The doors of the Crown & Mitre Hotel are pushed open, and there he is; still smiling, still familiar despite the passing years and the silver beard. Coffees have already arrived and he offers me a squirt of sanitising gel after we’ve shaken hands. He starts by apologising profusely for mistaking me for someone else in a long-ago Twitter exchange, and then we sit down. Here we go.

First thought: it feels extraordinary to be at the table with Michael Knighton, talking in a hotel foyer as wedding guests mingle obliviously. We are in Carlisle, the city he once bestrode, whose football club he led to glory and then into darker times; hero, villain, enigma. Back, in relative anonymity, after 19 years. 

He is here for a talk-in at the city’s Old Fire Station and the notion comes with a certain melancholy. Knighton promised to lead the Blues to the Premier League. Decades later, they are second bottom of the Football League, and he is a stage show.  

It is evident that the mood since he left has, to some extent, softened. When he exited Brunton Park, a reviled figure to many after a prolonged campaign to oust him, Knighton became a “semi-recluse”, before improbably re-emerging into the public eye as an artist with the pseudonym Kongthin Pearlmich. The spotlight has gradually found him again, though not as glaringly as before. The day after we speak, he decides to go to the game.

He is entertained in the boardroom and the directors’ box; a surreal sight which astonishes some fans, appals others. There were times, late in his tenure which ran from 1992-2002, when a glimpse of Knighton in those seats was enough to enrage the masses. This time he watches United lose to Tranmere and slips away, leaving only an online debate trailing.

News and Star: Knighton in the directors' box at Brunton Park last weekend (photo: Barbara Abbott)Knighton in the directors' box at Brunton Park last weekend (photo: Barbara Abbott)

Notoriety and Knighton have always been bedfellows. Throughout our two-hour meeting he makes clear his long-held view that the newspaper interviewing him ran a long and unfair vendetta against his ownership. Yet he also professes that he would like to “hug” former editor Keith Sutton and his fellow former Cumbrian Newspapers journalists, who were adamant Knighton was bad news. 

“I’m a very imperfect human being,” he says. “There’s a lot more love in Michael Knighton than hate.”

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Knighton wishes to say at the outset that he only has love for Carlisle; the city, the club, the people. I say this sounds hard to believe, given how things eventually unfolded, but he is adamant. “When I arrived in Carlisle, it was 92nd in the Football League,” he says of his sharp-suited, charismatic, bold-promising introduction. “The far stand was potash and sleepers. It didn’t have any executive facilities whatsoever and was losing money. I transformed it into a modern football club which was ready to make real progress. Local people rallied, they gave me the benefit of the doubt and I’ll never, ever forget that.”   

Knighton talks about the early days, the building of the club, the signings, the “fabulous” season of 1994/5 under Mick Wadsworth, the Division Three title and the deckchair army, and a first-ever Wembley trip, where thousands of fans swarmed south and he was, all in all, vastly popular. “That was the greatest moment in football for me," he says of the 1995 Auto-Windscreens Shield final – better, he claims, than anything he had experienced at ‘the other United [Manchester]’, where he had been a director after a high-profile, ball-juggling takeover attempt had been aborted.

News and Star: Michael Knighton centre, pictured after buying Carlisle United from Andrew Jenkins, right, in 1992Michael Knighton centre, pictured after buying Carlisle United from Andrew Jenkins, right, in 1992

The subsequent season, 1995/6, was an anti-climax, as United failed to make signings in the wake of the costly construction of the new East Stand, which was intended to be part of a luxurious transformation of Brunton Park. As things unfolded, the new all-seater stand was left unfinished internally, and out of kilter with the rest of the stadium as other stands remained undeveloped.

“There’s no question I think we should have strengthened the squad, with hindsight," he says. "We had spent a lot of money on the fabric of the ground.”   

Knighton describes the departure of director of coaching Wadsworth, midway through 1995/6 to Norwich City, as a grievous blow. United were relegated, then Wadsworth’s popular successor, Mervyn Day, took them back up (and to a Wembley victory), only to be sacked early the following September.

