Football before the Blues: new book sheds light on Shaddongate United

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Like all great stories, there is an alternative that never happened, and when reading Jon Tait's history of Shaddongate United - the club that eventually became Carlisle United - it is fascinating to wonder how differently it might have turned out.

In the early years of the 20th century, after all, 'the 'Gate' were younger and much less established than Carlisle Red Rose, who had emerged as the best of a new flowering of association football clubs in the city.

It all changed, though, in 1903. The affair is described by Tait as "an unmitigated disaster for the Red Rose club" yet, with the benefit of more than a century's hindsight, it appears they suffered a particularly harsh fate.

What cost Red Rose was the fact their entire team of players had taken part in a five-a-side competition run by the Northern Counties Wrestling and Athletics Association. The Cumberland Football Association had denied them permission to play and when this was defied, punishment was severe.

Some 30 Carlisle men, plus a referee, were given four-month bans. It shattered the Red Rose team, leaving a void which other clubs were able to fill. People went elsewhere for their football - significantly the ambitious Shaddongate United, who had formed in 1896, four years younger than Red Rose, who were never quite the same again.

"It possibly changed the course of football history in Carlisle forever," writes Tait, who also suggests that the aggrieved Red Rose contingent also accused west Cumbrian officials - the Cumberland FA was based in Workington - of "jealousy and ill-feeling" towards Carlisle clubs.

That sense persisted a year later, when a league match that ought to have seen Shaddongate complete their first Cumberland League championship was cancelled over a venue disagreement. The silverware duly went to Workington.

"It had been a bitter rivalry," Tait says. "Out west was, until then, the hotbed of football in the county. I think people in Carlisle looked and thought, 'we can do that', but a sort of 'them and us' mentality seemed to arise from it."

This is one of many details that emerges in Tait's new book, The 'Gate, which charts the eventful path of Carlisle United's first incarnation. Among others, it dismisses the popular "myth" that the Blues were the result of a merger between Shaddongate and Red Rose.

The accurate version is that one club grew as the other fell. The latter had tried to regain its foothold after the crisis of '03, but failed. What might have happened if Red Rose had continued thriving? "You just don't know," Tait says. "I think it's fair to say Shaddongate were more outward-looking. Red Rose were putting up posters saying 'patronise local talent', but Shaddongate had been bringing in lads from Scotland and the north-east.

"Could the city have sustained two large clubs? It would have been hard. Maybe they [Red Rose] could have ended up a Unibond side or something. But I think there was only going to be one winner."

Tait's book recalls these precarious times in a now familiar football city. It describes how a cluster of new clubs emerged in the late 19th century, Carlisle Association Club the first, as the rise of mills and factories, and the influence of the railways, brought scores of working men eager for organised recreation.

Shaddongate United, who emerged in part from Shaddon Mill and its iconic Dixon's Chimney, were one such team, beginning in the Cumberland league, cup and shield but, as they grew, ventured into the north-east based Northern Alliance and also the Lancashire Combination.

"It's very much been a working-class game in the area all the way through," says Tait, a writer and postman in Carlisle who grew up in Rothbury, Northumberland. "The railwaymen had a fantastic team in Carlisle too. The trade unions, getting the Saturday off, had a lot to do with the game growing here."

While Tait says he was frustrated not to be able to pinpoint the individual who first brought association football to Carlisle - and so reduced rugby's influence in the city - he notes how one of the first recorded international games took place in Cumberland in the far-off Reiver days. It is also striking how violence accompanied the sport's path to a more modern era.

It was, he writes, an era of "rowdyism" and "mob riots", incidents including the assault of a referee by two Arlecdon players, and a Workington player killed by a hurled stone.

A Carlisle player, too, was hit on the head when a Skelmersdale spectator threw a piece of the cinder track his way. The book, based on newspaper archive research, recalls quaintly how the player, Johnston, "took the prompt and English redress of stepping to the barriers and explaining the position to the transgressor."

Shaddongate, who initially played at Willow Holme and later Lismore Place, were aspirational, but, like today, seldom affluent. In 1904, an annual general meeting approved the idea to change their name to the more recognisable Carlisle United, but only after a "heated discussion" and a vote of three to one, while they also eyed a move to a more "central and commodious ground" to capitalise on the game's growing popularity.

Their first game as Carlisle United, a 3-3 draw in a friendly with Scottish side Maxwelltown Volunteers on September 12, 1904, appeared a bold new start, while some crowds were substantial. But financial problems stalked the Blues (as opposed to blue and golds, the original Shaddongate colours which changed in 1902). There were moments when the club appeared on the brink, as they struggled to bridge the gap from rural isolation to regional ambition. Newcastle United, who had urged Shaddongate to join the Alliance and so look beyond Cumbria's boundaries, loaned them money when times were hardest.

A battle to secure a new ground at Warwick Road, where Brunton Park now stands, was also perilous. This, Tait writes, saw residents of the "fashionable east end of Carlisle" become "agitated", complaining to the Carlisle Health Committee that it would bring "an intolerable nuisance" through crowds "whose conduct and language is most undesirable in a respectable neighbourhood".

The ground was secured despite the protests, Newcastle its first visitors in 1909, while Carlisle's formation of a limited company in 1921, abandoning the old "committee" running of the club, was the day the modern club was truly born. After the First World War, with several other local clubs folding, United appeared to regain a more secure foothold and, although a hideous flood wrecked Brunton Park in 1925, by 1928 the club had grown enough to successfully apply to join the Football League's recently-created Third Division North, at the third attempt.

Tait guides the story over many of these steep peaks and troughs. "I'd written a book about Rothbury, and thought nobody had really done it about Carlisle," he says. "I thought of some of the lads I worked with at the Post Office, the names that crop up - Notman, Hodgson and so on. These will all be relatives of the men who played back then."

Tait said his interest was also sparked by a reference he unearthed at Robert Ferguson Primary School - where his son attends - to Bill Henderson, a Ferguson's old boy who moved from Carlisle United to Arsenal.

"I've been here 17 years, and always felt like an incomer, an outman," he adds. "I always thought Rothbury was my home. But I've got a son now, and Carlisle's his home. It's brought me closer to my adopted city."

Tracking Shaddongate's tale, which introduces some of the key individuals who drove the game and the club, leaves Tait regretful for the way many amateur clubs have long since perished, or are struggling badly today. How, he asks, can football remain the people's game it was at the outset when when some players now take home six figures a week, and professional clubs, with costly ticket prices, regard fans as consumers?

"In the beginning, the kids around Shaddongate will have been running around the streets with a ball - a release, something to do," he says. "That sense of, 'thank God I'm not working down the mill'.

"It was the working man's game. But we're losing a lot of the old, traditional clubs. Teams are struggling. My club, Rothbury, is in trouble now. They formed in 1876. It's a hell of a lot of history to lose. I think the FA has got to put money into the local game instead of paying lip service. That money washing around at the top...you've got to help the game."

The traditional passion still sustains many grassroots clubs - but a lot of Carlisle United's origins have faded. Red Rose folded in 1906 while Shaddongate United, whose successors play Cheltenham in SkyBet League Two this weekend, are naturally unrecognisable today.

"I couldn't find any memorabilia or ephemera - it's evaporated," Tait adds. "There doesn't seem to be anything from Shaddongate United down at Brunton Park that celebrates their history either. But I'm sure there'll be bits and bobs still around the city - a medal here, a programme there...

"I hope the book generates some interest, and people might go and find an old shirt, an old pair of boots. The majority of Shaddongate and Red Rose players were local lads. Their families will still be here."

*The 'Gate (Rough Badger Press) is available on Amazon, priced £8.07.

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