A feisty night at Brunton Park. Carlisle United taking it to their expensively-heeled opponents, Fulham. A brace of goals from Ian Stevens, a yellow card for an inflamed Paul Peschisolido and, in the Paddock, a few ripe exchanges.


Ray Wilkins, in the away dugout, was unmoved – but neither was the Blues fan. Think Alan Partridge calling after Dan, but with an illustrious former England midfielder the recipient instead. The call was repeated. “Butch…Butch!”

Eventually, a flicker. Wilkins half-turned to the terrace. It was enough. His eyes met those of his assailant. Finally the core of the message could be delivered.

“Butch…your team’s *****”

It was not particularly imaginative. For wit, it could not be confused with anything from Oscar Wilde's pen. In general conversation it would hardly pass for perceptive criticism – yet for some reason, in that moment, it was totally hilarious.

When a football ground is packed and tense and a big name is suddenly coming a cropper in front of your eyes, such things often are. It is the rare, raw dialogue between public and football nobility when they are separated, for an hour-and-a-half, only by a small wall.

Everyone who has been to Carlisle’s ground will have their favourite memories of such repartee: those days when opponents caught the full blast of the Paddock, times that referees, managers, subs, directors, even stewards walked into a word or two they simply wouldn’t face anywhere else.

Those are the intimate connections; then there are the occasions when a crowd can be a powerful mass. The last few years have hardly seen Brunton Park as its most potent – a team flagging in the fourth tier does not lend itself to that – but it isn’t hard to think of earlier days when the audience, as much as the team, has given the place its life force.

This is what we have been deprived of for the last few months. It will hardly be back at full throttle today, given that only 1,000 supporters are allowed to attend Carlisle United versus Southend United.

But still – by God, you’ve been missed.

Football without fans is nothing, the saying goes. Essentially true, although not literally: the game has continued in closed grounds for a while, and don’t by any means accept that line from the organisations (Premier League, EFL) who have, in recent years, advanced a particular competition that actively alienates supporters (the EFL Trophy) because of a higher motivation (money).

A similar but tweaked phrase is better. Football without fans is…crap. Seriously, it’s rubbish. We may have had to make our peace with it whilst Covid-19 has been tearing around the country, and yes, some football is better than no football at all.

But some football is not a patch on real football: football that happens in front of people, rather than in sterile grounds with banks of deserted seats and the few of us fortunate to be let in having to dig deeper to try and promote the importance of it all.

None of us yet know whether today’s “test event” will herald a swift return to larger numbers. Certainly, the game at Carlisle’s level can hardly afford for it to be otherwise. Macclesfield’s demise this week may not have been Covid-enforced but a prolonged period of vacant arenas will surely tip others over the edge.

Let us trust, then, that it goes well, that United’s commitment to safety procedures brings about a strangely successful outcome that can give comfort to the wider sport.

Let us also, frankly, celebrate any sense of it feeling more like football again. In the last few months, whilst writing a book about memorable Carlisle United goals, I’ve had the privilege of talking to 40 former players. Notable in many of their recollections is the power of the crowd. Frank Barton, scorer of a League Cup semi-final goal in 1969, remembered the “awesome noise” as he sent ball into net. Billy Rafferty, plunderer of a rapid hat-trick in 1976, said that day’s volume made Brunton Park sound like it was at capacity, rather than a few thousand full.

Mally Poskett remembered the warmth from United’s fans even at pre-season friendlies. Joe Joyce was so rapt by the riotous feelings his goal against Huddersfield generated in 1994 that he struggled to concentrate on the rest of the game. Jeff Thorpe and Scott Dobie recalled the pitch-invading bedlam behind the goals at Scunthorpe and Chester. Carl Heggs chuckled as he remembered a “big, fat bloke” who burst from the away end and seized the corner flag on a survival night at Lincoln.

Simon Hackney could not forget the way people sang his name as he ripped into Leeds. Francois Zoko thought of the mutual roar after his overhead kick against Hartlepool. Lee Miller laughed at the crazy tumble of fans down the Warwick Road End terrace when he scored past Huddersfield.

A ground without its shouts and quirks and madnesses isn’t a ground. It’s a hollow.

The old place will, then, feel a touch more like it should today. There will be sanitising gel, social distance rules, masks and, naturally, the concerned hope that Carlisle can perform better than they have so far in 2020/21. The experience will remain at arm’s length from full normality. But, goodness me, those first claps and cheers will still sound so sweet.