For a few moments, Carlisle United could dream. A corner-kick was headed into the air and into the hungry path of Brent Hetherington. Under pressure, the striker’s volley skimmed the bar.

The Liverpool of Barnes, Beardsley, Whelan, Molby, Houghton and the rest survived. And, after that early scare, the expected order of things was eventually put in place at Brunton Park. 

It is 33 years now since an FA Cup occasion which packed Carlisle’s old ground: a third round tie which brought the finest side in the country to Cumbria to take on a home team struggling in the old Fourth Division.

News and Star: Ronnie Whelan leads out the Liverpool teamRonnie Whelan leads out the Liverpool team

It was undoubtedly an occasion which offered a timely lift to the Blues, even if the incredible prospect of a giantkilling was duly dealt with by Kenny Dalglish’s Reds.

News and Star: Saddington leads out the BluesSaddington leads out the Blues

United, under Clive Middlemass, had embarked on a lowly league season which was punctuated by progress in the Cup. After accounting for Telford in round one, Steve Richards’ own-goal at Scarborough sent the Blues into the third round – as they landed the biggest tie of all.

Liverpool were league champions and eyeing a double in the 1988/9 campaign. Carlisle, in the bottom tier for a second consecutive season amid increasingly hard times, prepared to welcome an 18,000+ crowd.

News and Star: Saddington outjumps Jan Molby as United go close in the early stagesSaddington outjumps Jan Molby as United go close in the early stages

In terms of selection, Ian Rush was an absentee for Liverpool through injury while Middlemass was without winger Gary Marshall, though city-born striker Tony Fyfe passed a fitness test to join the subs. Another intriguing selection was that of teenage full-back Jimmy Robertson, for whom it would be only a 10th senior appearance in professional football.

The fixture had the added intrigue of bringing the brilliant Peter Beardsley back to the ground where his pro career had taken off. Few people realistically expected United to endanger Liverpool, though there was optimism in the Blues ranks as they gathered in Wetheral for lunch on the eve of the game, their meals paid for by an anonymous supporter.

News and Star: Fans in the 18,000 crowdFans in the 18,000 crowd

The stadium was crammed for an occasion which would prove a highlight of United’s 60th anniversary Football League season – and the Blues managed to remain the equals of the Anfield giants for 35 minutes. 

In that period, Beardsley and John Barnes had combined in a promising position, while Hetherington had gone close for Middlemass’s men. John Aldridge failed to convert a good Liverpool chance at the Warwick Road End, and United – for whom skipper Nigel Saddington was impressive at the back – could entertain thoughts of a shock.

News and Star: John Aldridge (No8) celebrates as John Barnes' shot puts Liverpool aheadJohn Aldridge (No8) celebrates as John Barnes' shot puts Liverpool ahead

Then Barnes put Liverpool ahead and the fantasy fizzled out. He was on hand to volley home from close range after Dave McKellar had saved from Beardsley, and this settled a visiting side who had been on top without, until then, knifing through. 

Carlisle were sent down the tunnel at half-time to a warm ovation from their supporters and spent the first 20 minutes of the second half trying to hold their illustrious opponents at bay.

News and Star: Carlisle's Brent Hetherington takes on Jan MolbyCarlisle's Brent Hetherington takes on Jan Molby

McKellar saved a downward Aldridge header while, at the other end, Hetherington sliced a shot wide after being fed by Archie Stephens. 

Liverpool then cut free for the goal that effectively sealed things. Jan Molby was the architect with a fine cross-field ball for Beardsley, who fed Barnes. His pull-back from the byline found Steve McMahon, and the midfielder fired home.

News and Star: John Halpin sends in a cross for United against LiverpoolJohn Halpin sends in a cross for United against Liverpool

It was a simple yet clinically effective second Liverpool goal and Dalglish’s passage to the fourth round was now in no great doubt. United kept plugging away, but were finished off for good in the 84th minute.

News and Star: Saddington moves in to tackle BeardsleySaddington moves in to tackle Beardsley

The visitors, attacking towards their fans in the Waterworks End, won the ball in midfield via Beardsley, and he supplied the overlapping McMahon who again made no mistake in slotting past McKellar.

News and Star: Peter Beardsley, back at Brunton Park, takes on United's Simon JeffelsPeter Beardsley, back at Brunton Park, takes on United's Simon Jeffels

Class had inevitably told, not that it tarnished United’s experience of the day. Middlemass felt his team had competed well against the best team in England, while rookie Robertson, who had played on the right of midfield, said it was “just brilliant”, adding: “I am really happy to have played against them.”

Winger John Halpin, speaking after the game, admitted that it felt like United were up against “20 players”, such was Liverpool’s quality, while Hetherington reflected on the narrow margins of his own big day.

News and Star: Ian Dalziel attacks for the CumbriansIan Dalziel attacks for the Cumbrians

“My first-half shot was close – they either go in or they don’t,” he said. 

The attendance of 18,556 was a welcome boost to the coffers and United’s highest crowd for 13 years. It also coincided with a much better second half of 1988/9 for the Blues, who rose from the wrong end of Division Four to a mid-table finish come May.

News and Star: Brent Hetherington gets away from David Burrows, left, and Jan MolbyBrent Hetherington gets away from David Burrows, left, and Jan Molby

By that point, Liverpool’s season and FA Cup run had fallen into tragedy, since their semi-final against Nottingham Forest saw the Hillsborough disaster. An emotional final followed as the Anfield club beat Everton 3-2, while in the league they lost out to Arsenal on a dramatic final day.

News and Star: United try to close down a cross from John BarnesUnited try to close down a cross from John Barnes

That January game at Brunton Park remains Liverpool’s most recent visit to Carlisle’s ground. The clubs have only met once since then: in the League Cup in 2015, when Keith Curle’s Blues went down valiantly on penalties on Merseyside.

United: McKellar, Graham, Dalziel, Saddington, Jeffels, Fitzpatrick, Gorman, Robertson (Sendall), Hetherington, Stephens (Fyfe), Halpin. 

Liverpool: Hooper, Ablett, Burrows, Nicol, Whelan, Molby, Beardsley, Aldridge, Houghton, Barnes, McMahon. Not used: Spackman, Watson.

Crowd: 18,556.