisle from Leeds, where the wing-half had been a room-mate of Jack Charlton and part of an Elland Road team which later flourished dramatically under Don Revie.

At Carlisle, with Ashman leading a magnificent revival after the Gravesend debacle, McConnell then captained United to successive promotions and past the 300 mark in appearances over six happy years. History shows him to have been one of the greatest skippers the club has known. Many years on and the adulation still plainly delights him.

“It’s probably big-headed, but I like people to say ‘what a player, what a captain’,” he says. “I’m proud of what gets said about me.

“When I was up the last time a bloke came up to me and said he was the man who caught my shirt when we beat Mansfield to win the championship and I threw it into the crowd from the directors’ box. You can’t beat that, can you?

“Now, I’m not bitter about the game these days but my brother gets tickets for Manchester United now and again and this one time he showed me the players’ car park, with security guards everywhere. There were no Minis like my old one. It was all Aston Martins, Mercedes, you name it.

“And the worst thing? The players never have to go near supporters. They park up, go up a tunnel and can come and go without signing any autographs. I never came out of Brunton Park and didn’t sign an autograph.

“I got a shock about that when I was last up at Carlisle. I went up to the bar for a drink and asked George [McVitie] where all the players were. He said they’re all away to Manchester, Preston, the north east. There were only about three who lived in the city. When I was there about six of us lived on the same estate up at Belle Vue.”

It was frequently said of McConnell that he had so many opinions, and tales, that he ought to write a book. Eventually he did: an enjoyable collaboration with Carlisle’s media officer, Andy Hall, entitled Nice One Skip. “They named a bar after me, too, which I was so pleased about,” he continues, delving further through his affections for United.

“I’ve got a couple of grandkids, one was 17 last week and he’s a footballer. He couldn’t believe that I used to play. Well, they do now, because they’ve read my book.

“I hope they win this weekend, of course I do,” he continues. “And I’ll get back up there soon, I promise. A lot of my team-mates have died, one way or another, which is sad, really. But I’m still here. And Andrew Jenkins [Carlisle’s chairman] must be my biggest fan.

“A few years ago I rang him and said I was bringing up my football fanatic grandson. When I saw Mr Jenkins at the ground he said ‘I’ve got a present for you’, and it was a Carlisle United shirt with ‘McConnell’ on it. And the lad has worn it every time he’s gone to training.

“It’s lovely, that. Tell Andrew I think he’s an absolute topper. I’m trying to get a testimonial so put a word in his ear.”

This joke elicits one of many chuckles from McConnell, and then a short silence before he bids his reluctant goodbye; a closing of the covers on another precious night of reminiscing. “Thanks for ringing, lad,” he says finally. “I appreciate it.”

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