It was, to many, a grossly unfair and indeed bizarre firing. Knighton, though, maintains not. “If you look at our form before the season finished, we weren’t playing well. We’d lost several games and started the season badly.”

After promotion, though? Surely it was still harsh. “Well, we [had finished] third. And that was still Mick Wadsworth’s team.”

Does Knighton not credit Day for those successes? “I’m not going to criticise Mervyn. I like Mervyn as a human being. I went everywhere with Mick, to get players like David Currie, David Reeves, Rod Thomas. I had a completely different relationship with Mervyn. We were not blood brothers.”  

Knighton swats away the idea, held by some, that he fired Day because the latter's positive public profile took attention from Knighton's own. Yet he did not appoint a successor, instead promoting coaches John Halpin and David Wilkes in an unlikely year-long triumvirate which included…Knighton himself.

News and Star: Knighton, front, with John Halpin, left, and David Wilkes in the dugout at a pre-season friendly with BarrowKnighton, front, with John Halpin, left, and David Wilkes in the dugout at a pre-season friendly with Barrow

This did little to dissuade people that Knighton’s ego was running wild. Yet he says it “categorically untrue” that he acted as manager. “I wanted to give those two young lads a chance. I said if there was any flak, I would take it. I was always a tracksuit chairman anyway. But if you’re a manager you select the team, take the coaching, and do the team-talks at half-time. I never took one coaching session or did one team-talk, ever.”   

Carlisle, though, were relegated again and moved into troubled times. Talented players like Matt Jansen and Rory Delap were sold for considerable fees. Others left in an alarming exodus. The bold promises of 1992 were no more. Fans did not see fees reinvested in the team, and Knighton’s motives became the subject of serious public reassessment.

So, let it be asked: where did the money go?  

“To run the football club. It doesn’t run on fresh air.”   

All that money? Upwards of £2m for Jansen and £1m for Delap?  

“This is paper talk, Jon. We never got the advance payments because Crystal Palace went bankrupt under Mark Goldberg. We never got the sell-ons, never got half the money we should have.”   

He does not give a figure when I ask how much Carlisle recouped in reality. “People think you’ve sold for this, you must have this…it doesn’t work like that. It’s based on appearances, different things. Just get the accounts, look at our wage bill. Everybody wants a chairman to run out and bankrupt himself or the football club.”   

The team, though, was a distressing shadow of what it had been in those buccaneering mid-90s days. Knighton insists this was part of lower-league football's natural volatility rather than a more sinister decline, and is adamant that the forces mounted against him in this period refused to accept this. 

“We thought we had a squad that deserved a chance. By the way, after the first relegation, we’d already started hearing the noises about ‘Where’s the money, why aren’t we investing?'. CCUIST [the supporters’ trust] comes along, and before I knew where we were there was a red card campaign, ‘Regime change’, ‘Don’t go into the shop, don’t attend football matches, don’t buy anything from the commercial side’…the evidence is all there. You try running a chip shop when people are standing outside saying, ‘Don’t buy your chips from here’.”

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Does Knighton seriously suggest he was an innocent party in the club’s travails? “I take full responsibility for everything, let’s get that straight.”   

In what respect? “Because I owned the football club, and ultimately the decisions were on my shoulders. But you can’t forget about what’s going on in the background, the intense regime change [calls]. It went on for three seasons. And income completely dried up virtually.”

The supporters and media that mounted their campaigns against Knighton would argue differently: that it was he who misdirected the club, and that the calls for change were both valid and urgently necessary. Another of his proposals that had faded by the endgame was the plan to transform not just Brunton Park but adjoining land on Warwick Road with vast facilities.

“I built that [East] stand to put the British Museum of Football in it. The council said nobody’ll want a football museum. Twenty-five years on, go down to Manchester…"

"Nobody had thought of a football museum before then," he adds. "I’ve still got the blueprint. I’d built a stand and said I want a museum, as a tourist attraction, and 130 acres right up to the motorway would be a sculpture park…it was laughed out of the room.”

