Amid the chaos at the New Manor Ground, Graham Anthony remembers a few moments of silence. In the wake of Ilkeston Town 2 Carlisle United 1, those in the away dressing room knew that words would not cut it.

“You can start pointing the finger at each other but, really, we knew we should be beating sides like that,” says former midfielder Anthony. “I think even the manager was stuck what to say. You just can’t believe certain things can happen.”

The quiet in United’s domain was in painful contrast to the celebrations outside. Most of the 1,768 crowd were toasting a famous FA Cup victory which remains, 20 years on, the last time Carlisle have been unseated in the competition by a non-league side.

It is the sort of outcome they must avoid when taking the trip to Dulwich Hamlet this Friday ni4ht and, whatever United’s difficulties this season, it must be said they were multiplied in 1999/2000, making the Ilkeston afternoon a disaster waiting to happen.

It is not an occasion players like Anthony have forgotten. Others who played that day recall it as “horrible” yet it was also, in that era, very Carlisle United. Less than six months had passed since Anthony’s corner against Plymouth had famously ended up in the net via Jimmy Glass’s boot yet the Blues were struggling in Division Three once more, and with a sense of farce never far away.

This applied to Michael Knighton’s listing ownership, and also in playing terms, bearing in mind how the build-up to the Ilkeston tie was marked by a goalkeeping crisis which had seen the Cumbrians get through four different No1s in their previous eight games.

Senior keepers Luke Weaver, Peter Keen and Paul Heritage were injured and misfortune stalked potential replacements. Andy Dibble, an experienced loanee, managed to injure himself on a car park barrier at the team hotel before being recalled by Hartlepool after two appearances.

It got worse when a Norwegian target, Thor-Andre Olsen, tore a calf muscle when running for a taxi to take him to the airport for his flight to England. Glass and Richard Knight, loanees the previous year, turned down returns, and though Sunderland’s Michael Ingham was next to make a temporary move, an administrative row saw him ruled out of the cup tie, the FA insisting they had not received paperwork confirming Sunderland’s agreement that he could play for United in the competition.

United’s managing director Jonathan Fuller blasted the association as “ridiculous”, adamant they had not asked for the documents in question, and there had been a serious risk of Carlisle going into the tie without a goalkeeper at all until another contender signed late in the day.

Barry Thompson, a Scottish keeper, had been training with Dundee after a spell in Iceland. He joined on the eve of the trip to Derbyshire and unwittingly walked into United notoriety.

Ilkeston were, like Dulwich, two levels below the Blues, then in the Dr Martens League Southern Premier Division, their team a mixture of Football League old boys and aspiring youth, managed by the future Lincoln and Macclesfield boss Keith Alexander.

Carlisle were under a new management duo of Martin Wilkinson and Neil Cooper – the latter brought in to lead on coaching while Wilkinson focused on “organising the overall structure of the club” – and did not anticipate the shock that was in store. “It was a little old ground and their fans were pumped up, but we were still expecting to go there and win quite comfortably,” Anthony says.

A fierce wind greeted the players – as did referee Mike Dean, long before his top-flight days. He responded leniently to some fierce early challenges and Carlisle, with the breeze at their backs, scored first when Richard Tracey charged down a clearance and Australian striker Paul Harries ran through to smash it home.

There was, though, no such thing as United comfort in 1999, and Alexander’s side gained a foothold by aiming the ball into the corners, knowing the wind would hold it up, also pressuring the Blues with long throws aimed for big Ian Helliwell, whose flicks fed the runs of Christian Moore and future United winger Tony Hemmings.

In midfield, meanwhile, was ex-Swansea and Preston veteran Paul Raynor, these days assistant manager to Steve Evans, a pairing famously described as “the ugly sisters” by former United box Keith Curle. On this occasion his play was more attractive and against an anxious Blues side he helped Ilkeston back into the game.

They equalised in the 40th minute when Anthony lost possession and Hemmings crossed for top scorer Moore to fire past Thompson.

This was a dire warning and it felt like all in the ground knew the possible consequences. “Non-league grounds like that are right by the pitch and all four sides were full,” Anthony says. “You could hear every word they were shouting at you. And once they got the equaliser they were in full swing.

“Because of our league form, as soon as it was 1-1, you could see different players’ heads go down. People were thinking, ‘Oh no, here we go…’”

Even the Tannoy announcer seemed to anticipate events, announcing during the interval that fans should not come onto the pitch “as the Ilkeston players will come back out at the end to celebrate”. United had experience in David Brightwell, Billy Barr, Steve Soley and Richard Prokas, plus the promise of Scott Dobie, but could not summon fresh dominance – and then, in the 59th minute, calamity.

Raynor’s delivery of a left-footed corner from the right was heading comfortably outside the six-yard box but caught the stiff wind and deceived Thompson. The emergency keeper failed to get a touch as it curled into the top corner of the net.

“Not putting all the blame on him, but he came for it, missed it completely and it went straight in,” Anthony says. The New Manor Ground was bubbling while United’s travelling fans turned their ire towards Knighton – a former Ilkeston player himself whose return to familiar territory was turning extremely sour.

Hemmings almost added a third while Carlisle’s late pressure brought a Brightwell header which was cleared off the line, but oddly no substitutes, and no equaliser – and then a brutal reckoning. BLUES HIT AN ALL-TIME LOW reckoned the News & Star with Monday’s back page headline, while Alexander’s analysis was also cutting. “I always felt we would win,” the Ilkeston boss said. “They picked the wrong team. They had no-one to hold the ball up in the wind.”

Cooper was adamant United “didn’t deserve to lose” but conceded they had “let everyone down”. He also “felt” for the beleaguered Thompson, whose travails captured United in that troubled era.

“The kid came in for that game and that was it – I don’t think we saw him again,” Anthony says. “That was the sort of thing going on at the club.

“You can’t blame everything that was going on off the field – we should have had enough to beat Ilkeston and losing was just devastating – but it was still an awful time, from everything happening with Knighton, to Cooper and Wilkinson. They were useless as well, really. They didn’t know what was going on.

“Wilkinson wouldn’t even go on the bench a couple of times because he was scared of what the fans would shout at him. He used to go over the other side to watch. You think, ‘That’s no way to run a club. If that’s what’s happening, what chance have we got?’”

It was the sixth and still latest time United have fallen to non-league opponents and, as they bid to avoid a seventh such mishap in south London on Friday, there is a sense of crossed fingers and determined hope when Anthony says: “You just have to prepare as you do normally, try to treat it as a normal game. Upsets happen all the time, and it’ll be a tough one. But I’m sure Carlisle should have enough…”

Ilkeston: Beattie, Fairclough, Fearon, Hemmings (Hurst), Raynor (Ludlam), Wright, Knapper, Eshelby, Helliwell, Moore, Middleton. Not used: O'Reilly, Clarke, Gordons

United: Thompson, Bowman, Clark, Brightwell, Barr, Prokas, Anthony, Soley, Dobie, Harries, Tracey. Not used: Whitehead, Thorpe, Hopper, Gregory, Baker.

Crowd: 1,748

Ref: Mike Dean