It is a famous quirk of Blues history that, in the one campaign Carlisle spent at the highest level of the English game, another United – Manchester – were slumming it a division below for the only season of their post-war life.

The Blues as a top-flight team and the Red Devils as second-tier toilers: it was good while it lasted in 1974/5 but, as that rare term unfolded, it meant their paths had once more failed to cross in competitive first-team football.

That wait ended, finally, three campaigns later, by which time a more expected order had returned. Tommy Docherty had, by then, led the Old Trafford club back to the summit while the Blues had fallen back to Division Three for the first time in 12 years.

The first and, thus far, only Brunton Park meeting between the clubs came in the FA Cup Third Round in January 1978. Carlisle, with Billy Rafferty prominent among the goals, had seen off Stafford Rangers and Chester and come the new year could look forward to an exciting tussle with visitors who were now under the management of Dave Sexton.

The Blues had known some memorable cup ties in past decades – encounters with Arsenal, Birmingham and Newcastle – while Man Utd’s visit brought the Cup’s holders to Cumbria. The occasion brought officially the third largest Brunton Park crowd, 25,500, and the packed stadium saw a gripping game which did not want for instant drama, nor agonising controversy.

An early goal is often required to tee up an afternoon of high theatre and it so happened that Carlisle were on the receiving end in the first minute. Sexton’s side pounced on a Rafferty slip and swept forward through Jimmy Nicholl. Blues keeper Allan Ross parried two Steve Coppell efforts but Man Utd’s momentum was too forceful and Carlisle’s defending too ponderous, Lou Macari nipping in to score.

It was immediate deflation for the Cumbrians but also provocation, for Bobby Moncur’s hosts constructed a bold and impressive reply. Rafferty’s ability as a dangerous goalscorer was by then a recognisable feature of their play and only the fingertips of visiting keeper Paddy Roche denied him a quick leveller.

It only took them, though, eight minutes to fashion the equaliser and it came after captain Peter Carr had been fouled on the right by Arthur Albiston. George McVitie produced a measured free-kick and it found the free head of Carlisle’s captain Ian MacDonald, whose downward header convincingly beat Roche.

This further set the stage for an absorbing tie to which Carlisle’s ambitious contribution could not be denied. In pursuit of more goals and a sensational upset, Phil Bonnyman’s invention drew a yellow-card foul from Brian Greenhoff, who had cause to regret the rash moment come the 37th minute, when he provided another – this time handling the ball to prevent Rafferty from going through.

It meant a red card from referee Peter Reeves for Greenhoff, who was tearful as he left the pitch. It also nurtured further hopes of a shock result. Bonnyman passed up a good chance before the break, while Mick Tait rushed a finish when played in early in the second half.

Although the visitors adopted a more composed, containing strategy in light of their reduced numbers, Carlisle’s hopes remained brightly alive – but the crucial moment, later in the second half, went against them, and those who were there will dispute to this day that Reeves got it wrong when he refused to blow for a challenge in the box on McVitie by Man Utd sub Dave McCreery, the future Blues manager.

Reeves felt the Carlisle-born winger had dived. McVitie, speaking afterwards, disagreed. “He definitely tapped my ankles,” he said. “Perhaps if I’d made less of a show of falling down the referee would have given it. Who knows?”

It meant the tie reached its conclusion as one of the what-ifs of Carlisle’s cup history. Bonnyman and Tait were unable to take further chances and the feeling at full-time was less one of valiant effort but genuine frustration that the Blues had not managed to put away an illustrious side who were quite plainly there for the taking. “They were wide open at the back,” Rafferty said after the 1-1 draw. “I can’t say how sick I am that we didn’t beat them.”

They were left to rue their near miss in the replay four days later. Although Rafferty and Tait both found the net at Old Trafford, two goals apiece from Macari and Stuart Pearson accounted for the Blues on what remains their only visit to the famous ground. The Red Devils then fell to West Brom in round four as Carlisle returned to a mid-table, third-tier campaign.

Carlisle United: Ross, Carr, McCartney, Parker, MacDonald, Lathan, McVitie, Bonnyman, Hamilton (Ludlam), Tait, Rafferty.

Manchester United: Roche, Nicholl, Albiston, McIlroy, B Greenhoff, Buchan, Coppell, J Greenhoff, Pearson, Macari, Grimes (McCreery).

Crowd: 25,500