Part 18 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

Other than a trouble-scarred pre-season friendly at Workington Reds, Carlisle’s 1973/74 campaign had proceeded without much in the way of crowd bother by autumn.

That had changed, though, at November’s 2-1 victory over Bristol City at Brunton Park. There had been, it emerged, clashes involving rival fans after the game and 31 people were arrested.

Some 30 were from the Bristol area, though the visiting team's supporters’ club stressed that they had not travelled on their official coach.

“I cannot say that none of the hooligans involved were not members of our club,” said secretary Arthur Fowler, “but if they were they will be expelled immediately.”

As the justice system creaked into operation, there were further shadows over the Football League season because of the ongoing energy crisis.

News and Star: A section of our reports on football's early kick-offs and trouble involving fans from Bristol in 1973A section of our reports on football's early kick-offs and trouble involving fans from Bristol in 1973 (Image: News & Star)

The problems, seeing skyrocketing prices and fuel shortages due to an embargo by Arab oil-producing nations in response to American’s support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War, led the League to decide that games, already kicking off earlier than normal at 2.15pm, should now start at 2pm.

“Recent games have ended in near darkness,” it was reported, as the wider community adjusted to petrol rationing and the threat of planned power cuts in Carlisle.

As United looked to make further progress at the right end of Division Two, their own power cut came in the form of an injury to one of their skilful summer signings. Mike Barry was suffering with a troublesome achilles tendon and a visit to a specialist was deemed necessary.

“I just want to get fit as soon as possible,” lamented the £40,000 man. Offsetting that news was a happier bulletin that defenders Brian Tiler and Bill Green were back available, with frontman Frank Clarke also progressing well from a shoulder problem.

News and Star: Mike Barry: troublesome achillesMike Barry: troublesome achilles (Image: PA)

Next up for United was a trip to promotion rivals Aston Villa, though the game was suddenly plunged into doubt as wintry weather descended on the country.

Ice and snow had arrived, but manager Ashman’s views were clear. “These are the sort of conditions we might have to bargain for in the next few weeks, but we have to learn to live with them,” the manager said.

“On these surfaces, it is the players with good balance who will shine. For example, Chris Balderstone plays well on the hard grounds because, although he is a big man, he has natural balance.”

Carlisle’s manager had his players out on a hard, frosty pitch in an attempt to adjust, with United taking extra care with Green upon his return from an ankle injury.

As for Clarke, he had been training with his former club Ipswich Town at a time he was in a degree of difficulty over his accommodation. The striker had been struggling to sell his house in East Anglia upon joining United, while his request for a financial loan from the club to help secure a new home in Carlisle had been turned down.

Ipswich’s manager, Bobby Robson, allowed Clarke back to Portman Road for training and treatment and the future England boss was in regular touch with Ashman.

News and Star: Bobby Robson was allowing United's Frank Clarke to train at IpswichBobby Robson was allowing United's Frank Clarke to train at Ipswich (Image: PA)

United’s boss left his selection as late as he could, but in the event he need not have scratched his head too hard. The weather put paid to the game at Villa Park, along with four other second tier games, with six in the top flight also postponed.

Carlisle’s challenge, then, went into cold storage for a short spell. Ashman and trainer Dick Young did not, though, sit on their hands and instead made the shortish trip to Blackpool to watch United’s next opponents.

The Seasiders lost 2-0 to Sunderland but had nonetheless been climbing the table and so Carlisle’s scouting trip was valuable.

The depleted fixture list, meanwhile, led the Pools Promoters’ Association, comprising former England internationals Stan Mortensen, Raich Carter and Neil Franklin plus former Scotland man Ronnie Simpson and referee Arthur Ellis, to sit in judgement of the near £2m treble chance payout, the panel having last presided over such a situation in 1969.

While United were out of action, their supporters’ club side were reflecting on progress of their own: into the fourth round of the National Sunday knock-out competition after defeating Brandon United.

The team, who included future Penrith captain Laurie Coulthard, were kitted out smartly in the iconic blue, red and white kit also sported by Ashman’s side since the start of the season. “When United got their new strip, we couldn’t miss out,” said secretary Colin Barton.

News and Star: The Carlisle United Supporters' Club team in 1973 - sporting the same kit as the club's first-team starsThe Carlisle United Supporters' Club team in 1973 - sporting the same kit as the club's first-team stars (Image: News & Star)

As the Blues waited for a thaw that would lead to a return to action, it was time for some reflection – and an underlining of the optimism that had grown along with their gradually improving form in Division Two.

The back page of the Evening News & Star carried a letter from ‘Faithful Fan’ (name and address supplied) which captured the mood.

Carlisle, the supporter wrote, were justified in thinking they could reach the hitherto far-off land of the First Division, given the experience and quality in the ranks.

“Les O’Neill is surely the best bargain buy Carlisle have ever made,” continued the letter. “His inspiration is a major factor in Carlisle’s recent rise up the table.

“It is a tragedy that a player of his undoubted ability lingered for so many years in the Third and Fourth Divisions.”

Wise words indeed, particularly in light of what was to come next.