Surrounded by scrapbooks, each one containing golden nuggets on Carlisle United’s greatest times, Helen Ross pauses amid an hour’s reflection. “It hardly seems 40 years,” she says. “It’s a lifetime, isn’t it?”

Without the intervention of tragedy, that lifetime would have seen one of the Blues’ finest servants 82 today; a grandfatherly figure, and a dignified connection to the club’s heyday. Instead, the approach of November 12 brings an anniversary with sombre memories.

It was on that day, in 1978, that Hugh Neil died, nine days after a car accident in Scotland; an abrupt and devastating end to a life given to Carlisle. Neil was, first, an admired full-back in a side that established United as a club with serious prospects. Later, he was a coach and, notably, a scout.

He was also embedded into the club, a touchstone of its best qualities. “A gentleman kind of person,” says David Dent, United’s honorary president and former secretary, and a close friend. “He never slagged people off and was always considerate in how he spoke. He had a good influence on people.”

“When I went to the club as a schoolboy,” adds George McVitie, the great winger, “the likes of Hughie took me under his wing. As a boy I’d be a bit shy but he would go and get me a drink after training, and put his arm around me. Fatherly things.”

Others spoke similarly of Neil’s nature, and so his passing stunned club and city. The three-vehicle accident happened on a stretch of the A74 described as “notorious”, at a time Neil was heading to watch Meadowbank Thistle play Berwick Rangers.

“We got a phonecall, and Allan took it,” recalls Helen Ross, whose husband was United’s legendary goalkeeper. “I was asked if I would go with Bobby Moncur [Carlisle’s manager] to pick up Eileen, Hugh’s wife, and go up to the hospital.

“It was a black night, horrendous rain and gales driving over Beattock. Bobby’s aim was to get there as fast and as safely as possible. It took two-and-a-half hours, something like that. It was quite a mission.

“I just chatted, chatted, chatted away to Eileen in the back of the car, like a little pea gun, trying to keep her mind occupied. She was in total shock. We just talked about normal things, what the kids had done and what have you. In a way, I was blocking it out and she was doing the same.”

Helen and Eileen had, as Scots and wives of two of United’s leading figures, bonded many years earlier. “When the lads were away we used to take it in turns to have tea at each others’ houses,” she says. “Her two sons and my two daughters used to play together.

“We would also sit together in the stand at Brunton Park. I was the quiet mouse, and she was the one who told them what to do…in very nice language of course. Good, wholesome days.”

Eileen’s husband, Hugh Moorhead Neil, had joined Carlisle two years before Allan Ross, in 1961; a son of Ayrshire, a Scotland Schoolboy international who played for Lugar Boswell Thistle, Falkirk, Rangers and St Johnstone before moving to United in the same summer as another outstanding full-back, Terry Caldwell.

They participated in rising times, promotions in 1964 and 1965 as the club climbed confidently above its previous, bottom-tier station, fuelled by such players as Hugh McIlmoyle, Peter McConnell, Tommy Passmoor, Stan Harland, Johnny Evans, Caldwell and Neil.

“While Terry was the more aggressive player, Hughie was the stylist,” says Dent. “It was at the time full-backs started getting a bit further forward, and Hughie was a very good ball-player, very upright in his movements.”

McVitie, who came into the team in 1965, adds: “There was a saying he couldn’t tackle a fish supper, which he would admit - but he didn’t have to. He was the best reader of a game, defensively, I’d seen in my career.

“You were always in the game with him, too. Even if you were quite tight, he’d pass the ball, and say ‘Give us it back’, so you were always getting a touch.”

Neil made his debut in a 2-1 win against Aldershot, the first of 247 league appearances for the club; a linchpin not just of those promotions under Alan Ashman but of other big occasions, like a brilliant FA Cup victory at Newcastle in 1968 when Neil and Carlisle withstood the Magpies of Moncur and Wyn Davies.

That year a back injury led Neil to retire, and so begin the second phase of his United life. This was as the club’s first full-time scout, a role that saw him recommend players who led Carlisle to the First Division in 1974. Bill Green, Ray Train and John Gorman were among Neil’s finds and while he also later became coach, working alongside the great Dick Young, it was as a talent spotter that Moncur - appointed manager in 1976 - found his greatest value.

“He worked very, very quietly,” Moncur says. “We had four or five scouts around the country, who just worked for expenses, and Hughie used to collate the information for me.

