“There were no medals, nothing like that,” says Trevor Swinburne as he remembers the last time Carlisle United rose into English football’s second tier, four decades ago yesterday. “But there are memories to trigger the feeling that, 40 years ago, we were doing alright…” 

The 1981/2 season saw the Blues win their last game at Chester to finish second in Division Three on goal difference. Bob Stokoe’s team did not receive silverware, but Swinburne – the team’s ever-present goalkeeper – has other mementoes. 

“We were allowed to keep our shirts that we wore that night at Chester. I’ve still got that. It was a nice jersey – had a green collar, in a cottony material. I would like to say I still fit in it, but I don’t…” 

Swinburne is 68 but retains a razor sharp command of the detail of one of United’s finest hours. It is hard to imagine the Blues reaching the Championship just now but, in the early eighties, second-tier football was not such an alien experience.

Carlisle had, after all, spent much of the late 1960s and early 1970s at that level. After falling from the top flight in the latter of those decades, it took the hardened figure of Stokoe, in a second managerial spell, to take them back up.

READ MORE: In pictures: Carlisle United's last promotion to Division Two - 40 years ago

He did so with an experienced, tightly-knit side in which Swinburne was the last line of reliability. Having joined from Sunderland in 1977, he proved an adept goalkeeper behind a strong defensive line, in a team whose climb culminated at Sealand Road, Chester, on May 19, 1982. 

Typically, this being Carlisle United, there was unnecessary drama before that day, because Stokoe’s team, despite an increasingly potent season, lost the first two of their last three games when promotion seemed assured.

News and Star: Bob Stokoe, second rightBob Stokoe, second right

“That’s right – we went down to Wimbledon and lost 3-1, then we had Bristol Rovers at home on the Saturday,” Swinburne says. “We only needed a point, and I think we’d only lost one home game all season…so of course we went on to lose that one 2-1 as well. I blame myself for that, because on my way down to the ground I bought a bottle of champagne to celebrate. That backfired...” 

Swinburne does not believe it was a case of outright promotion jitters, but something was still preventing United from kicking for home. “When the finishing line is in sight, you need just a little bit more to get there. Perhaps it was subconscious. 

“The pressure was building all the time. Going down to Chester, despite the poor season they’d had...we were a little bit apprehensive about it.”

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Chester, already relegated, were a largely bereft side, having infamously lost to Penrith in that season's FA Cup. Yet they gave United a contest. “We were under quite a bit of pressure in the first half and I had quite a bit to do," Swinburne says. "We managed to survive...and then Pop scored.”

News and Star: Pop Robson celebrates the goal at Chester that took United up in 1982Pop Robson celebrates the goal at Chester that took United up in 1982

Following a corner, Robson, Carlisle’s veteran forward, fired the clinical first-half goal that would seal their Second Division status. “That gave us a bit of leeway, and in the second half we took more control," Swinburne says. "The last 10-15 minutes seemed like an eternity, but I vividly remember Tommy Craig and Russell Coughlin coming into their own, and late on managing to keep the ball up near the corner flag, well away from me.

“All the Carlisle fans started to gather to come onto the pitch. Chester had a free-kick, and Stevie Ludlam – an ex-Carlisle player – very kindly hung it up nice and I came out and caught it on the penalty spot. The referee was right beside me and said, ‘Give me the ball, keeper, it’s all over’.

“I gave him the ball, he blew the whistle, and all the Carlisle fans started coming on from the far end of the pitch. In my goal I always used to take a cap and gloves, so I went back to get them before trying to get off the pitch. But by this time the Carlisle fans were over the halfway line. I had no chance! But everybody was so happy, so ecstatic.”

Swinburne and his team-mates eventually battled their way into the dressing room. “The smiles never left our faces. We went into the Chester directors’ box and were able to acknowledge the fans on the pitch. 

“Afterwards, I didn’t come back in the team bus; I came back with Gordon Staniforth and Russell Coughlin in one of the fans’ cars. We went to a pub in Carlisle, near the castle…and later that night I stupidly was going to take my car back home. Gordon said, ‘Trevor, don’t - get a taxi, it’ll be a bad end to a great day if something silly happens’.

“That was a good piece of advice. I got home, lay in bed, the room started going round…and next day I got a taxi down and picked up my car.” 

When heads cleared, there could at last be a sense of satisfaction at Carlisle's promotion, which was led by their uncompromising manager. Swinburne had been signed by Bobby Moncur, but it was Stokoe who had pointed them back in the right direction.

“Bob didn’t suffer fools,” says the goalkeeper. “He was a vastly experienced manager, and if people didn't fulfil what he saw as his pattern of play and team demand, they weren’t around for very long.

"I know he pulled his hair out – not that he had much to pull – with people like Paul Bannon. Paul did wonderful things but silly things as well. But as far as defensive work was concerned, I dread to think what he would say about this playing out from the back you see today. He was all, ‘Get the ball forward…if you’re in doubt, get it out’.” 

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Carlisle used 20 players across the entire season, many of them established regulars. Swinburne had to become such a figure across his time at Brunton Park. “I had a long history with Bob because he was my manager at Sunderland. I always got the impression there that he didn’t like inexperienced players. 

“At Sunderland I was battling against Jimmy Montgomery, who had loads of experience. I would come in and, no matter how well I did, I was always pushed out again. So it was nice to get to Carlisle.

News and Star: Swinburne joined United from Sunderland in 1977Swinburne joined United from Sunderland in 1977

“Allan Ross was the goalkeeper then, and Rossy was so helpful to me. One of his attributes was talking to defenders, whereas I was a lot quieter. To be able to listen to Rossy as he explained how to organise things was invaluable to me. I will always be grateful to him for that. 

