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

The initial reaction, on Saturday, July 27, 2002, was one of disbelief – and the assumption that the News & Star’s front page was in some way mistaken.

Cynicism was, by then, every supporter’s close friend. The Michael Knighton era had been in the throes of a long and uncertain goodbye, with previous poposed sales ending only in controversy, discord and farce.

As such, the gently smiling face of John Courtenay clutching a piece of paper had to be looked at more than once, likewise the accompanying words on that strange summer’s day.

UNITED IS MINE, declared our headline. Courtenay, the Irish businessman, showed to the camera a document headed with the logo of Dillon Solicitors, a Dublin-based legal firm.

As ever in takeovers, it is these fine details that fascinate. The solicitors’ letter, addressed to Michael Knighton c/o CUFC Holdings Limited, confirmed the terms of the proposal for the purchase of shares by Courtenay and his company Toplion Sportswear Limited.

News and Star: Our front page reporting John Courtenay's takeover of Carlisle UnitedOur front page reporting John Courtenay's takeover of Carlisle United (Image: News & Star)

The accompanying paragraphs were blurred out on our front page, no doubt for reasons of business confidentiality, but the overriding message was emphatic.

'THE PROOF: Signed, sealed and delivered to Courtenay', we said below the photo. You always know a story is big when the actual words of the story have to give way to headlines and images alone, and so it was on July 27. The meat of the news, in the form of several articles over several pages, was carried inside.

Our leading article on page six sought to capture the mood.

“We must now consign the acrimony, bile and bitterness of the Michael Knighton ownership of Carlisle United to history,” our editorial said.

“Let every fan, especially those staying away because of the Knighton regime, vote with their feet and proudly march back into Brunton Park to revive the glory years.”

It was 14 days before the start of the new Division Three season and, amid the euphoria, there was work to be done. Courtenay’s claiming of control had to be accompanied by activity in a hurry.

Roddy Collins, the manager who had talked himself out of the job the previous season amid the takeover stalemate, was expected to be reinstated. A seat on the board would be offered to supporters’ trust CCUIST, while United’s squad was in sore need of new players.

News and Star: A section of our coverage on the day of the Courtenay takeoverA section of our coverage on the day of the Courtenay takeover (Image: News & Star)

These happenings would duly unfold. As for Courtenay, he was emphatic. “I have a letter of sale for the purchase of the club and CUFC Holdings,” he said, confirming he heard news of its success at precisely 12.26pm. “I have bought it lock, stock and barrel. The deal is irrevocable.”

Courtenay’s immediate plans included the selling off of the club’s unrelated property assets – houses, a shop and land with planning permission for a hotel – to raise cash. “It’s a football club,” he said. “Anything not football-related or not being used by the club will be sold off and we will use the money to pay off debts. It’s about football, not property.”

Courtenay did not disclose how much he had paid for United, but claimed it was “substantially more than anyone would imagine”. While the deal remained subject to approval at a creditors’ meeting, administrator David Elliot said he was confident the sale would go through, while going out would be Knighton’s son Mark and fellow director Andrea Whittaker, who'd no longer hold board positions.

“Things started to come together on Monday, and Roddy Collins and I started working on the list of players we want,” said the new owner. “I am confident that we will more or less have the team we want for the game against Hartlepool on August 10.”

In a brief moment of reflection amid the tumult, meanwhile, Courtenay added: “The last few days have been very hectic. I don’t know how I feel. It’s not how I expected.

“It’s kind of strange. I feel tired. It has been wearing negotiating for the last seven months, like shouting into a vacuum.”

News and Star: Mark Knighton, centre left, would no longer be a director under Courtenay's ownershipMark Knighton, centre left, would no longer be a director under Courtenay's ownership (Image: News & Star)

Courtenay went on to predict “great fun” working alongside the colourful Collins, who had guided the strife-ridden club to 17th in the bottom tier in 2001/02 – while fans got further insight into the background of the now familiar figure running the show.

The 52-year-old Courtenay, our reporter David Ottewell described, had amassed a personal fortune “through sheer hard work”, having left school at 16 to work “as a lowly shipping clerk” before going on to build a big business portfolio, beginning with a cargo business at 25.

Along with his sportswear company, which had the Umbro, Admiral and American Baseball League merchandise franchises in Ireland, Courtenay also ran a catering equipment supplier and a freight company alongside Christy O’Leary, father of ex-Leeds United manager David.

