When Frank Barton left these shores for the USA in 1979, he took with him a collection of scrapbooks charting his English football career. “My wife’s got them hidden away,” he now laughs. “She won’t let me get ‘em out!”

He does not, thankfully, need many reminders, and while his memories of the game are vividly intact, there is little in those cuttings to compare with the words and pictures that chart the time he almost fired Carlisle United to the League Cup final.

It is 50 years now since the Blues came within 37 minutes of that unlikely feat, an achievement that seems even more remarkable given the passing of time and United’s status today. It remains their best run in either of the country’s main knockout competitions, and also one of the great what-might-have-beens in Brunton Park history.

Barton, now 71, remembers the glory and the agony, the excitement and the knife-edge moments, the goals he scored in the two-legged semi-final against West Bromwich Albion and the agonising near-misses that thwarted the most audacious of dreams.

United were a mid-table Second Division side then, the Baggies in the lower half of the top flight, the Blues’ cup run motivated by Bob Stokoe. He had replaced Tim Ward as manager shortly after forward Barton had joined from Scunthorpe and his fervent leadership helped establish the next stage of Carlisle’s golden era, which had seen two promotions in the mid-sixties.

“Bobby gave you that extra bite and he just wanted to win, period,” says Barton, a north Lincolnshire man whose 40 years in America is reflected in his transatlantic twang. “I remember a game of head tennis in the gym and his team was getting beat. We were sending the ball up to Allan Ross to knock up, and Bobby came right through him, split Allan’s head, and walked straight out the door.

“Wow. You don’t mess about with this guy. He was unbelievable.”

Stokoe’s management allied with Dick Young’s legendary “push and run” coaching first rebuilt United from the struggling last days of Ward, and then moulded them into an admired side which, in the League Cup, found thrilling momentum. Wins over Huddersfield and Blackburn were achieved in the early rounds, before a Derek Hemstead goal accounted for Chelsea and Chris Balderstone’s penalty saw off Oxford in the quarter-finals.

On the team bus, Barton remembers eagerly hoping it would be either of the Manchester sides in the last four, but in the event City and United were paired together. It was West Brom for the Blues, the first leg at Brunton Park on November 19, and this was no modest challenge.

It was, after all, the Albion of Alan Ashman, the great manager who had left Carlisle two years earlier, of the iconic Jeff Astle up front, and of a defensive line-up including Doug Fraser, John Kaye and John Talbot which was rated so formidable that, for Carlisle, it would be “akin to tackling the Matterhorn in a blizzard”, according to Peter Long in the Evening News & Star.

The first leg was clearly the city’s biggest football occasion since the Third Division title decider against Mansfield four years before, when Brunton Park was also full to overflowing. Police leave in Carlisle was cancelled on November 19 and spotters were assigned to confiscate bottles and banners. “This is the semi-final of a national competition and we are making the arrangements accordingly,” said Superintendent George Beck.

The only trouble, as it turned out, was that faced by the visiting team, thanks to United’s fine and confident football. “Before the game we met for our meal at the hotel near the station, which happened to be where West Brom were staying,” Barton says. “I sensed they were a bit more casual than they should have been. They should have realised we don’t mess about.

“We had a good footballing team. We could compete with the big boys passing the ball, because that’s all we ever did. And we always had people who could go past people and get crosses in.”

Barton also, that day, found a good-luck omen. “I car-pooled with Derek Hemstead, who had a white Cortina, an automatic,” he says. “Before the Chelsea game, I said, ‘Let me drive it’. I did, and he scored. So before this one I said, ‘Hey, I’ll drive again…’”

This time it was the other car buddy who wrote headlines. In front of a crowd of 20,322, Carlisle got the better of a tentative West Brom in general play and, after Balderstone had hit the post, they powered into a 75th-minute lead. George McVitie crossed from the right and keeper John Osborne parried it back into the area. “It just rolled out, the kind of ball you dream of,” says Barton. “It was a clear path. I struck it well, and it was in.”

Brunton Park erupted in a way seldom heard before. “The noise was awesome,” Barton says. “Absolutely awesome.”