“We had a basic system but it was quite good – using postcards. At Carlisle you knew you were going to have to sell players, and we’d have a list of left-backs, for example. Hughie would do a bit of research, the other guys would look at them, he would look at them and would then come back and make his recommendation.

“Micky Tait was one of the guys he tipped me off about. He was my first-ever signing. Another was Gordon Staniforth from York. When Hughie said, ‘He’s worth looking at, boss, go and see him,’ I knew I wasn’t wasting my time. He had played the game, you see. He knew the game.”

Moncur also appreciated Neil the man. “He was so sincere, but had a wicked sense of humour. He’d also put me wise about the goings-on. He had contacts in Carlisle, which meant I knew what most of the lads were doing at night times.”

“He would try and get players that he knew would fit into a pattern that Carlisle United liked to play,” adds Dent. “We tried to get players who would play the game, rather than players who had plenty of energy but not a lot of skill.”

It was on such a search that Neil embarked on November 3, 1978. “Nowadays your main scouts would be provided with decent vehicles, but Hughie would be going up and down the motorways in a smallish car,” Dent recalls. “I think it was an Austin he had latterly. It doesn’t sound very prestigious, but it did the job.”

“He liked driving,” adds Helen Ross. “And he wouldn’t get in his car without a seatbelt. It was an absolute mystery what happened.”

Neil, it was reported, suffered head, chest, abdominal and leg injuries in the crash, near Abington, his condition critical as word was sent to Brunton Park. His friend, Dent, was now with Coventry City but back in Cumbria for the weekend. “As I got home, I was told somebody at the club had had an accident,” he says. “When I learned it was Hughie, I said I would like to go and see him in hospital. But Dick, or Bobby, said, ‘I shouldn’t, if I were you’. From that I gathered it was very grim.”

It had fallen to Moncur to make the initial journey, with Eileen Neil and Helen Ross. “When we got there, he’d just had his operation and was unconscious,” he says. “He didn’t look good at all, sadly.

“A couple of days later, I had to go and collect some of his belongings out of the car...and the car was horrendous.”

Helen Ross also stayed the night at Law Hospital, her Allan - now doing commercial work for the club - travelling north the next day with secretary Alan Weir. “He just looked so peaceful to me,” she says of Neil. “There was a sheepskin rug on the bed for comfort.

“I went back home with Allan. The following weekend he went back up on the Saturday, and I went on the Sunday. It was a crisp, frosty November morning, then the sun came out. I remember sitting out the back of the hospital, waiting. Eventually word came that they’d turned off the machine and he’d passed away.”

United had played at Shrewsbury, drawing 0-0, the day after Neil’s accident. A 1-1 draw with Blackpool occurred during the period he clung on to life and then, the weekend after his death, they secured a 2-1 victory at Walsall. “We all said that was for Hughie,” Moncur says.

“Games had to go on, but we all felt such devastation,” adds McVitie. “It was so hard to take in.”

Neil left three sons, John, Colin and Andrew, his standing in Carlisle and in football reflected when many old team-mates, managers and colleagues returned to the city for his funeral and memorial service on another bitter November day. “I was one of the bearers for the man - that’s the kind of bond we had,” says McVitie.

“The club was built on people like him. There was more loyalty then, and I don’t think he had an enemy.”

This made another poignant idea, attributed to United’s chairman Jim Bendall, feel appropriate as time passed. United were, at the time, building a new £84,000 indoor facility behind the Waterworks End, part of an initiative to reshape football grounds as community centres.

The Neil Sports Centre was opened in June 1979 by sports minister Hector Monro and home secretary Willie Whitelaw. Neil’s eldest son, 17-year-old John, scored the first goal on the artificial pitch, since when thousands more have been exchanged in a construction which also, in large white lettering, bears his name.

“That was a fantastic touch,” says Moncur. “His legacy is that he was a good, all-round bloke, and it was right to name the place the Hugh Neil Centre. His name will forever be in Carlisle.”

This applies in another, everlasting respect. Eileen died some 19 years after Hugh, in 1997, and husband and wife are together in Grave 80, Section 0, Ward 19 of Carlisle’s vast cemetery. The day I found their plot, it was a still Saturday morning with autumn leaves scattered about, and from a clear blue sky a dazzling sun caught the very face of the gravestone.

Forty years after the darkest November day, it shone brilliant light on the last resting place of Hugh Moorhead Neil.