Imagine being six points adrift at the bottom of the Football League, welcoming Arsene Wenger’s star-studded Arsenal to your ground, pushing them close in a feisty, controversial cup tie…and that not even being half the story?

This was Carlisle United in the early months of this millennium. It is getting on for 20 years now since the Gunners came to town and looking back just reminds us what a melodramatic and, yes, farcical place Brunton Park was back then.

The sub-plot to Arsenal’s third round visit was the behind-the-scenes goings-on at a club mired in chaos. United had started the campaign with a hastily-assembled squad and new manager Ian Atkins given the steepest uphill task as Michael Knighton’s reign went deep into crisis.

On the pitch, the Blues battled against the odds – while off it, the early weeks of January 2001 brought hope. A press conference saw the announcement of new owners, Mamcarr Investments of Gibraltar, the takeover fronted by the Scottish businessman Stephen Brown, who was said to have made millions through the sale of a hotel in Spain.

Promises were made to strengthen the squad, with management consultant David Low assuring reporters that Knighton had “completely and utterly gone” from the scene. There were questions yet to be answered – who exactly were Mamcarr, for instance? – and disturbing rumours concerned a possible merger with Clydebank, but the whiff of a new era was at least in the air as Atkins’ team prepared for Arsenal.

The manager, himself fighting for his future given the non-committal noises from Brown, pledged that Carlisle would “get rattled into them” when Wenger’s illustrious side emerged. That they did in different ways, in front of a 15,300 crowd which included a certain Jimmy Glass. It was 50 years to the day that Carlisle had tussled with the Gunners in a previous cup encounter and the team of world stars sent out by Wenger got a couple of early scares before imposing their stature.

Ian Stevens, normally the Blues’ best finisher, could have had two goals inside 20 minutes. Picked out by Richard Prokas’ chip, Stevens missed his kick from gaping penalty-box space, and later he evaded keeper Alex Manninger but guided Scott Dobie’s excellent pass wide.

At the other end United defended determinedly but there was no way of stopping the 22nd-minute goal taken by Sylvain Wiltord when he swept Patrick Vieira’s pass low past Matty Glennon.

That, though, was far from the end of the action. A few minutes later, the tie’s most infamous incident saw Prokas overrun the ball in midfield before making an ugly, two-footed lunge on Vieira. It was a moment which made national headlines, sparked the fury of Wenger and led to an angry melee of players.

Referee Stephen Lodge, though, did not even give a free-kick, the only card that came out of his pocket a yellow for Arsenal’s Nelson Vivas over his part in the shoving.

The rest of the game saw more orthodox Carlisle defiance, as keeper Glennon excelled with saves from Dennis Bergkamp and Freddie Ljungberg. Ashley Cole escaped censure for a swing at Mark Birch and Wenger, by full-time, was probably relieved to have got out with a 1-0 win and no more hullaballoo.

“I thought Carlisle were very well-organised,” he said. “They made it difficult for us. I must say they surprised me.”

The off-field debacle that followed United’s largely gallant cup exit may have been less surprising to weary Blues-watchers, even though it was particularly bizarre when it transpired their supposed millionaire saviour, Brown, was living in an old folks’ home in Peebles, worked as a barman in an Indian restaurant, had been barred from a nearby hotel for troublemaking and had arrived at the Arsenal game in a battered old Cavalier.

The new United dawn rapidly faded. Knighton professed to have been “hoodwinked” by the bizarre Brown, and while the News & Star revealed the identities of four Gibraltar lawyers as the main shareholders of Mamcarr, it was further reported that they were not the company’s “true owners” – who had asked to remain secret.

The takeover episode drifted into United infamy, Knighton remaining until the summer of 2002 and Atkins having departed at the end of 2000/1, when Carlisle followed their unlikely cup exploits with a late surge to survival, thanks to a Carl Heggs volley at Lincoln: a rare moment of joy in a troubled and frankly absurd Blues time.

United: Glennon, Whitehead, Darby (Heggs), Winstanley, Birch, Hemmings (Thwaites), Connelly, Soley, Prokas, Dobie, Stevens (Halliday). Not used: Hore, Inglis.

Arsenal: Manninger, Dixon, Cole (Malz), Stepanovs, Vivas, Parlour, Vieira, Ljungberg (Silvinho), Pires, Bergkamp, Wiltord (Danilevicius). Not used: Lukic, Halls.