The first part of a mini-series looking back at Carlisle United takeovers – what happened, what was said and how we reported it…

For a man whose public persona was not, shall we say, reticent, it is remarkable to think how unexpected and untrailed was the arrival of Michael Knighton at Brunton Park.

Whatever speculation surrounded his appearance on the scene in the spring of 1992, it certainly didn’t reach media circles until the deal was done.

Monday, May 18, 1992. This was the date United changed, moving from penniless, grey struggle to something much more flamboyant. It was also the warm day fans learned for the first time who would now be calling the shots.

Our front page coverage in that day’s Final edition captured the contrast. Against a backdrop of Brunton Park, the Warwick Road End roof looking particularly tired and shabby, a floating head of the moustachioed Knighton was slapped across one of the goalmouths.

SOLD! was the one-word headline, with a caption under Knighton’s bonce suggesting a £1m deal had been struck.

News and Star: Our front page announcing Michael Knighton's arrivalOur front page announcing Michael Knighton's arrival (Image: News & Star)

Our back page then filled in some of the detail, beneath the headline MR MONEYBAGS BUYS UNITED, accompanied by the strapline UNITED SENSATION…

This dramatic news, which saw the former Manchester United suitor and director suddenly installed as United’s new owner, was launched into the public domain by a press release from the offices of Brunton Park which, in the circumstances, was impressive in its brevity.

That faxed statement, on headed club paper, was reproduced in full on our pages. “The board of directors of Carlisle United AFC (1921) Limited wish to announce that Mr Michael Knighton (formerly of Manchester United Football Club) has taken over the club," it read.

“Mr Knighton is having discussions with the existing board of directors as to their future involvement.

“Issued for and on behalf of Carlisle United AFC (1921) Ltd.

H. A. Jenkins (chairman).”

One can only wonder at how the arrival of such a showman would be announced today. There would be YouTube videos, a moody clip on X, soundbites aplenty, maybe even some ball-juggling for TikTok.

In 1992, it was statement, a few briefings and then a formal press conference as United supporters tried to take in the news. It was, it's safe to say, a club ready for change. Carlisle, in the preceding weeks, had finished bottom of the Football League, thankfully spared relegation by the perils of other clubs and a reorganisation of the league, while financial struggles had seen the loss-making club, who were shedding £3,500 a week and about £200,000 in the red, put up for sale and even with the idea of players going part-time.

News and Star: Our back page coverage of Michael Knighton's takeoverOur back page coverage of Michael Knighton's takeover (Image: News & Star)

Lasting obscurity appeared to be tapping at the front door of Brunton Park. Yet on May 18 the picture changed. Knighton, we reported, was a “flamboyant millionaire businessman” who had quit his position at Man Utd just a few weeks earlier. He would become chairman and chief executive, "and he has pledged to bring Premier League football to Brunton Park within seven years.”

The takeover, our report added, had cost “close to £1 million, with a pledge of £250,000 for the refurbishment of the ground and the underwriting of £500,000 debts plus other liabilities”.

Early tasters of Knighton’s background were offered, as "a former Coventry City reserve" and latterly a “school teacher-turned-property developer”. He was said to have become “disenchanted” with Man Utd after his 1989 takeover had been scuppered and a period as a director then followed.

Alongside this, more hints at his proposals for his new United were given.

“He claims his takeover is the start of a crusade against what he describes as the greed of the Premier League clubs,” we reported – while the man himself said: “With Carlisle, I’ll show people how a club should be run.

“And I’ll be a tracksuit chairman. I’ll do my admin in the afternoon and be with the club’s youngest kids in the morning.”

Pledges included major sponsorship packages, free admission for under-10s and the disabled, investment in youth and “constant” use of the stadium.

As with most takeovers, day one was all about promise and promises, before reality unfolded.

The city’s Member of Parliament, Eric Martlew, offered Knighton a qualified welcome. “I am delighted but also a bit concerned that the club is going out of local control,” the Labour MP said.

“Professional football is assured in Cumbria but I wouldn’t like to see Carlisle United being bought and sold like a commodity. A local football club means more than that for a city.”

