It was towards the end of the night when Jamie Robinson, a valued member of Carlisle United’s 1994/5 squad, encapsulated it all.

He took the microphone and expressed his feelings in a calm and measured way. His words deserve repeating in full.

“The spirit of the town at the time, and how football connects people, is really important, as we’ve seen through the last year with Covid,” he said.

“I’ve had my own personal health circumstances, and Tony’s family are immediately aware of how fragile life is. You’ve got to grasp every moment.

“Twenty-five years ago we had an unbelievable time. We came together through some brilliant leadership, some fantastic people…and I think we understood then that football means a lot more to people than just what happens on a Saturday.

“It’s part of people’s lives. It’s part of how people feel about themselves, their town, that togetherness. I’ve got friendships with all these people here that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

The audience at Harraby Catholic Club applauded. They sang Robinson’s name, as they had for many of the others: Dean Walling, David Reeves, Rod Thomas, Tony Gallimore, and of course Tony Hopper, whose memory was cherished on this night of reminiscence.

News and Star: Dan Hopper, Dale Nicholson, Colin Carter, MIck Wadsworth and Darren HopperDan Hopper, Dale Nicholson, Colin Carter, MIck Wadsworth and Darren Hopper

It had been a quarter of a century in the staging, and then a little more, given the way the pandemic nudged this much-anticipated reunion further back.

It was assuredly worth the wait. One of United’s most memorable seasons and characterful teams was back in the present day. So were many members of the deckchair army who roared that side to title glory and down Wembley Way.

They celebrated once more a mid-nineties time when United burst out of their doldrums and created a colourful new buzz in the city and county.

The occasion came with undeniable poignancy, as organiser Colin Carter began the evening with a toast to “absent friends” – Tony Hopper, of course, Peter Hampton too. Nick Barnes, the former BBC Cumbria commentator clad in a deckchair shirt, wanted to mention others who had charted Carlisle’s 1995 glory: Tony Smith, the former News & Star reporter; Derek Lacey, the charismatic radio icon, and Mick Mitchell, whose writings on the Blues were a staple of that time.

The most emotional part of the night came later, after an auction had raised thousands for Eden Valley Hospice, large bids going in for signed shirts bearing the names of Luis Suarez, Alan Shearer, Steven Gerrard, other Premier League squads, United’s own heroes and the special treat of some artwork by 1994/5 manager Mick Wadsworth.

Summoned to the stage directly after that were members of Tony Hopper’s family – his son, Dan; his brother, Darren; his wife, Sue – to receive the presentation of a specially commissioned drawing by artist Dale Nicholson. In the frame with the picture was also a title-winner’s medal from Tony’s time with Bohemians, sent by the club and the FA of Ireland 20 years after the event.

The gusto with which the audience then stood and sang Tony’s name was profound. When Tony’s former team-mates lined up to greet and hug Dan, Sue and Darren, there were tears in more than a few eyes.

Tony was a young player in 94/5, an aspiring pro learning from men who made the campaign iconic. Wadsworth, the director of coaching, described the coming together of established players, new arrivals and Cumbrian youth as a “perfect storm”. He mentioned Michael Knighton, without a bitter word.

News and Star: Nick Barnes talks to David Currie as Mick Wadsworth, left, looks onNick Barnes talks to David Currie as Mick Wadsworth, left, looks on

One of the older playing faces was back for the first time since that decade. David Currie was cheered to the stage and reminded of supporters’ long-standing affection, as he spoke modestly about his part in it all, the car-school meetings and sandwich runs with team-mates at Scotch Corner. Rod Thomas recalled his introduction to Carlisle via Watford, his association with Wadsworth, the nightlife in the city that gave “fans and players this great rapport”.

Tony Caig, the goalkeeper, remembered his own young introduction to an aspiring side, making sure to praise Tony Elliott – who joined on a video call – for the professionalism he helped establish. Darren Edmondson, asked for his abiding memories, grinned and cited “Buskers, Pagoda, Thursday hangovers, winning matches on Saturdays”.

Dean Walling, saluted with the familiar ‘Deano’ song, spoke of the special bond that survives all this time. “25 years? It seems like 25 days.” There was talk of the Auto-Windscreens Shield, the nervous northern final against Rochdale, the stirring day at Wembley when Cumbria travelled south in green, red and white.

News and Star: United's 1994/5 squad pose for a team photoUnited's 1994/5 squad pose for a team photo

Richard Prokas was next: “Just a local lad from Penrith who was living the dream”. Patrick Vieira was inevitably mentioned - but so was Prokas’ quiet efficiency as a young player in a title-bound side. Paul Murray, another Cumbrian, spoke of his admiration for his fellow midfield battler: “All Rich did was smash people and pass the ball.” It was intended as the highest compliment.

Derek Mountfield, 94/5’s calming defensive presence, was as enthusiastic about those United times as his illustrious days with Everton. “That season is right up there with the top of my achievements,” he said.

Then there was David Reeves, mocked for leaving for Preston, cherished for the talismanic goalscoring he gave the Blues before then. “The most poignant time of my career was at Carlisle,” he said. “It wasn’t a football club. It was like a family.”

Tony Gallimore agreed that United in the 90s had been the best time of his football years. Jeff Thorpe further summed up the spirit that existed in the ranks. Thomas invited fans to join him in town to celebrate his birthday. There were chants of ‘United! United!’, and there was much mingling at the end, as fans shook their heroes’ hands, pints went down and Blue Army! by So What played over the speakers: “If we don’t stop we’ll reach the moon/The shiny cups can’t come too soon…”

Robinson had it right. It was so much more than just football.

*You can see a gallery of photos of United's 1994/5 heroes from the night here

*And a fans gallery from the reunion can also be seen here

*Listen to the audience's salute for Tony Hopper here