"My mum couldn’t look,” says Dean Walling as he goes back 25 years to one of those great sliding doors moments with Carlisle United. It was the Auto-Windscreens Shield final of 1997, and a penalty shoot-out which was precariously balanced.

Supporters know how it ended: with Steve Hayward sending in the winning kick against Colchester United and Mervyn Day’s team making history as Carlisle’s first Wembley victors.

Before that colourful climax, though, there was the anxious build-up. Colchester were 3-1 up in the shoot-out after the normally reliable Owen Archdeacon had seen his penalty saved. Had Walling, United’s third taker, also missed, the trophy would have been practically out of sight.

It was Carlisle’s fortune that the defender stepping up was one of their calmest heads. “I could imagine a lot of the fans thinking, ‘Oh no, not Deano’. I can hear it now. But that’s what you’re paid to do – go up and deliver,” he says.

“No way was I going to get those young players, like Rory Delap, Lee Peacock and Matt Jansen, take a penalty before me. I was a senior pro – time to step up. Some people, when it comes to a shoot-out, go missing. Trust me. I’ve been in situations where the biggest voices in the dressing room suddenly go a little bit quiet.

“That wasn’t me – I said, ‘I’ll take one, Merv’. I backed myself to score and ultimately I did.”

Memories of the moment flood back as Walling, 52, recalls the tension. “It is the longest walk from the halfway line to a penalty spot ever,” he says. “The Colchester fans were booing, obviously. Halfway there I thought, ‘I’m gonna have to start running, otherwise they’re just gonna keep booing and booing.

“I started jogging, got there, put it down, decided where it was going, kept it low, in the corner – keeper had no chance. It’s not a good thing to miss at Wembley, trust me. You’ve got to have the balls to stand up and be counted.”

Walling’s clinical shot kept United in it and then, via two Tony Caig saves, a Warren Aspinall effort and Hayward’s winner, Carlisle rose to glory. It was some time after captain Hayward had lifted the shield and United’s players had their medals that Walling learned that at least one person had been too nervous to watch.

He laughs. “I said, ‘Jeez, Mum – the only time I’m ever going to take a penalty and you can’t watch it?!’ She said she just couldn’t. As I was stepping up, she was covering her eyes. But that’s how real mums are…”

News and Star: Dean Walling leaps back onto the pitch after celebrating with a shirtless Steve Hayward at Wembley in 1997Dean Walling leaps back onto the pitch after celebrating with a shirtless Steve Hayward at Wembley in 1997

The 1997 final, a quarter-of-a-century old next Wednesday, was, as well as being an indelible moment in United’s history, also a poignant mark in a particular era. It was one of the last great days of a decade which had, until then, brought dramatic renewal to Carlisle United.

A few months later, and the team had broken up, Day had been sacked and the Blues, under Michael Knighton, were heading towards much more contentious times. Events of April 20, 1997 do, therefore, offer a particular emotional tug.

They also came on a stirring weekend for this county given that, also in London, Cumbria’s rugby union team had won the county championship by beating Dorset & Wiltshire at Twickenham the day before. On Sunday, Carlisle’s footballers returned to Wembley, two years after having lost valiantly to Birmingham City in the Auto-Windscreens.

That was a glorious community occasion, it being United’s first ever game under the Twin Towers in front of a packed stadium, while 1997 felt more about the result. The Blues had got there in no small part due to Walling’s defensive brilliance in a taut northern final second leg at Stockport County.

United, 2-0 up from the first leg thanks to Archdeacon goals, survived a barrage at Edgeley Park. “Mate, I’ve watched that back, and that was probably one of my best ever games for Carlisle,” Walling says. “I cleared one off the line with an overhead kick, one with a header...and that summed us up. We got absolutely battered but didn’t concede.

“We’d lost two of those northern finals [to Huddersfield Town in 1994 and Rotherham United in 1996], and it’s never nice losing at that stage. You don’t get the day out. You don’t get the suit. That night at Stockport, I was in a different zone – a place where you’ll put your body, heart and everything on the line for your team-mates and club.”

United held on at 0-0 and booked their return to Wembley. It was another culmination of a fine season; one spent in the higher reaches of Division Three under Day, who had evolved the team left by Mick Wadsworth, 1994/5’s director of coaching.

“I loved Merv,” says Walling, the striker who turned, in the early 90s, into an iconic, goalscoring centre-back beloved by fans who sang ‘Deano’ at every turn. “I was his boot boy at Leeds when I was 16-18, and at Carlisle we used to travel up together from Wetherby. He was one of the best managers I played under.

“He believed in me, concentrated more on the good things I brought to the table than the bad things. He was a manager I’d have run through a wall for.”

Walling remained a defensive linchpin in a side whose formation Day had tweaked in 1996/7, as Carlisle smoothly recovered from relegation. “I think the 94/5 team was a bit more free-flowing, in 4-3-3 which in those days was a more attacking formation. With Merv, it was 3-5-2, a little bit more defensive, more cagey. We were a little bit more reserved with our play. We built from the back, really.”

That construction involved a three-man central defensive line of Walling, the young Cumbrian Will Varty and the French enigma, Stephane Pounewatchy. The latter added culture to United’s defensive strength.

News and Star: Warren Aspinall, Lee Peacock, Matt Jansen and Stephane Pounewatchy celebrate after United held on at Stockport to book their place at Wembley in 1997Warren Aspinall, Lee Peacock, Matt Jansen and Stephane Pounewatchy celebrate after United held on at Stockport to book their place at Wembley in 1997

“When he first came it was the first time I’d seen defenders breaking out from the back,” Walling says. “I would get it on my right foot and clip it into the channel, but Steph would run with the ball and everybody loved it.