News and Star: Knighton, centre, with new vice-chairman Barry Chaytow, left, and long-serving director and previous owner Andrew Jenkins, right, on the day of Knighton's unveiling to the media at Brunton ParkKnighton, centre, with new vice-chairman Barry Chaytow, left, and long-serving director and previous owner Andrew Jenkins, right, on the day of Knighton's unveiling to the media at Brunton Park (Image: News & Star)

That day’s press conference then saw Knighton hold court at Brunton Park in a way that would become smoothly familiar. With his involvement set to begin formally on June 1, the pinstripe-suited businessman posed for photos with chairman Andrew Jenkins and new vice-chairman Barry Chaytow, formerly of Bolton Wanderers, in front of that discoloured Warwick roof – again, the contrast plain.

It was disclosed that the Man Utd legend and former Carlisle manager Harry Gregg had helped set up talks between Knighton and the Blues, Knighton describing Gregg as a “friend” and “source of comfort” during his turbulent times at Old Trafford.

The new owner claimed to have been approached by “15 clubs” who were in turmoil, but Carlisle’s “potential” had won his affections.

“I am a simple boy who loves football,” Knighton told reporters. “This is not an ago trip. This is someone who cares passionately about football.”

Knighton reaffirmed his belief, indeed pledge, of Premier League football in time for the millennium, but he would not be doing this by writing large and regular cheques.

Along with his intentions to spruce up Brunton Park there would, along the way, be a “European soccer academy” to help develop home-grown talent. A fans’ voice on the board was also proposed, along with development of the club’s commercial activities.

“I shall be just about as hands-on as you can get,” added Knighton. “There is much to do at Carlisle United. It is a failed football club, with no disrespect to those who have tried to keep it going.

“We hope to show that we can survive on careful planning and sensible business initiatives and sensible commercial decisions.

News and Star: Knighton pledged a £250,000 refurbishment of Brunton Park, a European soccer academy and Premier League football...Knighton pledged a £250,000 refurbishment of Brunton Park, a European soccer academy and Premier League football... (Image: News & Star)

“I hope we can carry the torch for other clubs who don’t have the glamour of the top 22.”

Knighton professed to be against the “greed factor” of the new Premier League, and maintained he was “not a fairy godfather” who would write blank cheques for players.

What appeared an overarching mission statement duly followed: “It is the intention of Barry Chaytow and myself to ask every single individual Carlisle supporter what they want to see. They want a successful football team and our job is to educate them they can’t have that overnight.

“The future of Carlisle United is in the hands of the community. We can only give it our best shot and give it our expertise. This club is under great threat and I am prepared to put my time and money where my principles lie.”

The shorter term concerned the status of certain individuals in the club. Manager Aidan McCaffery’s position was the subject of immediate speculation, Knighton saying there was a future for the boss and that it would be “rash” to decide otherwise – although, ominously, it was pointed out that the matter would be under “constant review”.

McCaffery, for his part, accepted the uncertainty. “The place is very much in turmoil at the minute and I will have to wait until the dust settles,” said the former youth team boss.

“I have spoken to the bloke and it’s just a case of waiting until further talks until we decide.”

News and Star: Knighton in reprises his infamous 1989 Old Trafford ball-juggling on the day of his takeover at Carlisle three years later...Knighton in reprises his infamous 1989 Old Trafford ball-juggling on the day of his takeover at Carlisle three years later... (Image: News & Star)

As for Jenkins, his future was guaranteed, the long-serving director and previous owner having been offered a place on Knighton’s board. “We are disappointed I suppose,” said Jenkins of relinquishing control of the club. “But we are pleased to welcome Michael Knighton because he is a football person.

“Hopefully he will give the whole club a lift. The alternative was to end up with a huge board of directors.

“The board felt it was time to look for someone, and fortunately it is someone who is a footballing person. It is a good move for the club.”

These words, written up by reporter Amanda Little, were accompanied by photos from Eleanor Mason. Alongside the story of Knighton's far-sighted yet "sensible" vision, one of the pages was  dominated by an image of United’s sharp-suited new supremo juggling a football with his head in front of the Paddock.

Things were going to be different, it’s safe to say.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? Knighton’s early years brought dramatic and colourful success to United, with two promotions, two Wembley appearances, a flourishing youth system and a modern new East Stand. But his reign then went into decline and increased controversy and, as the Blues repeatedly battled relegation from the Football League, supporters eventually mobilised for his removal. A tumultuous decade ended when Knighton sold the club to John Courtenay in 2002.