United, thanks to the redoubtable Ross in goal and a solid defensive effort, held on for a first-leg lead which might easily have been extended. Still, the Blues were halfway there. The match ball from the famous 1-0 victory was autographed by both teams and offered up in the Evening News & Star’s Christmas appeal for old folk at a big barbecue in the market hall, attended by Miss Great Britain along with Stokoe’s heroes.

Greater glory then beckoned at the Hawthorns two weeks later. Stokoe, in the build-up, claimed fortune tellers had advised him their tea leaves were predicting United’s path to Wembley. He ensured his squad trained in Cumbria, rather than go early to the Midlands, so as to keep nerves at bay.

On the day itself, 5,000 Blues supporters set off to the Black Country. “We have something of an ordeal to face,” Stokoe said. “But every Carlisle United player will give everything he has got to bring history to the club. If we make it, this city is going to be alight for the next three months.”

So nearly it happened. By half-time United’s advantage remained intact and, a few minutes into the second half, the tie’s true Sliding Doors moment arrived. It came when Bob Hatton broke down United’s left and, gaining a sight of goal, drove a shot towards the Albion target. “He hit a rocket, but it came off the post,” Barton says. “If that goes in, who knows what happens? I tried to swing at it but it was past me so fast that I couldn’t connect with it.”

It was the precursor to a swift and sad collapse. Carlisle’s gutsy resilience was finally broken in the 53rd minute, when Ross palmed away an Astle header and Bobby Hope hammered home for Albion. Ten minutes later, Colin Suggett turned in a cross to make it 2-1, and after another four minutes the Baggies had two more, thanks to Tony Brown and future United winger Dennis Martin.

It was a brutal and bracing turnaround, four goals in 19 minutes – “soccer murder” wrote Peter Long – and it left Carlisle to toil valiantly in a faltering effort to deny West Brom what now seemed an inevitable fourth cup final in five seasons.

Faced with this daunting demand and unlikely odds, their football became looser and better. “Maybe, earlier on, we didn’t have the confidence to go ahead and seal it,” Barton says. “At four down we thought, hell, ok, you’ve lost it, let’s relax and play.”

Barton pulled one back when his shot from Tommy Murray’s pass deflected past Osborne to make it 4-1 on the night. “Tommy then had an effort that went an inch too high. If that one goes in we’re slap-bang in the thick of things again, with 15 minutes to get another goal which would make it 4-4 [on aggregate] and we’d have the away goals.

“We were still close, even when they got four, believe it or not.”

Their best efforts, alas, came too late, and West Brom supporters poured onto the pitch at full-time, their side 4-2 aggregate winners and Carlisle left to reflect on their fall at the very brink. “It was a little bit depressing as we came off,” Barton says, “but it was still an exciting occasion to be involved in.” Stokoe, too, lamented Hatton’s encounter with the woodwork, and the fact West Brom got the breaks, but also conceded the unstoppable nature of the Baggies’ 19-minute siege. “The goals came so fast we didn’t know what had hit us,” the manager added.

A “deathly silent” bus journey home allowed further disappointed contemplations, as West Brom went on to Wembley, losing 2-1 to Man City in March. It was not the end of United’s cup endeavours in 1969/70, for they also, later, advanced hungrily in the FA Cup, reaching the fifth round before falling to Middlesbrough in front of a record 27,500 home crowd.

In the end it took the club until 1995 to play under the Twin Towers – in the Auto-Windscreens Shield – but those gallant days of ‘69 were, at the very least, a platform for great times in the decade to come, when United rose to the top flight.

Barton remained at Brunton Park until 1972, then played for Blackpool, Grimsby, Hereford and Bournemouth before an invitation to join Seattle Sounders in the American Professional Soccer League turned into lifelong relocation. He now coaches young players with Emerald City Football Club, and still looks back proudly on days which, half a century ago, made the walls of Wembley almost close enough to touch.

“Carlisle’s where I learned to play,” he says, warmly. “I remember John Rudge telling me, ‘You’ll learn how to strike a ball, here,’ and he was right. That’s all we did with Dick Young, oh my lord. Keep it simple, do the basics, one and two touch. It’s what I practice here with the kids. I need them to control it, pass and move. The game in a nutshell.

“You know, I played for six different teams in England and Carlisle’s my favourite spot. We had a hell of a side. It was a super period of time.”