A great goal can grow greater when it lives only in the memory, not on video footage. John Halpin, three-and-a-half decades on, laughed as he considered this effect on his solo goal for Carlisle United against Blackburn Rovers in January 1986.

“I think I picked the ball up in Gretna and ended up making my way down the M6,” he said.

Halpin has never seen his most iconic United moment on film, but has seldom been short of reminders. Even now, the man today better known for leading the Blues’ community work often encounters a supporter eager to help him relive it.

News and Star: Halpin takes on the Blackburn defenceHalpin takes on the Blackburn defence

And so, it’s frequently 1986 again: when Halpin picks the ball up, jinks his way along Brunton Park’s boggy turf, drops a final shoulder and scores. The mid-1980s was a particularly gritty time in English football but Halpin dusted the old ground with magic that winter’s day.

It happened in a campaign which saw United in the early stages of a decline that would grow steeper in the coming years. Bob Stokoe’s team had come close to a top-flight return in 1984, but by 1985/6 Second Division life had become tougher for the Cumbrians.

News and Star: Ian Bishop on the attack for UnitedIan Bishop on the attack for United

It was still, though, a team with some admirable talent, such as Ian Bishop, a prodigious young midfielder, and the reliable Jack Ashurst in defence. Then there was Halpin: a darting winger signed from Celtic in 1984, who come January ’86 was attracting admiring glances from bigger clubs.

“He’s becoming an exciting player,” said Stokoe of the Scot. “Although I feel he has bits and pieces still to do, hopefully he’ll develop his potential.”

News and Star: Blackburn on the defensive against the CumbriansBlackburn on the defensive against the Cumbrians

This was the manager’s measured assessment after Halpin’s day of days against Bobby Saxton’s Blackburn. The Lancashire club lined up against the Blues with a side including Simon Garner, Mick Rathbone and Derek Fazackerley, while Bolton-bound midfielder Mark Gavin was absent for the Blues.

With Newcastle assistant boss Joe Harvey watching from the stand, United began in tune with their inconsistent form. Simon Barker came close to a Rovers opener when he slammed a tenth minute shot against the bar, and home keeper Scott Endersby had to be alert to swoop on a Garner cross that had deflected off Mike McCartney.

News and Star: A 4,000 crowd watches the Division Two action unfoldA 4,000 crowd watches the Division Two action unfold

The 20th minute, though, brought one of those moments destined to make its home in Brunton Park folklore. Halpin collected the ball 40 yards from goal, and his elusive dribble left “three defenders sprawled in the mud,” according to the great Ivor Broadis, reporting for this title. Halpin finally evaded keeper Terry Gennoe, and shot home.

News and Star: Halpin evades keeper Terry Gennoe to scoreHalpin evades keeper Terry Gennoe to score

His wizardry brought loud acclaim from the 4,076 crowd and set United up for a defiant showing. In gruelling conditions, Bishop and midfield team-mate Mick Halsall had to battle hard against the wind, the muddy surface also putting quality play at a premium.

News and Star: Halpin, left, turns away to celebrate his wonderful goalHalpin, left, turns away to celebrate his wonderful goal

Garner’s movement made Blackburn a threat, but the man who would go on to become a Rovers legend was not at his sharpest in front of goal. He thumped a shot wide midway through the half, and then wastefully shot at Endersby with Chris Thompson in space alongside him.

Early in the second half United then created a crucial second goal.

News and Star: United celebrate Andy Hill's goalUnited celebrate Andy Hill's goal

Halpin, under pressure, sent a clever ball inside, Paul Baker crossed low, and Andy Hill was free to unleash a shot which Gennoe couldn’t keep out.

News and Star: Andy Hill's shot beats keeper Terry Gennoe for United's secondAndy Hill's shot beats keeper Terry Gennoe for United's second

It was a vital margin in such a demanding contest, and one Carlisle could have further increased when Gennoe saved at Bishop’s feet. But Baker, following up, chipped over the bar, and Blackburn tried to make good on this reprieve 20 minutes from time.

Garner eventually got his range right, netting a first-time finish after Thompson had knocked down an Ian Miller cross, and this led to an edgier closing period than Carlisle would have preferred.

News and Star: United on the attack in the second halfUnited on the attack in the second half

Halpin, though, was always a positive outlet, and his flying wing work tested Jim Branagan to the end, the Blackburn full-back collecting a booking for one scything challenge, and somehow avoiding a second yellow when he body-checked Halpin a few minutes later.

The 24-year-old deserved to be on the winning side, and could enjoy that feeling as Stokoe’s men held on for a 2-1 victory which could not fail to impress neutral spectators.

News and Star: Visiting keeper Gennoe tries to punch clearVisiting keeper Gennoe tries to punch clear

“Players sell themselves, and if John does well enough to bring a bid, it’s something you always have to consider at Carlisle,” the manager said afterwards.

Alas, the prospect of Halpin lighting up higher stages was crudely interrupted two months later, when a hostile challenge by Middlesbrough’s Brian Laws left Carlisle’s star with a broken leg. Another such injury impeded him the following campaign and Halpin’s career from there had to be sustained at the lower levels to which the Blues duly fell.

News and Star: John Halpin in his role as United's community sports trust manager, pictured delivering items to vulnerable people during the Covid pandemicJohn Halpin in his role as United's community sports trust manager, pictured delivering items to vulnerable people during the Covid pandemic

In the later stages of his career there were still plenty of traces of that fine ability, while with the community sports trust Halpin has become a different but still profound asset to Carlisle United; many years on from the mud-stained day he sparkled in a shiny blue shirt at Brunton Park.

United: Endersby, Lomax, Ashurst, Saunders, McCartney, Cooke, Bishop, Halsall, Halpin, Hill, Baker. Sub: Wakenshaw.

Blackburn: Gennoe, Branagan, Mail, Fazackerley, Rathbone, Miller, Lowey, Barker, Brotherston, Garner, Thompson. Sub: Keeley.

Crowd: 4,076.