Knighton regrets that his big idea was not embraced. “To be fair, there were a lot of good councillors who shared that vision and wanted it," he adds. "But we had a lot of adversaries from the flood people – 'Hang on, this is a flood plain, you can’t possibly build on this land' – and conservationists, 'There are certain fish in the river, certain creatures that need protecting'…”   

How was this grandiose scheme to be paid for? “It was going to be funded by Tesco, and Toby [Carvery, and so on]. That’s how all these developments are funded, by the blue-chip companies that come and pay enormous sums to be there. Now, it’s happened. You’ve got Tesco there, Toby is there.”   

Was the dashing of this particular dream the point something in him broke, and his motives at the club changed? “No,” he says. “I’d still be here if my position hadn’t become completely untenable because of the way I was being treated by the media. My youngest son was beaten up at school every morning. He was nine years of age. I’ve got photographs of him being black and blue whenever there was a negative headline about Carlisle United.”

Knighton goes on to talk about how he was “ridiculed” by bosses at, you guessed it, Cumbrian Newspapers. We are back here again, so let’s seek it straight. What did the group write about him that was categorically untrue?

News and Star: Knighton with an alien mask after reports he had a UFO encounterKnighton with an alien mask after reports he had a UFO encounter

“Oh, ‘Knighton makes more money than Liverpool, why isn’t he investing in players?’, Knighton does this, Knighton does that… ‘Knighton: Aliens spoke to me’. I mean come on, for goodness sake.” 

Was that infamous front-page story about an alleged extra-terrestrial encounter not, in fact, an accurate representation of what he had said? He remains adamant an off-record conversation was ambushed.  

“I only attended that meeting at the invitation of Eric [Robson, the Cumbrian broadcaster]. I never discussed it publicly, ever. My wife would tell you the same story of what we saw. I said, ‘Look, it wasn’t of this world’. Oddly enough now, with what’s been released from the Pentagon, you don’t get ridiculed quite the same way.” 

It was reported that the strange beings had said to Knighton, ‘Don’t be afraid’. “No. Total nonsense," he says. 

It is, though, the front page tabloid coverage, rather than his open-mindedness to aliens, to which he takes offence. At the time, Knighton played up to the headlines, donning an alien mask at Brunton Park. Now he says: "I’ve had to live with all that for 30 years.”

Knighton talks about other articles he maintains were untrue. Yet if he felt his name was being routinely besmirched, why did he never sue CN? 

“Oh, it would have been absurd and bizarre for the local chairman to sue them for libel…”  

Really? Not even to defend his reputation amid what he felt was a sustained smear campaign?

“I’ve only sued once – the biggest publication in the world, the Sunday Times Illustrated History of Football and Reed International Books Limited, and successfully did so [regarding allegations over his Manchester United bid]. Beyond that, what would be the point of the local chairman complaining there are certain articles in the local newspaper which he objects to?”  

Knighton, it can be recalled, launched his own Sunday newspaper in the mid-nineties: The Borders on Sunday, a short-lived publication which was gunned down when CN produced a Sunday News & Star.   

I remark that Knighton’s paper was, to be blunt, a dreadful offering. “It was awful," he agrees. "It was an absolute disaster. I was introduced to this chap, who came to me and showed me what he’d done with free trade newspapers, and it looked brilliant. The seed was planted to me by a few local businessmen and the chap that approached me one day at Carlisle United, who’d been in newspapers all his life. When I saw the first edition come out, four hours late, my exact reaction was – ‘I can’t put my name to this rubbish, close it down’.”

Was starting his own paper another case of his ego running rampant? “Look. The easy accusation with football club chairmen is to say you’re only in it for ego, it’s a vanity project and you’re full of hubris. In this case [with the paper], I thought people were mad for [this sort of thing]. When we were flying high there were so many requests – ‘you’re the man to really launch the borders and Carlisle’, this, that and the other. 

"But I’m not going to sit here and say Michael Knighton was a saint who’s got no flaws.”   