“He’d get a taxi getting back, mind you…but watching him go forward with the ball was an absolute pleasure. Running forward, into space, stepping into midfield, starting the attacks off – that was Steph all over. He was brilliant at it. And the crowd loved it as well.”

Pounewatchy’s English was not immediately fluent, but the defenders grew in understanding. “The three of us had to communicate in some way – I don’t think we did too bad,” Walling says. “With Stephane…if he didn’t want to do something, he was French and couldn’t understand. If he wanted to do something his English would suddenly come back…”

Carlisle’s team, which also included the experience of Hayward, Aspinall, Archdeacon and Paul Conway as well as the bounding wing-back play and long throw of the young Cumbrian Delap, fought well in a tough promotion race with the well-heeled pair of Wigan Athletic and Fulham – while Wembley, where fans were bedecked in their new Eddie Stobart-themed ‘deckchair’ green, red, white and gold colours, was another chance to crown their progress.

“Looking back at ’95, we were underdogs in that game,” Walling says. “This time we were probably favourites to win it. So going there not wanting to lose was probably the mentality of the players.”

News and Star: Dean Walling battles Colchester's Tony Adcock in the 1997 Auto-Windscreens Shield finalDean Walling battles Colchester's Tony Adcock in the 1997 Auto-Windscreens Shield final

That, Walling feels, contributed to a largely dour 0-0 draw against Steve Wignall’s Colchester, from the middle of United’s division, in front of 45,077 fans. The 90 minutes plus extra-time only provided sporadic incident, a few half chances and a notorious moment when Delap managed to sever a corner flag and temporarily lifted the stress of the contest.

“For us at the back, it was about keeping a clean sheet,” Walling says. “No team really had clear-cut chances. Although I should have scored twice! A near post header from a Rory long throw, and a free-kick from Archie, left footed inswinger, and it just went over the bar.

“I’d scored at Wembley before for Guiseley in 1991 against Gresley Rovers, in a 4-4 draw…I knew I had goals in me. So I was disappointed.”

Wembley also had emotional significance for Walling since 1995’s final came a year to the day that his father had died. He was tearful as he descended the steps with his runners’-up medal that day. “The second time was just a case of exorcising the ghosts from getting beat in the first one,” he says. “I was so desperate to be a winner.”

The shoot-out, Caig’s saves from Karl Duguid and Peter Cawley, and Hayward’s deciding kick saw to that. “The feeling…just elation,” Walling says of the victorious moment. “What was I thinking? Just go and try and jump on Stevie – because the cameras will be following him! That was my exact thought…”

News and Star: Steve Hayward and Tony Caig celebrate with the shieldSteve Hayward and Tony Caig celebrate with the shield

Walling and Rod Thomas chased a bare-chested Hayward around the national stadium’s perimeter as supporters drank in the moment of history. Captain Hayward later donned an elaborate, multi-coloured hat as he received the trophy from Glenn Hoddle, the guest of honour.

The team returned to Carlisle that night, making it a double success for Day's team, who had secured promotion nine days earlier, and went up in the third automatic place.

Did the significance of that historic Wembley win sink in at the time? Walling says not. “I think it’s not until later in life, 10-15-20 years after you finish playing, that you start to feel it was part of history. At the time it was about winning football matches and getting a medal. It was nice to get a winner’s medal – it was redemption after ‘95. I wasn’t thinking about history books and records. It was just about winning at Wembley.”

“One thing I was aware of,” he adds, “was about taking in the day. Having played at Wembley before, I said to all the players, ‘Take this day in, milk it. You might never, ever play here again. When the ball goes out of play, have a little look round and see where you are’.

“Those 90 minutes go like that, and before you know it, it’s a distant memory. Before you know it, it’s 25 years…”

Walling says the memories of 1997 rushed back when he watched the recent Papa John’s Trophy final between Sutton United and Rotherham. He found the Carlisle-Colchester highlights on YouTube and watched them with his son and other colleagues at the football academy he runs in Lincolnshire.

News and Star: Walling, pictured at last year's 1994/5 reunion in Carlisle, will be back for April 24's game involving former Blues heroes (photo: Barbara Abbott)Walling, pictured at last year's 1994/5 reunion in Carlisle, will be back for April 24's game involving former Blues heroes (photo: Barbara Abbott)

“The most pride in my life was playing for Carlisle United,” adds Walling, who represented the Blues from 1991 and left for Lincoln in the autumn of ’97. “It is my club. There’s no doubt about it. To win at Wembley for Carlisle…not many people can say that. To be the first winners at Wembley for Carlisle United – it is such a proud honour.”

Walling will return to Brunton Park on April 24 to participate in a much-anticipated reunion involving heroes of the 1994/5 and 2005/6 title-winning teams, plus those from other seasons like 96/7, such as the popular Pounewatchy. A recent hip replacement means he’s unlikely to have his boots on, but ‘Deano’ will enjoy the crowd and old faces regardless.

“We’re all still mates now,” he says of those nineties stars and more. “Those boys will be my friends for life. And the club – it gave me everything, a platform to play on, and fantastic friends.”

From April 20, 1997, it also conferred a colourful garment which, in a significant way, stands apart. “I’m looking at my Wembley shirt now,” Walling says. “It’s signed by all the players, framed and hung up in my office. A little reminder every day.

“Every now and again somebody comes into my office, looks at it and says, ‘What about them horrible colours?!’

“Mate, it’s the deckchair. Some people will never understand.”