Courtenay, our profile added, “dresses in open-necked shirts, lives in an understated house in Dublin’s fashionable Castleknock and is fiercely protective of his family.

“The only obvious sign of wealth is his Mercedes sports car”.

In terms of wider plans, there was talk of opening corporate boxes at Brunton Park for local and foreign businesses, whilst a promise that United’s community place would always remain. “Football clubs are different from other businesses,” he added.

The reaction from the fanbase was one of relief. “Thank God, that’s all I can say,” said one supporter, Joan Atkinson of Durranhill, in our extensive coverage. Newsagents reported a flurry of interest in our papers – “everyone is doing a little dance,” said one newsagent, Stuart Jessett – while one lifelong fan, Arnold Rycroft, was down at Brunton Park buying a season ticket within two hours of learning about the sale.

The spokesman of fans’ trust CCUIST, which had campaigned vociferously for Knighton’s removal, claimed to be “close to speechless”. Brian Hall hailed Courtenay’s arrival as “tremendous news”, while there was talk of a public forum involving Courtenay and Collins (which would duly play out on the Brunton Park pitch, with fans in the East Stand).

News and Star: John Courtenay, left, and Roddy Collins at a talk-in with fans at Brunton Park after the takeover went throughJohn Courtenay, left, and Roddy Collins at a talk-in with fans at Brunton Park after the takeover went through (Image: Jonathan Becker)

The sober reality of the actual football saw Carlisle’s threadbare team head to Workington Reds that night for a friendly, with trialists Kevin Street and Gary McCutcheon hoping to impress – and the familiar figure of Richard Prokas, released by Cambridge United, training with the squad.

Manager Collins was swiftly back through the door in typically garrulous style. The takeover, he said, was “the greatest day of my life – I can’t wait to get back and get the show on the road”.

Collins was on board with Courtenay’s intention for United no longer to be fighting at the bottom of the league, yet that vision, given the troubled recent past, required a degree of realism among supporters alongside the ecstasy.

There could not, meanwhile, be such an event without words from Knighton, whose views got their own space as his decade at Brunton Park moved into the immediate past.

The former owner, chairman and chief executive claimed already to have been offered “several positions” in football, particularly jobs “on the youth football side and in general consultancy”, while Knighton hinted at a degree of regret at his notorious promise of Premier League football, insisting: “People had their expectations raised beyond the bounds of reality. But I’m a man who loves to reach for the stars.”

News and Star: Michael Knighton plays up for photographers outside Brunton Park after his sale of Carlisle United in July 2002Michael Knighton plays up for photographers outside Brunton Park after his sale of Carlisle United in July 2002 (Image: Jonathan Becker)

Carlisle, by 2002, had wallowed in the gutter, though there was, from Knighton, a defence of his financial stewardship of the Blues in spite of heavy tax bills, threats to close the club and administration. Despite the years of rancour, he insisted he had no issue with “the silent majority” in Carlisle. “They are wonderful people and they deserve a successful football team,” said the man who had reportedly said very differently amid past takeover goings-on.

Fans, Knighton said, should give Courtenay “the level of support they gave me when I arrived in 1992”. He said he would seek permission from the new owner “to return to the club to collect my things”, before ending on what, from the showman who had initially promised so much and with such polished publicity, was a melancholy note.

“For me,” Knighton said, “it’s a closed chapter”.

Beneath photographs from Knighton’s era, featuring the 1995 Division Three title trophy, Jimmy Glass and a cavorting Knighton on a waterlogged pitch, a caption began with the words: “Rollercoaster ride”.

A new one was about to get bumpily under way.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: Courtenay’s new era saw a 10,684 crowd for 2002/03’s opening day, as the businessman poured money into the task of rebuilding the Blues. But chaos still reigned under Collins’ volatile management, United coming close to relegation despite reaching the LDV Vans Trophy final. After a miserable start to the following season, Courtenay sacked Collins and in his place appointed an experienced summer signing called Paul Simpson. Carlisle sank into the Conference after a valiant struggle, but Simpson, recruiting smartly after the lifting of financial restrictions, had restored credibility to the team. Courtenay, though, did not last to see the recovery, as in 2004 he sold the Blues to Fred Story.