There is more about the News & Star and Cumberland News, and Knighton says he plans to lay out all the “facts”, which he insists he can corroborate with documents, in a book about his time at the club. “The articles I’ve read about myself in that newspaper are so salacious it’s untrue. You can’t blame the fans for believing it.” 

Does he believe supporters were brainwashed? “No. I wouldn’t use that phrase.”   

It sounds in that direction, though. “Jon, if you’re planning to do an article that Michael Knighton’s so arrogant he believes it’s everybody’s fault, that’s a nonsense.”   

Many fans, though, would surely take offence at the thought their views were simply copied from the pages of a newspaper. Did they not see United’s collapse with their own eyes, and come to their own conclusion that he was a charlatan? “They are entitled to their view. They weren’t the victim of [the campaign] every single day. If it wasn’t for that, I would still be there today.”

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United’s descent into bad melodrama continued when, in 1998/9, Knighton, having finally appointed a manager in Nigel Pearson, sold goalkeeper Tony Caig to Blackpool late in the season for a small fee, only for loanee Jimmy Glass to sensationally rescue Carlisle with the season’s final kick. A couple of years on and United had suffered more relegation battles, fan protests and a couple of particularly curious takeover sagas that aroused further suspicion.

Knighton sounds initially frustrated when I bring up MAMCARR, the mysterious Gibraltarian consortium who were said to have bought the club in 2001 before swiftly fading back into anonymity. “If you want to dwell on these sorts of issues instead of the truth of the matter, if you want to regurgitate the Stephen Brown and MAMCARRS…”   

But these were true parts of the story, I say. So, Knighton points out, was the co-operative scheme he had tried to launch years earlier, which would have transferred ownership to fans. “I said, ‘This club is yours, not mine. Let’s be the first co-operative, and I want only one condition: please let me apply for the chief exec’s job’. I [also] offered it to Keith Sutton, to the council. They ran a mile. I said I can achieve what I’ve set out with everyone’s help. I haven’t got the resources to do it myself. I was always completely transparent about that. I offered it to the city and the fans.”  

But back to MAMCARR, please. Who were they? “MAMCARR was a group of investors. That was it. Two of them pulled out.”

Twenty years on, can he not name names? “Not unless I want to get into serious trouble because of confidentiality.” 

Fans, at the time, connected the initials MAMCARR with those of members of Knighton’s family, and suspected more foul play. “Nonsense,” he snorts. “Nonsense.”   

News and Star: Stephen Brown, the curry-house waiter Knighton says "hoodwinked" him in 2001Stephen Brown, the curry-house waiter Knighton says "hoodwinked" him in 2001

Then there was Brown: perhaps the most farcical and embarrassing Carlisle United story of them all. He was unveiled as a prospective new owner – before being unmasked as a penniless curry-house waiter. 

Knighton maintains he was “hoodwinked” by the Walter Mitty figure in his battered Cavalier. I say this version still defies belief. “You have to remember that Michael Knighton’s position had become untenable at the ground. I’d have sold it to a chimpanzee in the end. We got worse than a chimpanzee. He turns up with a false set of accounts, false chequebooks, a portfolio of what his father owned, a hotel of £7m he’d [apparently] just sold in Guernsey.”

Knighton said the phonecalls he made corroborated Brown’s story. “I did my due diligence as far as I could.” He credits son Mark with “smelling a rat” as Brown was finally exposed and chased.  

Knighton’s tenure continued, the team persistently struggling with a squad that was at times controversially dismantled. There was another unsuccessful takeover attempt involving Brooks Mileson, about whom he does not speak highly. His exit was protracted and tortuous, the state of the club the subject of Football Association investigation at times as CCUIST actively pursued the end of his ownership.

Supporters marched outside the ground and protested by various other means – and many were livid when it was reported that Knighton had told two fan representatives that the people of Carlisle “did not deserve a football club”, and that United would be taken out of the league with the ground boarded up.

News and Star: Fans protest against Knighton's ownership at Brunton Park in 2002Fans protest against Knighton's ownership at Brunton Park in 2002

He dismisses this angle as “nonsense”. Did he not, though, utter those deeply damaging words?

