It has kept well, these 42 years. The old, white Mitre ball retains its shape and much of its bounce. It looks as though it could still be driven, firm and true, into the opposition’s net, as it was on December 18, 1976.

Many of the signatures applied to it have faded but, in Billy Rafferty’s hands, the magic is otherwise fresh. It was with this item that Rafferty scored the 61st hat-trick by a Carlisle player in league football at Brunton Park. There is strong argument that it was the best - or, at the very least, the most dramatic.

The debate and the memories can now return afresh, because the ball sent three times into Cardiff City’s goal by Rafferty in the space of six stunning minutes is now back at the place it all happened, the result of a supporter-led appeal for memorabilia.

Rafferty retrieved it from his loft and it is now to be displayed in one of United’s bars, the refurbished Sunset Suite most likely. Artefacts like this preserve a club’s history and Rafferty, though proud of his possession, had no reservation about handing it over.

“We’re quite settled now in Carlisle – we’ve been here for nearly 30 years – and I thought, well, it’s a bit pointless it being up in the loft,” says the 68-year-old. “I’ve always thought my grandchildren would be very happy to keep the ball, but I just thought I’d rather have it on display here so that everybody can see what all the talk’s been about all these years.”

There has certainly been plenty of that. Although four decades have passed since Rafferty transformed defeat into sensational victory, he still estimates that hardly a week has passed when someone has not asked about it.

“They normally say, ‘Do you remember when you scored that hat-trick?’ I always say, ‘Well, it isn’t something you’re going to forget quickly’.”

His recollections bear this out. One senses Rafferty has told the story hundreds of times but there is nothing stale when he revisits goals one, two and three.

They came after Cardiff had turned the game with what appeared to be a decisive comeback. George McVitie’s goal had United ahead at half-time but, by the 83rd minute of the Division Three game, the Welsh side were sitting on a 3-1 lead so secure that a number of home supporters had left.

Many of those fans have claimed – truthfully or otherwise – to have still been in the ground when Rafferty’s rapier boots got to work. “The first goal was pretty scrappy,” he says. “It came from a corner, somebody got a flick on, the ball was up in the air for a split-second, Frank Clarke got a touch and I turned from about three or four yards and knocked it into the top of the net.

“I don’t know what Cardiff’s manager had said at half-time, but they really did play very well. We were getting completely overrun. But it’s amazing how a goal can change the momentum of a game. The second one came from the left, with the ball over the top. I ran behind the defender, it took one bounce and I volleyed it in from an angle into the bottom corner.

“Then, when it got to 3-3, we thought there’s still a little bit of time, although we didn’t really think it was going to happen. There was a long ball played to Phil Bonnyman, who ended up on the right wing for some reason, and he took one touch, whipped it in, and I got across my defender, stuck my leg out and it deflected off me. I just steered it and it flew in the bottom corner. After the first two, I felt as though I couldn’t miss.”

There were people on the pitch at this astonishing finale, which ensured a happier mood at the club’s Christmas party than had seemed set. Rafferty was dubbed “Billy the King” in the News & Star and graffiti on the underpass at Hardwicke Circus raised him further, announcing that “Rafferty is God”.

“It took me ages to write that,” Rafferty laughs, before telling the truer tale of how a supporter approached him at a sportsman’s dinner a few years ago and admitted to the daubings.

There have been many trebles scored by Carlisle players at their home ground, 73 in league games alone. The annals include Alf Ackerman’s feat against Birmingham in 1957’s FA Cup, a timeless three from Hugh McIlmoyle against Gateshead six years later, a virtuoso showing from Stan Bowles against Norwich in 1971 and 11 hat-tricks by Jimmy McConnell alone. The most recent was Charlie Wyke against Mansfield in 2016.

Seldom, though, has one come with such speed and transforming force. “I think it’s quite a unique thing,” Rafferty says. “I’ve kept my eye on it over the years and still haven’t seen an individual change the game around like that – when they’ve been two goals down – in such a short space of time.

“The ball was signed by all the players afterwards, but in those days they didn’t have permanent markers and most of the signatures have faded. You can still see a faint little message from Frank Clarke, who was up front with me, but the rest have disappeared. I can always remember [goalkeeper] Allan Ross’s message. It said ‘Pure magic, Billy’...and I suppose it was a bit of pure magic!”

The hope is that more such items will find their way to the club. The memorabilia appeal, spearheaded by Simon Clarkson of the Carlisle United Supporters’ Groups, has already gathered programmes, photos, shirts and more. Such initiatives help sustain a club’s identity and honour its heroes.

Rafferty was undeniably one such idol. “I was just saying to my wife, I think it’s the right thing to do to bring [the ball] to the club,” he adds. “Whatever state the club’s going to be in in the future, it’s always going to be here.

“It’s nice, when I have my grandchildren with me, and somebody will come up and talk about different matches. We’ve got five grandchildren and three are boys, and they’re all football daft. It’s nice for them to get to know what their papa did in years gone by.”