Part 11 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

It is a time-honoured question asked multiple times across Carlisle United’s history – where have all the supporters gone?

Their landmark 1973/74 season was no different. A gradual loss of numbers on the terraces had been witnessed in recent times as the Blues continued their Second Division endeavours.

Things, though, seemed finally on the up as Alan Ashman’s side mounted some welcome autumn improvement on the pitch. Club secretary David Dent, speaking to the Evening News & Star, was optimistic.

“The crowd for our last home game against Bolton Wanderers was the best of the season,” he said. “Gates seem to be on the mend even if it’s only in a smallish way at present.”

News and Star: Ross Brewster's report from October 1973 on the attendances issue at CarlisleRoss Brewster's report from October 1973 on the attendances issue at Carlisle (Image: News & Star)

The 8,375 crowd for the 1-0 win over Bolton was indeed timely after just 5,096 had watched United’s previous home fixture against Oxford United.

Not, perhaps, the surging numbers of a team bound for the top flight. But Dent’s optimism would be gradually borne out.

Until then, it was a case of hitting the road again for Ashman’s hopefuls in early October. A second round League Cup trip to Gillingham was next on the agenda with Carlisle hoping to avoid an upset at the hands of Fourth Division hosts.

Ashman was clear in the Blues’ aims. “These are the sort of games you have to try and get through in order to secure a glamour tie for your own fans later on.”

Carlisle, having got past Workington Reds in the first round, were without injured frontman Frank Clarke for the trip to Kent – while the cup encounter at Priestfield proved bruising in other respects.

Gillingham certainly disrupted Carlisle’s passing rhythm in the manner of a side with designs on their own promotion in 73/74. United had to battle to gain superiority and thankfully benefited from an early goal.

It was a first of the season for Chris Balderstone, who converted a superbly-taken header after Mike Barry’s quick throw-in had invited Bobby Owen to cross from the right.

It did not prove a lead they could hold for long, since Andy Nelson’s Gills came storming back, full of heart and energy. In the 20th minute they levelled the tie when Damien Richardson shot home from six yards out.

The dangerous full-back David Peach then thumped a shot against the post, though Carlisle recovered from the home side’s forays and re-established themselves after the break.

They went on to claim what proved the winner in the 58th minute when a Barry cross and Owen header caused problems Gillingham couldn’t deal with, a miscued Dave Quirke clearance finally accepted at close range by the lurking Dennis Martin.

Carlisle fended off the home side’s remaining threats, with Bill Green and Brian Tiler authoritative at the back and Ross steadfast in goal – even though the keeper was left limping at the end of the 2-1 win after being hurt when diving at the feet of Alan Wilks.

News and Star: Our report of goalscorer Chris Balderstone's injury at GillinghamOur report of goalscorer Chris Balderstone's injury at Gillingham (Image: News & Star)

It was a second such blow for United given that Balderstone had needed to be substituted in the second half after a heavy clash of heads with Quirke. Indeed, the midfielder had to spend the night in hospital after Carlisle’s victory as he was checked by doctors.

One Blues player described it as “one of the worst football knocks I have seen for a long time”, resulting in a broken nose and requiring facial stitches, but Balderstone was said to be in good spirits as he recovered.

For United, it was then a case of counting their fit bodies and progressing on two fronts. A league trip to West Bromwich Albion awaited – before which the third round cup draw, held live on London Weekend Television’s ‘On the Ball’ show, handed them a tempting tie.

If Manchester City could get past Walsall in a replay, the Citizens would be coming to Brunton Park. The potential top-flight visit was a likely money-spinner for the Blues and a repeat of 1970’s famous Brunton Park League Cup meeting with the same opposition.

Before then, it was off to the Hawthorns for league game number 11. Ashman was without Balderstone but Clarke was back to lead the line against a Baggies team who were out of sorts with eight games without a win.

Another Clarke also came in – goalkeeper Tom, who replaced Ross with the legendary keeper unable to recover quickly enough from his Gillingham knock.

It was Clarke’s first appearance for nearly a year and he featured in a United display which showed plenty of their recent, growing confidence, if not their most clinical side.

United began on the defensive with their rearguard tested by Albion, Clarke required to save well from Willie Johnston. For Carlisle, Martin – captain for the day against his former club – looked to lead his side’s response and Owen came close to an opening goal.

It was Owen, though, who eventually did make the breakthrough after Tony Brown had passed up a golden Baggies chance. After John Gorman and Joe Laidlaw combined brightly on the left, Laidlaw’s cross was pinpoint for Owen and the forward’s well-placed header was too good for keeper Peter Latchford in the 36th minute.

News and Star: Tom Clarke deputised for Allan Ross in an eventful outing at West BromTom Clarke deputised for Allan Ross in an eventful outing at West Brom (Image: PA)

Yet West Brom were able to level in the second half courtesy of an incident involving Carlisle’s second-choice keeper. Clarke was penalised for carrying the ball too many steps and, from the resulting indirect free-kick, Brown fired home a rebound.

The strike cost Ashman the chance of victory at his old club and, in truth, United struggled to earn anything more, with their defence not quite at their assured best and Frank Clarke, up front, largely a frustrated figure in the 1-1 draw.

As was his namesake – who was defended by the man he had temporarily replaced. “I thought it was a disgraceful decision because [Tom] was obstructed by the Albion forward,” said the watching Allan Ross of the free-kick flashpoint.

“Tom played very well, but paid the penalty for being an honest player and attempting to get the ball away instead of just going down and calling for a foul.”

Carlisle licked their wounds – and then made plans for the capital.