“Sometimes it’s easier to turn to people closer to you rather than a number on a phone,” says Derek Walsh who, for several years, has been at the forefront of a former players’ movement at Carlisle United.

It is 14 years now since a group of ex-Blues gathered to play a charity game for a Cumbrian man who had cancer. Since then, there have been numerous other games and events, raising money and reaching out.

The most recent and high-profile was the 1994/5 v 2005/6 legends game at Brunton Park last month, which was in support of the former players’ fund itself. There was the 94/5 reunion at Harraby Catholic Club last autumn which raised a five-figure sum for Eden Valley Hospice in memory of Tony Hopper.

A number of other occasions have seen the ex-players help particular causes. At times this has meant a charitable donation to a community cause. At others – relevant to Walsh’s comment at the start of this article – it has meant the ability to give financial support to a former United player who needed it.

News and Star: United's 1990s heroes at last month's legends game (photo: Jamie Crossan)United's 1990s heroes at last month's legends game (photo: Jamie Crossan)

Some of it has gone under the radar in terms of publicity but last month’s game of “deckchair” nostalgia at Brunton Park brought things into the light, though more probably needs to be known about the events and motivations behind this decent and worthwhile initiative connected to the Blues.

Walsh, who played for the club from 1988-93, has been busily involved in things since the idea took root in 2008. “That year, a lad called Mark Irving died from a brain tumour. He was managing Wetheral’s Sunday morning team and one of the lads was talking about having a game for Mark,” he says.

“I was asked if we could arrange a game with some of the ex-Carlisle United players. I felt enough lads lived in the area to give it a go, so I phoned around some of them, and also spoke to [United chairman] Andrew Jenkins and asked if we could use the club’s name and call it the ‘Carlisle United OAPs team’.

News and Star: United's old boys team at a game in memory of Mark Irving United's old boys team at a game in memory of Mark Irving

“We put that together and it was such a good day – we raised about 700 quid for Cancer Research, and did it again the following year.”

Things grew from there. Another posse of former players turned out as part of Kyle May’s testimonial at Workington Reds, and another game was held in support of Maryport Inshore Rescue.

In later years, there were matches at Gretna and Thursby, plus evenings hosted at Harraby involving United managers such as Keith Curle and John Sheridan, as well as Legends evenings at Carlisle’s Old Fire Station.

Tony Hopper’s charity game, an emotional occasion at Brunton Park in 2017, was underpinned by the former players group, who have also taken on a London Branch supporters’ team before a game at Leyton Orient.

News and Star: Ex-United star Andy Watson in action for the 'OAP' teamEx-United star Andy Watson in action for the 'OAP' team

Over the years, these initiatives have raised money which has been distributed in a variety of ways. Walsh says junior teams such as those at Harraby Catholic and Gillford Park have benefited, as have other young sports people from the area. United themselves were supported during Curle’s reign, when the cost of overnight stays ahead of an FA Cup tie at Gillingham, in a run which brought the Blues a run to the third round and a money-spinning home tie with Sheffield Wednesday, was bolstered by the group.

Also helped, significantly, have been former players themselves who have needed a helping hand.

“A couple of years prior to starting this, I got invited back to Everton for a former players’ do,” says Walsh, who was on the Toffees’ books before his time with Carlisle.

News and Star: Derek Walsh, right, in action for Everton alongside Neville SouthallDerek Walsh, right, in action for Everton alongside Neville Southall

“Everton’s a much bigger set-up, of course, and players there give a percentage of their wages to a former players’ association. With one of the former players who’d fallen on hard times, and struggled after the game, the association went in and sorted double glazing and central heating in his house. That was an example of that kind of things they do.

“I was also involved with St Andrews Hospice in Airdrie for a while, with events they did to raise money. I thought it would be nice for us to be able to do things like that here.”

Carlisle’s former players’ fund, in which well-known United fan Colin Carter is also heavily involved, has offered such help to some who have worn the blue shirt in times past. It is not the only purpose of the fund, but Walsh feels it is important for ex-players to know it is there.

News and Star: Former United favourites have played in a number of games for a variety of causesFormer United favourites have played in a number of games for a variety of causes

“You realise how fortunate you’ve been in life when you see people who’ve suffered lot with their health, and mental health which is a much bigger subject than it used to be,” he says.

“I played with Nigel Saddington at Carlisle, and my reaction to a lad that was struggling, at the time, wasn’t good. He did an article in the paper saying he didn’t like the pressure of being a professional football player. Our response back then was ‘grow a set and get on with it’.

“We would be like, ‘What’s up with you? Why wouldn’t you want to do this for a living?’ Now, thank goodness, the response is more likely to be advice to that person to speak to someone.”

The Professional Footballers’ Association have provision to support players in the area of well-being. Yet sometimes, Walsh says, knowing there is a more local embrace available also helps.

News and Star: Last autumn's 1994/5 reunion raised more than £10,000 for Eden Valley Hospice (photo: Barbara Abbott)Last autumn's 1994/5 reunion raised more than £10,000 for Eden Valley Hospice (photo: Barbara Abbott)

“People, footballers, who move to this area often realise what a great area it is. Once you get them here, they often stay,” he says.

“It’s a great thing. It’s important. The connection between former players and the club and supporters is still relevant. It’s great when lads come back and tell stories about their careers, and we’d like to do more of those sort of events too.

“Loads of them like to help in any way they can. People like Mick Wadsworth [United’s manager from 1993-6] couldn’t be more helpful.”

Walsh and Carter estimate that about £50,000 has been raised over the years, and the plan is for the initiative to grow further: United’s past doing its bit for the present and future, not to mention for their own.

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