Part six of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

Two games in, seven goals conceded…it was not the most obvious foundation for history. Carlisle United’s early weeks of 1973/74 were far from smooth and some supporters were letting them know about it.

The defence was also, though, vigorous. Some fans felt the Blues deserved an even break so soon into their latest second-tier campaign.

One such loyalist said as much in a letter to the Evening News & Star. ‘Southern Blue’ aimed a broadside at “hooligans, loudmouths and their more sophisticated brothers” who were sharpening their knives following the annihilation at Luton Town for Alan Ashman’s side.

“For heaven’s sake, put the 6-1 defeat into perspective,” the writer said. “The last thing a club of United’s limited resources and support needs is dissension.

News and Star: An except from a letter to the News & Star early in Carlisle United's 1973/74 seasonAn except from a letter to the News & Star early in Carlisle United's 1973/74 season (Image: News & Star)

“The city never has deserved a Second Division side, but while it has one, the present board, manager and players deserve, and need, all the support they can get to maintain the present status.”

In the wake of this blend of defiance and gloomy realism, United advanced into another formative week of league and cup action. First it was a League Cup first round replay against Workington Reds, their fourth-tier Cumbrian neighbours having held them 2-2 at Brunton Park.

Reds had also defeated United in a pre-season friendly scarred by crowd violence. It was high time for Carlisle to assert their strength and Ashman made changes for the rematch at Borough Park.

Stan Ternent, the recently-appointed captain, was replaced by Brian Tiler, while Bob Delgado also came in for Tot Winstanley at the back. A ligament injury to midfield terrier Ray Train, whose knee was in plaster, saw Les O’Neill back in the side.

Another new name on the team sheet was summer midfield signing Mike Barry, named on the substitutes’ bench. Workington boss George Aitken tried some gentle mind games ahead of the contest, saying: “Carlisle’s heavy defeat at Luton must be fresh in their minds. An early reverse might throw them a bit.”

On a night which saw extra police at Borough Park, mindful of the pre-season aggro, Carlisle produced a necessarily dogged performance to avoid being turfed out of the cup.

It was not an enterprising spectacle and United had to be rigid defensively against a determined Workington side. Delgado added composure at the back and O’Neill’s midfield contributions were essential to Carlisle’s foothold.

News and Star: Our report of Carlisle's narrow League Cup win at Workington Reds in 1973Our report of Carlisle's narrow League Cup win at Workington Reds in 1973 (Image: News & Star)

They also benefited from a sixth-minute goal which immediately left their hosts chasing. It was O’Neill who provided it, getting the final touch after a goalmouth scramble, and United’s platform was important.

Reds produced some bright football, Chris Kisby hitting the crossbar with a wide delivery, Paul Murphy also striking a post and the hosts denied a penalty appeal. Otherwise, though, Carlisle coped with the pressure, Bill Green resolute at the back, and a 1-0 win was their first away from home since January, setting up a second round meeting with Gillingham.

The result lifted a little of the scrutiny after the Luton debacle, and the first signs of their season’s true potential were unveiled three days later. Their third league game saw the visit of newly-promoted Notts County and – eventually – Ashman’s side cut loose.

They did not have it their own way initially as the Magpies, managed by Jimmy Sirrel, caused problems through the skilful Don Masson and Les Bradd. At the other end Joe Laidlaw and the raiding left-back John Gorman offered encouragement but it was not until the introduction of former Huddersfield Town midfielder Barry, for his debut, that Carlisle saw the light.

News and Star: Mike Barry made a crucial impact on his debutMike Barry made a crucial impact on his debut (Image: PA)

The new boy made an immediate improvement on United’s play and late pressure saw a three-goal burst. Dennis Martin hit the opener on 80 minutes after Bobby Owen had seen a shot blocked.

O’Neill then took centre stage when, first, he thundered a shot past visiting keeper Eric McManus, and then two minutes from time converted a diving header from Martin’s cross.

News and Star: Les O'Neill heads Carlisle's third against Notts CountyLes O'Neill heads Carlisle's third against Notts County (Image: News & Star)

It was a highly welcome late salvo for the 6,109 crowd, and two wins in a week had certainly settled the early September mood. There were, though, other issues to resolve: particularly that of Chris Balderstone.

The former captain was still serving a club suspension over his late return from summer cricketing commitments. Balderstone was training on his own, and a bout of tonsilitis did not help matters either.

His situation was to be discussed at a meeting of directors the following week, at a time Sunderland were also open admirers of the classy Balderstone. The Evening News & Star canvassed supporters’ opinions and found split judgment on Carlisle’s handling of matters.

“Carlisle should sell,” reckoned Jimmy McDonald of Moorville Drive. “In view of all that’s happened, I don’t think his future lies with Carlisle.”

Mika Charters from Bothel, though, told this newspaper: “He’s the sort of player who can hold the side together. I don’t blame him for what he did – I would have done exactly the same thing if I’d been in his shoes.”

Balderstone would not figure for United in their next game, a trip to Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park. But a thaw in the frosty situation was finally on the horizon…


Part one

Part two

Part three

Part four

Part five