"Carlisle has had some difficult times - but it's always had resilience"


Where is Carlisle United? And who are they? Obvious-sounding questions, deceptively complex answers. Simon Hughes tried his best to find some of them, while also placing the Blues in the context of football in England's north-west.

On The Brink, published today, is a travelogue taking in the region's clubs from giant to tiny, loaded to skint. It captures a changing game at a pivotal time; an analytical snapshot of football, here, in 2017.

Hughes, a Merseyside-based journalist and author, started his six-month tour in Carlisle. He met Danny Grainger, the United captain, who talked him through the area's recovery from 2015's floods, as well as the meaning of life at Cumbria's only League club.

Hughes' opening chapter also reflects on the history, remoteness and financing of the Blues. As a writer on Liverpool FC, he is aware of Yahya Kirdi, the mystery "billionaire" who stalked Carlisle behind confidentiality for nearly two years, having more openly touted himself as a prospective Anfield owner in 2010.

That saga, which United still have not officially confirmed, is a story of its time. Why would an extreme outsider such as Kirdi - a Canada-based Syrian with a pizza-shop past and claims of wealthy Middle East connections - ever have wanted a piece of Carlisle?

"It's an interesting situation," Hughes says. "It's relatable to a lot of others, and with Carlisle I suppose it brings you back to the history of the club, with Michael Knighton.

"Funnily enough, I'd tried to contact Knighton for an interview, and he didn't respond. Then randomly, out of nowhere, he got in touch and said he would do an interview. It was too late - the book had already gone to print.

"I was a bit disappointed with that; I might have got an insight into why somebody not from the area would want to buy the club. Maybe it's one for the future. But other stories are a warning for Carlisle.

"I went to Barrow and my impression of Paul Casson there is that he's a very genuine person, with local connections, who has the club's interests at heart. But then you've got Morecambe - bought out by foreign ownership, and very quickly it's unravelled.

"I imagine there's a big swathe of different opinions on investment, but if I was Carlisle, I would err on the side of caution. When you look at other examples of people with no real links to the clubs, it seldom works out, even high up."

Kirdi's protracted failure to secure United attracted increasing ridicule, as did the club's entertaining of the approach."If this guy was serious about the club, if he really wanted to buy Carlisle," Hughes says, "he would have found a way to do it. And very quickly.

"Many takeovers that have changed the dynamic of the clubs involved have happened without anybody really knowing. I know someone who used to work at Man City, and there were lots of staff who were off on a certain day, and he phoned them all up and said, 'You're going to have to come in today, we've just been taken over by the richest people in the world'.

"There might be differences lower down, but when it drags on for a long time, you start to wonder. If you're really that serious about the club, just get it done."

This topic is one of many explored by Hughes, whose first book was on the former Carlisle defender Geoff Twentyman, who achieved renown scouting for Bill Shankly at Liverpool. The book in general offers depth on a football scene which often eludes the 24/7, 140-character football media today.

On his travels, Hughes secured quality time with people as diverse as Jurgen Klopp, Sean Dyche and the Accrington duo of John Coleman and Jimmy Bell, whose dialogue forms a riveting chapter. Why, though, did he begin in Carlisle?

"The geographical location aspect is fascinating," Hughes says. "Even the question of whether people feel that they are in the north-west is a debating point. It's got closer links to the north-east in many ways.

"It struck me as a key strategic place, the first point of England after Scotland. It feels, to me, like quite a frontier. The major footballing cities like Liverpool and Manchester dictate the way a lot of people have an impression of the north-west, but you've also got to get to the furthest point away to see the impact of what happens elsewhere."

Hughes describes his early impressions. "As soon as you set foot in Carlisle, you see signs for football. A football presence. The size of the ground, the attendances they get...it's a football city. It struck me that you can be in quite an isolated place, a long way from anywhere, but still have that real desire and passion for the club.

"I sensed how strongly people feel about the fortunes of their club. Carlisle have had some difficult times over the last 15-20 years but it's always found a way to recover. That's a real lesson for everybody. It's had a resilience."

Hughes found Grainger a convincing spokesman for this resilience. From Eamont Bridge, the United skipper saw, as a boy, the effects of foot and mouth on his family's farm. As Carlisle captain, he later encountered Storm Desmond as both local resident and community figurehead. This added depth to the defender's assessment of his general life with United.

"I found his back-story fascinating, his farming background," Hughes says. "There are very few footballers now who have had his experiences.

"In the book I explore how academies have impacted on the identity of players, but he never really had that upbringing. He spent a big chunk of his life in the region, or in Scotland, where he broke in professionally. He hadn't represented Carlisle, or played in English football, until his late 20s. It's an unusual story in many ways.

"It also struck me how emotionally he feels and reacts when Carlisle don't get the results they want. It really does affect him. It's easy to think badly of footballers, because they tend to earn more than the average person, but in League Two that's not really the case. I can imagine somebody like Danny, at his age, to be thinking about the next stage, what's he going to do when he retires, thinking of his family.

"It's also nice to see somebody who really cares about the club as its captain. There's very few clubs where you see that now. I know he got a bit of stick at the beginning of his time at Carlisle but it says a lot about his character that he was able to get through that."

Being a home-grown ambassador in good times and bad isn't as simple as it looks. Hughes says: "I've known some of the Liverpool team, local lads, who've play 100 games, and when you speak to them, you think, 'you're playing for your local club, what could be better?' But in many ways the pressure is so much more, because it affects you in every way.

"I remember speaking to one player who said winning wasn't elation, it's just relief. Listening to Danny, it was the same feeling. 'At least I can go to the shop without being bothered this week'.

"It's tough. Not all footballers are the most perceptive, but Danny understands the climate and the landscape that he's facing every week. I enjoyed speaking to him."

Common themes Hughes found included the increasing wealth gap, and how the slightest movements in the Premier League are felt even at amateur level, when kick-off times are affected and certain behaviours are copied.

Investment, as ever, is vital, at all levels. But not on its own. "The geography's key," Hughes says. "More than anything. Carlisle do have to pay a premium to get players through the door, but you tend to find the players who play there speak well of the club and the way it treats its staff.

"You find, across the region, that places that are slightly isolated have periods of boom and bust. So it takes very clever, careful and consistent management.

"Carlisle's potential is huge, because there is such interest in the club. It's not like one of these new clubs that's coming through the ranks. It's been there a long time, it's got history, it's a one-club city. All those things are in its favour.

"You could see Carlisle competing at Championship level, certainly. I've spoken to people at Fleetwood, and Fylde, and they see Burton Albion as a barometer of where they think they should be. If they see that, I don't see why Carlisle shouldn't.

"It will take a bit of investment, and leadership at board level. I don't think money defines everything but you've got to have solid foundations. Carlisle's seem to be relatively solid-ish, compared to some others. It's just getting that right investment, which is a tricky decision, and an emotional one."

It remains unclear whether United's current loan arrangement with Edinburgh Woollen Mill, and their tycoon owner Philip Day, will develop into something that can propel them into a more modern and lucrative age.

"The most important thing," Hughes says, "is that the club is there for a long time to come. Equally, you want to see a little bit of vision, somebody who can see into the future and make those decisions.

"Someone who wants to see the town, the city, happy - that's the ideal. If your city's football team is doing well, people tend to feel a bit better about themselves. It can lead to the growth of an area. It matters to a lot of people."

*On The Brink, A Journey Through English Football's North West, published by deCoubertin books, is released today, priced £18.99.

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