Part 12 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

While Carlisle United’s improving efforts in Division Two were making them think bigger in 1973, the Blues also had a keen eye on their own doorstep.

United had faced criticism in the past for failing to give local youngsters an opportunity. They sought to put that right by offering a professional deal to young goalkeeper Peter MacLachlan.

The 21-year-old had played as an amateur for United’s A team the previous season and had even been around the first-team squad. The offer of senior terms came at a time non-league club Netherfield were preparing a similar bid – and led MacLachlan to give up his job at Cowans Sheldon.

“Peter is young and ambitious, and a great lad,” said manager Alan Ashman. “He has trained down here with us when his job has permitted, and all the players, including our regular keeper Allan Ross, think a lot of him.

News and Star: Peter MacLachlanPeter MacLachlan (Image: PA)

“In fact, Allan rates him a great prospect.”

Dislodging the great Ross was a daunting long-term aim for MacLachlan but the young keeper was a bright addition to a squad looking up. Carlisle’s display in their recent draw at West Bromwich Albion had been positive and the top reaches of the second tier were now less fanciful than they had earlier seemed.

Mid-October remained a time of potential change, squad-wise. A group of transfer-listed players – Tot Winstanley, Stan Ternent, Steve Derrett and Kenny Wilson – had attracted a degree of loan interest, though the absence of some front line players to injury and suspension led Ashman to be cautious on outgoings.

Among those sidelined was Chris Baderstone, who had suffered a broken nose in the League Cup win at Gillingham and was due for further checks, ruling him out of United’s next game at Crystal Palace.

News and Star: The headline on our report of the signing of Peter MacLachlan at Carlisle UnitedThe headline on our report of the signing of Peter MacLachlan at Carlisle United (Image: News & Star)

At least, with the return of goalkeeper Ross from injury, there was an evident boost. And in Palace, there was plainly an opportunity for the Blues, the Eagles sitting at the bottom of the table despite having been a top-flight club the season before.

The south London club had seen plenty of squad upheaval themselves and colourful manager Malcolm Allison plainly had a job on his hands. As for Ashman, he was keeping quiet on reports linking him with Derby County, following Brian Clough’s recent resignation.

Instead, he left it to his team to make the biggest noise. At Selhurst Park, there was the latest announcement of reasons why Carlisle were a growing force in the Second Division.

Palace offered plenty of individual talent but United’s patient approach, and accomplished football, won the day in the end.

Allison’s side stated apace but Carlisle drew their sting with some responsible defending. Bill Green and John Gorman were particularly adept at the back and only from free-kicks did Palace truly threaten, Ross sharp to save efforts from Don Rogers.

United defied their midfield depletion with good spirit, Ternent impressing upon his recall as part of a trio alongside Les O’Neill and Dennis Martin, and their own first-half chances saw Joe Laidlaw, still hunting his first goal of the season, come closest.

News and Star: Our Saturday Sport Special brings news of United's win in south LondonOur Saturday Sport Special brings news of United's win in south London (Image: News & Star)

O’Neill and Frank Clarke had further near-misses but, in the 80th minute, United finally cracked it: another Palace free-kick successfully repelled and Carlisle countering to score when Laidlaw, cutting in from the left, let fly with a shot that deflected past the wrongfooted goalkeeper Paul Hammond.

A 1-0 victory in the capital was a welcome return indeed and Ashman gave little heed to some local opinion that the Blues were fortunate in the outcome. After a third game unbeaten, and a fourth win in six, the boss said: “I thought it was a really solid display.

“The papers have been full of the Crystal Palace side of things, and people have said our goal was lucky, but I don’t think that gives us the credit the players deserve for their hard work.”

News and Star: Joe Laidlaw got off the mark in 1973/74 at Selhurst ParkJoe Laidlaw got off the mark in 1973/74 at Selhurst Park (Image: PA)

United could happily progress under the radar – but only to a degree, because their next fixture would bring one of the division’s big beasts onto their agenda. The midweek visit of Jack Charlton’s high-flying Middlesbrough was mouthwatering and left Ashman hopeful of reinforcements from the sidelined ranks.

Laidlaw and Martin were nursing knocks but hoped to be involved, while Ray Train was a welcome sight on the available list after coming through an A team game successfully.

Balderstone was not quite ready to return, but the prognosis was good on the classy midfielder too. Things were certainly looking bright – and supporters far and wide were beginning to believe too.

Jack Irving, writing a letter to the Evening News & Star, reflected an increasingly upbeat mood. “It is good to see Carlisle coming back to their true form after the bad start,” he said. “United can go places this season.”

Indeed they could – and a defining period of Blues history was not too far ahead…