While Carlisle are trying to sustain a bid to escape the fourth tier this season, back in the spring of 1982 the Blues were aiming for higher things: a place back in the old Second Division.

The Cumbrians had been battling in the third level of the English game since 1977, two relegations in three campaigns having brought an end to their golden times at the upper reaches of the Football League.

Bob Stokoe had returned for a second spell in charge in 1980 and, having saved United from another drop in his first campaign, was spearheading a much more promising effort in 1981/2.

It had started with the precocious, Vancouver-bound Peter Beardsley still in the side but, come spring, a man at the other end of the experience scale was carrying Carlisle’s challenge: Bryan Stanley Robson, better known as ‘Pop’, 36 years young and very much the Blues’ spearhead under Stokoe.

Having joined from Sunderland the previous campaign, the veteran had scored 11 league goals by the time Exeter visited in late April. Carlisle were at that stage top of the table but with others giving close chase in a tight race, there was no lack of tension around Brunton Park.

A pre-match boost was handed to United when skipper Jack Ashurst was reprieved in an FA disciplinary hearing; this had been called because he had collected 21 penalty points for bookings.

The decision not to impose a suspension on the defender allowed Ashurst to maintain an ever-present record in a side which was unbeaten in five games, and fancied to see off Brian Godfrey’s struggling Devon visitors.

Thanks to the evergreen Robson, they did so. As well as trying to keep a promotion push on track, the forward was chasing the milestone of his 250th league goal and, in front of a 5,220 Tuesday night crowd, had to wait just 26 minutes to get it.

Before then, Carlisle’s afternoon had been rudely interrupted by an opening Exeter goal. The Grecians were sharp in the way they opened United up, Tony Kellow turning onto a throw-in and Ray Pratt darting onto his cross to head home.

This was, though, a false dawn for the visitors. United in general were superior in their passing and movement, Russ Coughlin’s midfield distribution a highlight and Tommy Craig also keeping them on top.

The leveller came quickly, Tom Ritchie’s through-ball feeding record signing Gordon Staniforth, who shook off a defender to shoot. When keeper Ian Main blocked it, Robson was there to find the net with a firm finish.

His landmark reached, a galvanised Robson took little time in adding another. Just two minutes, in fact, were needed for United to take the lead. Paul Bannon’s perseverance in a penalty-box scramble this time enabled Robson to drive low inside the post from 16 yards.

From here it was a case of if and when Carlisle would consolidate their advantage. The improving Bannon was a handful for Exeter’s defence, while Craig and Coughlin both passed up chances early in the second half.

Exeter’s own efforts were honest but without penetration and it felt inevitable when, on 70 minutes, United struck once more. George Foster brought down Bannon and Craig picked out Ashurst with the free-kick.

His header across goal was perfect for the poaching Robson, and he stooped to nod home for his hat-trick.

The treble was saluted by a noisy crowd, who were also relieved United had put any anxieties to bed. By the time John Delve hooked home a late consolation it was too late to be worried about an Exeter fightback and the 3-2 win extended United’s stay at the top.

Robson had, of course, stolen the show in a stylish overall display, the hat-trick his fifth in league football, not to mention hitting that magic 250 mark. “The night belonged to Pop,” Stokoe said. “Although we had a fine team performance, he’s achieved something special.”

His average of a goal every other game was encouragement enough for Carlisle when their promotion push threatened to lose late momentum. Three defeats in four with the finish line in sight, including the anti-climax of a penultimate-day loss at home to Bristol Rovers, left them needing to do the business at Chester on the final afternoon.

Who else, then, should get the all-important goal than that man Robson? His 36th-minute finish in a 1-0 win at Sealand Road took Carlisle up in second place, runners-up to Burnley on goal difference, their last promotion to the second tier dramatically and deservedly achieved.

United: Swinburne, Parker, Ashurst, Larkin, Rushbury, Ritchie, Coughlin, Craig, Bannon, Robson, Staniforth. Not used: Campbell.

Exeter: Main, M Rogers, Foster, Roberts, Sparrow, Giles, P Rogers, Delve, Hatch, Pratt, Kellow. Not used: Robertson.

Crowd: 5,220.