“It meant that by the time Bob came to Carlisle [in 1980], I was a much more experienced player and I remember the season before we got promotion when Bob and [trainer] Dick Young went behind my goal when we were playing at Burnley. Bob said he wanted to see how I communicated with my defence. He had been a centre-half in his day and knew how important it was. He said, 'I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw that night'. So he decided I was going to be the goalkeeper in our push for promotion the following season.” 

Swinburne therefore remained a consistent touchstone in a side of other seasoned pros. “There was class and there was quality through that team. You look at Tommy Craig, Pop Robson, Bobby Parker, Dave Rushbury, Keith Houghton, Jackie Ashurst. Good, solid players.

"From a goalkeeper’s point of view, having a settled back four was really important. Going forward there was a lot of creativity. I had a high regard for Russell Coughlin, who was great in the middle of the field, and Tommy Craig. Then up front you had Paul Bannon: a bit of an ungainly sort of player but really effective and scored some vital goals for us, as did Gordon Stanny.

“A lot of credit has to go to Bob for the way he wheeled and dealed. The selling of Peter Beardsley [to Vancouver Whitecaps] didn’t go down too well but it brought in the money to allow Bob to put the team together that got promotion. A great piece of management, really.”

It was a team that accumulated many motorway miles in their pursuit of success. “There was some good banter," Swinburne says. "I remember on one trip, Gordon Staniforth was in charge of the videos to watch on the bus. He put one on – something quite gruesome, I won’t say what it was – and Bob didn’t like it. 

“He went up and said, ‘I don’t know who got this thing, but I’m not watching it’. And flung the video half the length of the bus to Gordon…"

News and Star: Gordon Staniforth, one of the stars of the 1981/2 promotion sideGordon Staniforth, one of the stars of the 1981/2 promotion side

Swinburne went on to play every game in 1982/3 as United acclimatised to Division Two with a mid-table finish. By the end of that campaign he had made the best part of 300 appearances for the club. Yet his time at Brunton Park then suddenly came to an end.

“The issue was the offer of a new contract that was very…miserly, in my opinion,” he says. “I knew there were people coming in who were earning a lot more than me. I was on £155 a week, and got offered £170 a week. For someone that was ever-present for two seasons, and achieved a bit of success, I didn’t think that was a good enough offer. 

“The club never came back with an improved offer. I dug my heels in and said, ‘Right, I’m going’. My wife asked where I wanted to go to. I said, ‘I don’t mind, as long as it’s not London’. Anyway, I ended up at Brentford…” 

Swinburne chuckles at that , but maintains it was not a good feeling to leave Carlisle. “I’d just moved house the Christmas before we left. I thought I was well settled. Two of my three sons are Cumbrians and we loved the area. It just became a matter of principle.

“I’ve always regretted it. My heart is Carlisle.” 

Swinburne’s time at Brentford was not so enjoyable, and he then joined Leeds, where he was back-up to the future Carlisle keeper, coach and manager Mervyn Day. Lincoln City then offered him first-team football and he saw out his career at Sincil Bank, making roots in the city even though the Imps were relegated from the Football League in 1987. A vastly different calling then came.

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Whilst at Brentford, a neighbour who worked in the prison service had suggested it might offer a career option after football. It intrigued Swinburne and, as he hung up his gloves, he pursued it.

Initially he headed into the service as a physical education instructor, but felt there was better scope for promotions, and a pension, if he became a prison officer. Over the years he worked at HMP Stocken, HMP Lincoln and HMP Leicester, working his way up to senior officer and then governor positions. 

“It was quite a change,” he says. “But I loved it. I think the best thing I can say is that if you watch Porridge [the 1970s sitcom starring Ronnie Barker], it is a real true reflection of life in prison. It’s about one team – the prisoners – trying to get one up on the other team – the officers – and humour is a big thing. 

“It's a strange environment. It’s like a microcosm of the world behind the big walls. You get some real horrible characters, and yet you have to deal with them. I always worked along the lines of if somebody’s ok with me, I’ll be ok back. If someone’s creating me problems all the time they will get what they’re entitled to but nothing more.

“Are there crossovers from football? Yes – I think it’s the team aspect. I was always working on the rehabilitation side. I’m a great believer that some people go through their lives and make a mistake, and that knocks them off the rails. The vision of the prison service is to get them back on the rails, give them employability skills and so on. I like to think we did some good work. We certainly tried to.” 

News and Star: Swinburne, who lives in Lincoln, with his grandchildrenSwinburne, who lives in Lincoln, with his grandchildren

Swinburne left the service in 2012 and, busy in retirement, drove across America, visited family in Australia and devoted time to his grandchildren and his garden. He accepted a job driving disadvantaged children to school and, until recently, was chairman of the Lincoln City former players’ association.  

He watches his old club at Sincil Bank, where often he encounters another familiar Carlisle face in the Lincoln-based 1990s defender Dean Walling. Yet it is some time since he reconnected with the Blues players of his own era.

“Just before Covid, we holidayed in the Lakes, and I went to Brunton Park and stood outside the gate, went into the club shop, just reminisced a little bit," he says. "I’d like to go back to a game some time and see if anyone I know is still there.

“I did keep in touch with some of the lads at first, but as time passes the contact gets slimmer. It would be nice to relive what we did in '82 again with the people who shared the experiences.” 

Those boys will always have their respected part in Carlisle United’s history, and the achievement appears ever more precious as the years go by. “In a footballer’s career you don’t get too many promotions, and I experienced two in nearly 20 years," Swinburne says. "Without a doubt, what we did at Carlisle is up there amongst my most special memories.” 

READ MORE: How we reported Carlisle United's promotion to Division Two in 1982