Nick Barnes is looking back more than 25 years but what he sees is still richly colourful. He imagines once more the shades of green, red and white as Carlisle United supporters amassed outside Wembley Stadium for the first time. 

“In all the years I’ve been covering football, that memory is up there with anything,” he says of the build-up to the Auto-Windscreens Shield final of 1995. “I’ve done games in the Champions League, Bobby Robson…but that moment, driving in through the crowds…unbelievable. Really emotional.”

It was Barnes’ fate to be the voice of unforgettable United times. His measured, accomplished commentary was the soundtrack to Carlisle’s resurgence in the mid-1990s. With BBC Radio Cumbria, he covered the Blues’ climb from the decade’s skint beginnings to elaborate success under Michael Knighton.

That first trip to Wembley, a huge occasion for United’s support in their “deckchair” colours, was a pinnacle. “Back in the day, Tony Smith [the News & Star reporter] and I travelled with the team, and you really felt the sense of occasion,” Barnes says. “You knew Birmingham, Carlisle’s opponents, would take a big allocation and Wembley was going to be full to the rafters.

"It was the Auto-Windscreens, but to our minds it was like an FA Cup Final. As we got near the stadium, the coach was quite quiet. Everyone was so absorbed in taking it all in.” 

Barnes was accompanied by Graham Liver and the ebullient Derek Lacey as they described Mick Wadsworth’s bold team performing beneath the Twin Towers. “There was a bit of nervousness,” he says. “You didn’t want to make any mistakes, and at the same time, you wanted to absorb the atmosphere. To an extent it went past in a blur. These days we’d have our phones out, taking panoramas, but you couldn’t then. I’ve only got four or five pictures of that day, which makes them more precious. Derek is there in his shirt sleeves looking so relaxed and happy.

"Seeing the stadium absolutely bouncing before kick-off is the overriding feeling. Everything was fantastic about it…apart from the goal.” 

Paul Tait’s sudden-death header won the final for Birmingham in extra-time. “It was horrible,” Barnes says. “That moment when you know there’s no way back. You have to keep talking but all you want to do is stop. It was an amazing way for Birmingham to win but a brutal way for Carlisle to lose. 

“It was a moment of history, the first golden goal to win a final, so it had that news angle too – but you don’t think of that at time. It felt like you’d been smacked in the stomach.” 

It did not take long, after Tait’s decisive header, for United’s supporters to strike up again in defiant, inspiring song. Barnes, though, was unaware. “All I was thinking about was getting down to the pitch to do interviews. I was caught up in work mode. By the time I’d done everything, the stadium was emptied and quiet.” 

News and Star: Nick Barnes and Derek Lacey, standing, commentating at Wembley in 1995Nick Barnes and Derek Lacey, standing, commentating at Wembley in 1995

It was, otherwise, anything but a silent time at Carlisle. Barnes had moved to Radio Cumbria in 1988, leaving a freelance position at Radio Devon. The station’s sport coverage then was weighted towards rugby league but in 1992 Barnes proposed covering United with regular commentaries.

“I felt we were missing a trick with football,” he says. “I put it to the line manager that, if the club were acquiescent, and we could travel on the team bus to cut down costs, we could start doing commentary. Aidan McCaffery was the [United] manager, I got on well with him, and everyone said yes, basically.”

So began the weekend listening ritual which began with Barnes, continued with Lacey and is now upheld by James Phillips. That summer brought the arrival of Knighton at Brunton Park. “I remember the day he was unveiled,” Barnes says. “It was really weird – this knight in shining armour, outgoing, flamboyant, promising this and that. Change was afoot and I think Aidan knew it would come to an end for him. You did feel, though, that it might be the start of something and quite quickly, in fairness, it was. 

“There was this turnaround from a group of journeymen, almost non-league players, to a much better squad. When Mick Wadsworth came in [in 1993], there was something in the air.”

Barnes accompanied the team on overnight stays. “In those early days, Knighton was great. He’d go on the bus and when the squad often trained at Warrington College, where Mick’s big mate Bill Beswick [the sports psychologist] worked, Michael would strip off and join in. 

“I think even he got swept up in the euphoria of that time. There were some characters in that squad. David Reeves really lit up the dressing room – the glue that held it together, in a way. David Currie, Rod Thomas, Paul Conway, Simon Davey, the local lads like Jeff Thorpe, Darren Edmondson, Richard Prokas…quite an eclectic bunch.”

Because of this close proximity, Barnes encountered a lively squad in all ways. “Dave Burgess and David Reeves finally admitted they trashed my hotel room on one trip,” he says. “I came in and they’d squeezed toothpaste everywhere, and done all kinds. 

