Why home must be where the heart is for Carlisle United

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United's 2002/3 season started with a big home crowd - but results were better on the road
United's 2002/3 season started with a big home crowd - but results were better on the road

It is hard to delve into the history books and pick out any Carlisle United season that wasn't weird and eventful in some way, but still - 2002/3 seemed to break more ground than most.

It unfolded after the completion of John Courtenay's takeover, which ended Michael Knighton's bitter long goodbye - and, on the pitch, things were relentlessly chaotic and dramatic. It says much about the pattern that United won their third game despite ending it with only eight men on the pitch, yet needed a hat-trick in their penultimate fixture to be safe from relegation.

There have, though, been takeovers, multiple red cards and dramatic escapes in other Blues campaigns. It is in another respect that 2002/3 is unique in Carlisle's story and it happens to be relevant to the task Keith Curle's team, and the club, are facing right now.

Under Roddy Collins that campaign, United gained 49 points. Of these, 20 were earned at home, and 29 away.

Never before or since have Carlisle been more productive on their travels than at their own ground. Every other season has seen a larger share of points gathered at HQ.

It is far too early to know whether that curious piece of history will be threatened this term, even if United have started it more comfortably in other grounds. But as long as the balance is not particularly in Brunton Park's favour, it will appear a problem, something to be addressed.

The value of being potent at home is understood by all, not least Curle himself. In his last two post-match interviews (victory at Crawley, home defeat to Leicester's Under-21s) the manager has conceded that, could he choose where wins would come, he would stage them all here in Carlisle, not a few hundred miles away.

Home form sends a message. It establishes tone. "I think this is a time when the supporters get on board," Curle added regarding today's visit of Exeter, plainly hoping for increased numbers on the seats and terraces.

The fact three of their next four league matches are at home brings this subject further forward and it can be generally assumed that attendances will not rise consistently until United are a surer thing inside their own stadium. It did not take long for crowds to fall from a first-day peak of 10,684 in 2002/3, for Collins' team was haphazard at best and fans were attuned to struggle after five poor years, and similarly it may be the case that Carlisle's home being less formidable than it used to be is holding some people back today.

Their record here in 2017 is not particularly impressive while even in a good season last term they took nearly as many points on the road (34 away, 37 at home). A 52 per cent percentage of home points was among the lowest in the club's history; only in 2002/3 (41 per cent) and 2012/13 (51 per cent) has the share been smaller.

This, it should be said, also reflects a general pattern which has seen the dominance of home results diminish over time. In the 1930s, 74 per cent of Carlisle's points were achieved at Brunton Park. In the 1970s it was 66 per cent and, in the first decade of this millennium, 60 per cent. This decade so far the average is 58 per cent and while these numbers lack context (some of United's worst seasons have seen the home percentage highest) they at least suggest, broadly, that the old place has become less of a stronghold. The flipside, of course, is that United have become gradually more competent away from home.

This is far from exclusive to Carlisle, of course, and with this in mind it was interesting to read Danny Higginbotham's observations in The Sun last October, as he claimed away teams had "evolved" tactically, prizing 4-5-1, defensive midfielders and counter-attacking zest to sting home teams desperate to get their own fans on side.

It was a recognisable analysis and, in United's case, Curle nailed some of these ideas at Crewe two weekends ago to the point where you would not have been surprised had they ran up more than the five goals they scored. The way Carlisle smothered some of the home team's threats and exploited tension in David Artell's players was from a classic, modern away-performance script.

Whether they can find ways to be as effective in Cumbria is the question now. At the club, winning is certainly valued above all else when it comes to bringing supporters back. "Crowds are driven by success in large part," said chief executive Nigel Clibbens in the recent BBC Radio Cumbria fans' forum, adding that numbers go up slower in good times than they decline in lean years.

It is hard to argue with that, but there are layers to the crowds debate, and others taking part in the forum explored some of them. One caller, for instance, wanted to know why Carlisle United was little more than a rumour as far as city-centre publicity was concerned, while presenter James Phillips made the further point that, in the last two seasons, crowds did not particularly rocket even when results were good.

Co-owner John Nixon initially referred to the vast availability of football on television as a reason why turnstiles aren't spinning. The caller reminded him that a majority of United games kick off at 3pm on Saturday, when live games are not allowed to be screened.

Later, Nixon ventured into the area of advertising, conceding United "maybe haven't been able to capitalise" on changing ways to reach an audience. He dwelt on the fact clubs don't sell as many programmes as they used to, and noted the new power of social media. "As a club, group, media department, we need to take everything on board," he said.

It was not the most comprehensive set of answers - surely an audience is already captive if they are buying a programme? - and the question seemed to drift away without any specific reference to the fact United also have a sales and marketing director, and a commercial department, on whose desks some of this surely ought to fall.

Nixon was at least right to suggest that we are now a population attached to a portable screen, yet social media is one of United's more visible activities, so something to that caller's mind was still missing: a broader sense of being out there, of talking to people in all ways, of seizing attention and making Carlisle United a talking point to many, rather than a niche activity just for devotees.

The one thing, someone else dared to say, that Knighton was good at, even if you would discard much of the rest that he brought. "Didn't the club go bust?" asked Clibbens of that particular era, and the answer is well-known.

But who says you have to take the whole package - the showmanship plus the meltdown? Why not isolate the best features of that time and see if United cannot be made to feel more relevant and more happening than they do to some?

It is, at least, an area that deserves thought as the Blues try to fill gaps both in the ground and in people's minds, where other issues (ownership, investment, connection) also rattle around.

Curle, more than most, does his bit by talking and appealing, and in this appears to grasp that it is an issue of many angles. The best starting point, though, remains the same: making us feel a win is more likely, rather than possible, when we stroll down Warwick Road.

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