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

A glimmer of hope in a challenging start to the season? Carlisle United had to hope so. The front page of the Evening News & Star on Tuesday, September 18, 1973 had to go down as a welcome sight indeed.

It featured midfield maestro Chris Balderstone making a thumbs-up gesture that indicated his return to the first-team fold. Balderstone had been serving a club suspension in light of his late return due to cricket commitments.

Finally, eight games into the season, he was available for selection again. A midweek visit of Portsmouth in Division Two awaited and it came at a time the Cumbrians were ready for a lift after only one win from their first five league games.

In the event Balderstone went straight into the side against a Pompey side seeking their first win under new manager John Mortimore, who Blues boss Alan Ashman knew from their respective spells in Greece.

News and Star: Chris Balderstone's return to the first-team fold features on the front pageChris Balderstone's return to the first-team fold features on the front page (Image: News & Star)

Another plus was the availability of Les O’Neill despite an injury he had suffered previously at Sheffield Wednesday. Yet the good news soon dissolved for Carlisle on another night of frustration.

A first half of promising football foundered on an inability to make pressure count, and Portsmouth duly took advantage. Carlisle remained without summer striker signing Frank Clarke to a groin injury, and they appeared to miss him sorely as the south coast visitors got on top.

United were proficient between the boxes but could not make anything count. John Gorman, enterprising as ever from left-back, did his best to inspire Ashman’s side, while Balderstone’s passing accuracy was an early hallmark.

Yet up front the returns were paltry. At the other end, Bill Green produced another highly capable performance in defence yet Portsmouth found a way through in the 53rd minute at Brunton Park when Ray Hiron headed home.

United’s response was urgent without conclusion. O’Neill battled in vain to get Carlisle going, but long-range efforts from Mike Barry were the sum total of their creative efforts. Ron Davies duly added another for the visitors, another well-placed header beating home keeper Allan Ross, and a 2-0 defeat further exasperated a 6,416 crowd.

Certainly, the Blues’ record by this stage of the campaign was not that of a contender. “Pompey pile on the agony for drab United” was the scathing headline and a return of three points from six league games led Ashman to cancel a day off and call a team meeting.

News and Star: Our headline sums up a poor night for the BluesOur headline sums up a poor night for the Blues (Image: News & Star)

“The whole situation and the future was talked over,” said Ashman, who was also defiant in the face of flak from the terraces.

“I am prepared to take the stick for it instead of publicly criticising my players, because that has been and will continue to be my style,” the manager added.

“We have only played half a dozen games, and we are not that far detached from the upper half of the table. I believe we have enough good players to improve our position.”

They proved prescient words, but a long haul lay ahead, as well as more squad upheaval. Next in the sights of rival clubs was defender Stan Ternent, the subject of interest from Sunderland at a stage he had been in and out of the United side.

Before that scenario could play out, there was another home game immediately around the corner. Clarke was fit to face Oxford United and the impact of the line-leader’s return was profound.

The visit of the Manor Ground men also proved an historic afternoon for Carlisle’s mascot, George ‘Twinkletoes’ Baxter. It was his 1,000th appearance, for which he was presented with several cans of beer from a local brewery before the game.

News and Star: A milestone for mascot George 'Twinkletoes' Baxter, rightA milestone for mascot George 'Twinkletoes' Baxter, right (Image: News & Star)

Cheers to Twinkletoes – and to United, who were in much better shape overall and secured a much-needed positive result against Gerry Summers’ Oxford. A more enterprising performance took hold but only after the visitors had threatened to make it another sour day.

After a bright first half had seen Carlisle denied by visiting keeper Roy Burton, Oxford stunned the Blues with an opener soon after the break. Hugh Curran’s low free-kick found its way into the net – yet, happily, United’s response was as decisive.

By the 59th minute they were level with a goal made and taken by two of their canniest performers. Balderstone’s pass between two Oxford defenders was perfect, and Clarke’s finish past Burton was clinical.

This put wind in Carlisle’s sails and eventually they overpowered Oxford. The 76th minute saw Peter Carr overlap decisively from right-back and his deceptive cross found Dennis Martin, who found the net.

“In such stark contrast to some pedestrian games in which Carlisle have never looked in command of their play, it was a performance of genuine encouragement,” wrote our reporter Ross Brewster of the 2-1 victory, in front of 5,093 fans.

It was much more like it – while the defensive displays of Green continued to impress. The centre-half who had joined from Hartlepool was showing outstanding timing and judgement at second-tier level and Ashman was delighted with his progress.

“Bill is the sort of player who learns very fast,” said the boss. It was now down to Carlisle to continue their education in a season which offered tantalising promise, if only the Blues could keep all the parts working together…


Part one

Part two

Part three

Part four

Part five

Part six

Part seven