It is getting on for four decades since Carlisle United last won at Portsmouth and, if Paul Simpson’s side need a little inspiration from history, they should know that, in 1984, the Blues were also up against a side with a few more quid to spend than themselves.

It did not deter Bob Stokoe’s Blues that Pompey had just dipped into their more plentiful resources ahead of United’s March visit. The south coast club had just shelled out £45,000 for Burnley defender Malcolm Waldron as they prepared to take on the Cumbrians.

Carlisle were less well-heeled but a tighter operation. They were in the thick of the Division Two promotion race under Stokoe, and the game at Fratton Park can be traced to the last days when top-flight football seemed a realistic proposition for United.

Thirty games into the 1983/84 season saw United in the top six of a congested division. Clubs such as Chelsea, Sheffield Wednesday, Newcastle United and Manchester City joined them at the top end of the second tier yet Carlisle had defeated a couple of those big boys in a run of potent winter form.

The Blues’ aspirations had not, though, yet come in front of resurgent crowds. The week before Portsmouth, they defeated Swansea City at home in front of just 4,280 supporters – some of whom blamed the low attendances on the manager’s public persona.

News and Star: Some of the Carlisle United 1983/84 squad including Jack Ashurst, bottom left, Dave McKellar, bottom right and Don O'Riordan, top rightSome of the Carlisle United 1983/84 squad including Jack Ashurst, bottom left, Dave McKellar, bottom right and Don O'Riordan, top right (Image: News & Star)

Writing in the Evening News & Star, ‘Centre Stand Supporter’ argued that Stokoe should talk things up, not lace his interviews with downbeat realism. “We need to be motivated too,” said the fan, “and not fed on interviews with television and press which are full of negatives such as ‘We’re pleased to have avoided relegation’, lists of injuries and reasons why it will be difficult to field a team next Saturday.

“This is not what motivates the supporter.”

Whatever was said, in terms of the doing Carlisle were certainly offering enough. Before the long journey to Hampshire Stokoe had to check on the fitness of Alan Shoulder and Mick Buckley, at a time the boss was also assessing the merits of a sand-based artificial pitch which was deemed suitable for their indoor Neil Sports Centre.

“I imagine players would still get skin burns if they slid in to tackle,” said Stokoe, “ but it’s a big improvement on the Queens Park Rangers pitch.”

Generations of Neil users would attest to Stokoe’s forecast. As for the Blues on the grass, they went to Portsmouth and produced a display very much in keeping with how they had built such a promising campaign.

United’s line-up, by that stage, practically picked itself, from the redoubtable Dave McKellar in goal to the defensive quality of Jack Ashurst and Bobby Parker, via the midfield invention of Russ Coughlin and Tommy Craig, and the adept goalscoring of Malcolm Poskett and Shoulder.

It was, all in all, one of Carlisle’s best sides and at both ends they produced a convincing display against a Portsmouth XI spearheaded by the future England striker Mark Hateley, who had cost them £190,000, as well as a few other expensive recruits.

News and Star: Future England frontman Mark Hateley, second right, was silenced by United's defence at Fratton ParkFuture England frontman Mark Hateley, second right, was silenced by United's defence at Fratton Park (Image: PA)

The first half was a stop-start affair in which Carlisle offered defensive solidity. Captain Ashurst limited the promising Hateley to a few knock-downs and long-range attempts, Dave Rushbury attended closely to the tricky Alan Biley, while Don O’Riordan’s passing quality from the back  offered the hint of counter-attacking opportunities.

Waldron, the new Pompey signing, was caught out of position in the 26th minute as O’Riordan floated a long ball for Shoulder, who was denied by a fine Alan Knight save.

The hosts, who were among the division’s leading scorers, were aggressive in the tackle, sometimes overly so, and referee John Deakin’s yellow card was often flourished. After the break, things then opened up, Poskett going close for Carlisle and Biley and Kevin Dillon threatening for the hosts.

United then produced the game’s killer moment – O’Riordan, typically, the architect, his long ball catching out the home defence and the bustling Shoulder getting onto it ahead of Knight to score.

News and Star: Alan Shoulder hit United's last winner at PortsmouthAlan Shoulder hit United's last winner at Portsmouth (Image: News & Star)

The diminutive Shoulder’s 65th-minute strike was a big noise for Carlisle and only a last-ditch Knight save denied the frontman another. At the other end, Portsmouth’s former Blues man Mick Tait saw a thumping 35-yard attempt tipped away by the flying McKellar while, at the last Pompey sub Nicky Morgan headed against the crossbar.

United secured their 1-0 win and, with it, extended an unbeaten away run to ten games. Stokoe’s side were now fifth while McKellar now had 17 clean sheets to his name.

A thrilling home straight appeared to be beckoning the Blues, a glimpse of the top flight for the first time in nearly a decade. Stokoe, though, was not going overboard and reverted to pessimistic type as he assessed things ahead of the transfer deadline.

“My biggest worry is whether we can get through the season with the resources we’ve got,” the manager said. “We can manage alright, but with the deadline looming, there’s always the problem that we could struggle to field a side after it’s past.”

Cash for signings was unavailable to the manager, who had lightened the wage bill with the departures of Dave Moore and Paul Bannon, yet the Cumbrian bandwagon rolled on the following weekend, when they dispatched Charlton Athletic 3-0 at Brunton Park.

Yet even a rise to third place was not enough to swell the attendance figures. Only 4,375 were at Brunton Park for the Addicks fixture and our correspondent, the great Ivor Broadis, was among those wondering what it would take for the city to get behind the Blues en masse.

“Calling all those special occasion Carlisle United followers,” he wrote, “who were lured to Brunton Park by the quality of Newcastle United, Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester City earlier this season.

“Any chance of your going back?

News and Star: Ivor Broadis writes about the attendances during United's 1983/84 promotion push in the Evening News & StarIvor Broadis writes about the attendances during United's 1983/84 promotion push in the Evening News & Star (Image: News & Star)

“Your support could mean you’d have Liverpool, Manchester United, Spurs and Arsenal at Brunton Park next season, instead of Cardiff, Shrewsbury and Oldham.

“Surely that prospect is worth getting the wife to change her shopping day, letting the fish bite each other or allowing the golf clubs to lie in the bag once a fortnight…”

There was only a mild uplift after Broadis’s words – while United, having flown close to the sun, then melted away. After the Portsmouth and Charlton victories, they did not win a single one of their remaining ten games, five draws and five defeats representing a frustrating limp to the line.

A finishing position of seventh in England’s second level was still some going but there remained a sense of opportunity missed – and it was never so good for the Blues again. The following season brought a bottom half finish, the one after that resulted in relegation, and second-tier football has been off United’s menu since.

All the more reason, then, to think wistfully ahead of another Fratton Park trip – and imagine little Alan Shoulder running through the mist to score, firing an unlikely dream just before it died.


Portsmouth: Knight, Waldron, Tait, Aizlewood, Sullivan, Webb, Doyle, Dillon, Stanley (Morgan), Hateley, Biley.

United: McKellar, Ashurst, Rushbury, O’Riordan, Parker, Coughlin, Buckley, Craig, Poskett, Shoulder. Not used: Hill.

Crowd: 10,748.