“Everyone was fair game to them. Warren Aspinall was at the other end in terms of camaraderie. He was the sort of player who I think hated the press being around, and made sure you knew it, but at the same time would sit and play cards with you because he wanted to fleece you. 

“There was no sense of a bad dressing room, though. It felt quite united. There were no cliques.” 

Wadsworth, the director of coaching, led United to the play-offs in 1994 and the Division Three title a year later. “I knew he used to listen to my review of the game when driving up on a Monday morning," Barnes says, "as the phone would often go and he’d be screaming at me down the phone. Then I’d go in and see him later, and he was fine. He’d let off his steam and that was it.

“He was a bit on the edge, highly strung, but the next minute he could be the life and soul, as he was the night before Wembley when we went to lay the kit out. He was hilarious, cracking jokes, holding court. He used to take the mickey out of me because I’m a public schoolboy from Devon, and that went against everything he’d grown up with, in the mines in Yorkshire and so on. He used that as a tool to try and wind me up. But we got on well.” 

Barnes remembers fans flocking from across Cumbria to join the deckchair pageant in which he was unavoidably involved. “It felt good,” he says. “You were part of something. Carlisle is a community, and, I think, a tight-knit city. I go back now and people still remember me, know me. I feel quite at home. The city engenders that feeling. Because it’s quite a small city, a border city, a walled city as people talk about historically, that insularity, if you like, worked very well for Carlisle. Being a little bit of an outpost meant that people really embraced the club, or anything that was doing well. 

“When they got to Wembley I had no doubt they’d sell 27,000 tickets, and fate dictated that this kit would come out that looked like a deckchair, which became so iconic for that final. There was a bit of national attention too, with people like Hunter Davies and Charlie Burgess writing articles. The broadsheets and Sunday papers were interested in Carlisle. Clearly something special was happening.” 

News and Star: United fans in their "deckchair" colours gather outside Wembley in 1995United fans in their "deckchair" colours gather outside Wembley in 1995

The special times, though, faded when United were relegated back to the fourth tier in 1996, Wadsworth having left for Norwich and Carlisle hamstrung by the lack of summer reinforcements. Mervyn Day took them back up – and to a Wembley win in 1997, when Barnes hollered Steve Hayward’s winning penalty into Colchester’s net – but troubles revisited in the autumn of 1997. A hoped-for climb towards the second tier by then looked distant, and Barnes’ rapport with Knighton crumbled. 

“We were fine until Mervyn was sacked,” he says. “The first game he [Knighton] took charge of, at Wycombe, he banned players from talking to me, and then when they arrived – I had to drive, I wasn’t allowed on the team bus any more – he caught me talking to Dean Walling in the stand and threatened to drop Dean from the team that day.

“They won 4-1, he got the players to stand in line, hold hands and take a bow in front of the away fans. As he walked off the pitch he stood and stuck two fingers up at me. In the car park afterwards, we had a massive row by the bus. That was end of our relationship. I’ve not really spoken to him since. All my communication was with [coach] David Wilkes and the players. 

“I knew then I was going to be banned full stop the following season. Then I got my move to London.”

Barnes went onto Five Live and then Radio Newcastle, who he now serves as their Sunderland commentator. The Radio Cumbria baton passed to Lacey, who had accompanied Barnes hilariously at times. “Derek was just a lovely, lovely bloke," he says of the much-loved broadcaster who died in 2009. "When we commentated at Doncaster, he basically garotted himself, tangled in a telephone line. I was just gone, trying to commentate whilst watching this funniest thing in the world. 

“He was so easy going, great company. He lived and breathed the club, knew a lot of the players quite closely. We bounced off each other.” 

These memories surge back whenever Barnes encounters United again. Last week he called their game at Sunderland in the EFL Trophy while in the new year he hopes to be back to take part in a Covid-delayed 1994/5 reunion. When the gathering happens, the voice of a volatile but golden period will be embraced as much as those fondly-regarded players.

“I’m just flattered, really,” he says when people associate his commentary with that time. “I ask, ‘what have I done to deserve it?’ I just did my job to the best of my ability. 

“I feel so lucky to have been there. At Sunderland, now, I still talk about Carlisle. Those few years...you could never hope to replicate them. For the club, the city, the county…everything just clicked.”

News and Star: Barnes, right, now covers Sunderland for BBC Newcastle. He is pictured here interviewing former Black Cats boss Jack RossBarnes, right, now covers Sunderland for BBC Newcastle. He is pictured here interviewing former Black Cats boss Jack Ross