“I had a phonecall with Mike Corry, and the next day with Lord Clark. I said to them, ‘It’s astonishing the change in attitude of certain sections of the supporters who clearly believe what [is in the] newspaper.' I did say that those individuals need to come and see me and sit down and listen to the truth, because they don’t deserve a football club if they believe what they are reading. 

“That is what I said. That is the context. Why would I say they don’t [all] deserve a football club when I ploughed my life savings into the institution? Why would I want to close it down?  

"That was again exploited and taken out of context. I wanted regime change for my own emotional health, and my family’s well-being. I wasn’t hanging on for grim death. I just wanted a proper person to come forward.”   

This account is at odds with much of the public perception – again, something Knighton pins on media coverage – and there was widespread relief when John Courtenay finally took control of United in 2002 and the club could start addressing a critical financial legacy, which included the burden of a seven-figure Bristol & West loan plus a spell in administration.

Knighton says he was also “relieved” to be out.  What did he do after selling? “I went straight into my art studio and painted for about 10 hours.” He says he went to university for a short time but was “hounded” by newspaper interest. He then claims to have taken refuge on the tiny island of Sark in the Channel Islands.   

“It was wonderful,” he says. “I loved it. My only two friends were Henry – a bicycle I had – and Phoenix, who was a seagull I rescued. It had a broken wing, and I reared him in the bath. He used to sit on my shoulder and rub his head [against me]. He thought I was his mother. The day I threw Phoenix back to his own kind, tears were rolling down my face. And he circled, and kept coming back. Then he realised, 'This is where I need to be', and he went.

“There was a monk I also got to know very well. I used to go to Evensong at the local church on Sundays. That was it. I used to sketch all day.”

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Knighton says he is now predominantly an artist, having reignited a lifelong passion in exile from the game. He has, though, recently sketched out something different: a new “blueprint” for modern football which he is keen to share with “Mr Day” (Philip, the businessman linked to a Carlisle United takeover) but which he believes will gain most traction "in China". His original blueprint for the Blues delivered an unfinished off-centre stand; something he discreetly revisited at close quarters "a couple of years ago" when in Carlisle to research his book in the city's library.

“I drove into the ground, by the East Stand, got out of my car, looked around...and I have to tell you, I thought, ‘wow’. It brought back all the lovely times, not the negative stuff. I said to myself, ‘Oh, what might have been. Why am I not still here?’” 

Knighton describes those who forthrightly declare their delight he is not still here as “trolls”, but says he would like to hug them as well. “People who are intelligent, sensible...they understand there’s always two sides to a story. It’s only the [other] people who have a completely prejudiced view and have believed everything they’ve read about me. People believe to this day I speak to aliens.” 

“The ego has landed,” Mark Lawrenson famously declared on the BBC when Knighton was at Carlisle. He insists his smooth-talking persona was never a “mask”, and that his showmanship both at Manchester and Carlisle was part of his attempt to persuade people he was a football man whose revolutionary plans were worth backing. 

Who, though, is the real Michael Knighton? The question has long seemed unanswerable. Not so, he insists.

News and Star: Knighton says he was "emotional" when title-winning boss Mick Wadsworth left United for Norwich in 1996Knighton says he was "emotional" when title-winning boss Mick Wadsworth left United for Norwich in 1996

"I'm a very emotional person.  I can look at a painting, listen to a piece of music, and as long as no-one’s there, tears stream down my face. When Mick Wadsworth left, I had to get up in the boardroom because I couldn’t control myself. I had to leave. 

"I’ve got a lot of love to give. I’m unbelievably generous. I never saw a pound note at Carlisle in all my 10 years there. The real Michael Knighton is a big softie. I’ll give 20 quid to a homeless person even though I know he might spend it on drugs.” He talks about his family, about his "good" relationships with his sons, regretting that his "recluse" years affected certain family bonds but professing to be on good terms with ex-wife Rosemary. 

Modesty does not come easily to Knighton. Later in our conversation he drops in that he has “20,000 books in my library and I have read every one,” which works out at more than 285 a year since birth. He says his erudition is “real, not faked”. The very real matter of a company directorship ban, over the liquidation and tax bills linked to a school he ran in Yorkshire, lent credibility to the campaigns against his name, but Knighton says on his website that he was not found guilty of any crime and believes that the case only attracted attention, and was indeed brought, because of his high profile. 

Speaking of publications: what happened to the swathes of club archives, including a large tranche of programmes, that Knighton bought to include in his putative museum in the 90s? Some memorabilia, he says, was lost in a burglary, along with some artwork. “I bought some Carlisle United programmes from a fan out of my own money, paid £20,000 for a huge collection,” he adds. “I still have that collection.”   

Any plans for it? “At my time now, I’m in my 70s, it’s probably time to dispose of those.” Would he do so on the open market, or in a private sale? “Absolutely”.  

He shifts in his seat and continues. “The implications from some troll [about all the memorabilia items] is, ‘Oh, Knighton’s got them all’. Come on, Jon, you’re an intelligent man. Do I look a like a guy who would steal?”   

I point out that I have levelled no such accusation, only expressing curiosity about his intentions for the memorabilia. “It’s not curious. These are lines of enquiry by the people who have got a certain image of me as an individual and what went on at my football club. It’s all nonsense. As the book will show.”

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Knighton, it is repeatedly made clear, feels he was wronged along various steps of the story. But where does he feel he erred himself? “I should have worked harder to keep Mick. We should have rebuilt to some degree with the players that were going to go anyway; the Scott Dobies, Lee Peacocks, Matt Jansens. I should have given Mervyn Day longer. It was a mistake from me, with hindsight, to say to John [Halpin] and David [Wilkes], ‘don’t worry’. We should have perhaps brought in [someone else] more quickly, though we did speak to Peter Beardsley and others.   

“So there were mistakes. My fault. And had I had the time again I’d do it differently, because we’re all wiser with 20-20 hindsight.”   

A week before this interview, United’s 1994/5 squad gathered in Carlisle for a reunion. Knighton was the uninvited ghost at the feast. Was he sad not to be there? He says he would love to have attended, and believes the players would have been “100 per cent fine” with him being there, but I tell him I can think of at least one who would have said firmly otherwise. “Well, look. I’d love to have a conversation with him and ask him why.”  

Knighton says several of that team have kept in touch over the years, as have former colleagues at United, like secretary Sarah McKnight and her father-in-law, former Blues director Bob. “That’s about it, really, because I did become a semi-recluse, changed all my numbers and didn’t give it out.”  

He says he decided to end his long public exile in recent years after receiving invitations to attend reunions connected to Manchester United, some of them for charity. “I realised people were fascinated, and enjoyed the interaction. So I gradually decided to re-emerge from the seclusion.”

News and Star: Knighton, right, with Paul Musgrave, who hosted an Old Fire Station event with the former Blues owner last weekKnighton, right, with Paul Musgrave, who hosted an Old Fire Station event with the former Blues owner last week

A book about Knighton’s Man Utd time is called ‘Visionary’ (not his choice of title, he is at pains to point out) and this, at best, is how he will be remembered: one who had far-sighted football dreams but could not, for the long term, be part of them, reality turning out to be much grittier and more contentious. 

This 70-year-old man again brushes off the darker perceptions. “Walking around Carlisle today, I’ve had about eight people shake my hand. There’s a lot more of that than the other side. Nothing will change a troll’s mind, because it’s part of their make-up. They are the antithesis to what’s in Michael Knighton’s heart. I could have sat down here in a crucifix position, grown my hair long and said, ‘Behold, my son, I am Jesus’. They would still not change their mind.

“That’s why I smile. I know the truth. And that’s why I sleep at night. It would have been marvellous if we’d delivered on the expectation I created, but we didn’t. It was a short window.” And here, on, this anonymous Carlisle day in 2021, the ageing showman cannot resist finishing on a flourish before heading for the stage. “I refer to Horace, the great Roman poet,” he says. “What’s been, has been, and I have had my hour.”