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

In the middle of July 2004, a time Carlisle United were contemplating life in non-league football for the first time, that old Blues motto of “never a dull moment” returned for the umpteenth occasion.

United fans had long learned to expect the unexpected but it still came rather out of the blue when, amid Paul Simpson’s pre-season preparations, the club suddenly changed hands again.

FRED STORY BUYS UNITED was our dramatic front page headline, accompanied by a picture of the smiling businessman who was, until then, best known for his construction business…as well as to followers of Aspatria RUFC, where Story had played rugby union as a second row forward.

Story was an increasingly well known figure but his purchasing of United from John Courtenay catapulted him into major prominence. It was, our front page added, a “shock sale” of the club to the Cumbrian millionaire, a story broken by Vic Gibson and which was fleshed out in the accompanying pages.

News and Star: Our front page breaks the news of Fred Story's takeoverOur front page breaks the news of Fred Story's takeover (Image: News & Star)

Courtenay, after a protracted takeover from Michael Knighton, had presided over the Blues for only two years before deciding it was time to move on. Carlisle, in that time, had haemorrhaged money in the wake of Knighton’s decade of turmoil, and gone on an ever-turbulent on-field journey featuring one successful relegation battle, a cup final appearance (2003’s LDV Vans Trophy) and then the grimly historic drop to the Conference.

At the point of their demise, things were, perversely, looking up, given that player-manager Simpson, with financial restrictions lifted after administration and a company voluntary arrangement, had overhauled the squad with better and more hardened and professional players.

Yet Courtenay, who had sacked Roddy Collins and appointed Simpson in 2003, could not continue. It was, he said “time to walk away”, the Irish businessman citing financial and time-related issues for his decision.

“I feel I’ve done my bit and there is not much more I could do,” said Courtenay. “I have pumped millions into the club and I realised that I couldn’t keep doing that.

“I was checking my diaries recently and I did 112 trips to England in 21 months. It was killing me, to be honest.”

Enter, then, Fred Story, as United returned to local control for the first time since the pre-Knighton period of 1992. His involvement had, we reported, been the subject of “persistent rumours in local football circles”, even though the building tycoon declined to comment on the takeover story on that particular day.

News and Star: John Courtenay comments on his sale of United to Fred Story on the News & Star back page in July 2004John Courtenay comments on his sale of United to Fred Story on the News & Star back page in July 2004 (Image: News & Star)

That would soon change. In the meantime, the scene was set. United were now to be run by a man who had enjoyed flourishing success with his Carlisle-based companies Story Homes, Story Construction and Story Rail, and whose physical stature at 6ft 8in was also considerable.

“Only last month, United boss Paul Simpson spoke of his admiration for Mr Story’s work as he moved into one of [his firm’s] houses,” we noted – while our writer Ross Brewster speculated whether Story might consider moving the Blues from Brunton Park to “a new purpose-built edge of city stadium as others have done in recent seasons with mixed fortunes.”

In the immediate term, Brewster noted the “local pride” attached to Carlisle now possessing a Cumbrian owner and a Cumbrian manager – while the following day, Story was introduced to the media at Brunton Park.

Sitting alongside Lord Clark of Windermere, the new owner set out his intentions with confident assurance. The 47-year-old declined to say how much he had paid for the club but stressed: “I won’t make one penny profit [from United]. I’m not here to knock the ground down and build houses. There are no plans to relocate.

“I’m not here to pour money into Carlisle United either. That’s happened in the past and at other football clubs and it ends in tears.

News and Star: Fred Story and Lord Clark of Windermere, right, at the new owner's unveiling at Brunton ParkFred Story and Lord Clark of Windermere, right, at the new owner's unveiling at Brunton Park (Image: News & Star)

“I and the board are here to make the club stand on its own two feet and not be dependent on the whims of one benefactor or another. We have to put the club on a strong business footing.”

Among Story’s priorities was settling a £1m loan dating back to the Knighton era, something which was saddling the club with £200,000 a year in interest and charges. It was also confirmed that Andrew Jenkins, the former chairman, would be back on the board – while Story was due to have talks with the supporters’ trust about its plans to buy shares in United’s Holdings company.

It was, all in all, a solid introduction rather than one laced with high talk and gaudy promises. United’s recent past of chaos and struggle meant an appetite for solid business principles was stronger than ever.

The News & Star offered Story’s regime a positive welcome. The new supremo, we said in a leading article, had “what appears to be an ideal combination of sporting and financial acumen”, while his comments in the press conference should “reassure supporters”.

“In the long term, ensuring Carlisle is on a sound financial footing is surely the way forward,” we added. “With Paul Simpson as manager, Carlisle United is in the hands of people who have the club’s best interests at heart and the know-how to deliver the success which the loyal Blue Army has been denied for far too long.”

There was plenty of gratitude in the air for Courtenay, the man who had wrested United from Knighton, as he took his leave. Also, on day one of the Story era, there was a statement of faith in the manager who would go on to define the period to come.

“I think Paul Simpson is a fantastic manager,” Story told reporters. “In my opinion, the biggest thing he did when he took over was to treat the players with respect and motivate them better, because man-management is crucial.

“The important thing at any club is to choose the right manager, and, fortunately, we have already got him. Carlisle United in the Conference is not right for Carlisle or Cumbria, and I want the club to be back into the Football League.”

News and Star: Fred Story, second left, stands in front of Lord Clark, left, Steven Pattison, second right, and Andrew Jenkins, right on the Brunton Park pitch after the takeover was confirmedFred Story, second left, stands in front of Lord Clark, left, Steven Pattison, second right, and Andrew Jenkins, right on the Brunton Park pitch after the takeover was confirmed (Image: News & Star)

Story’s passion for local success was further set out as he proclaimed himself “embarrassed” by United’s new non-league status. He also explained his wish for more people to use Brunton Park’s conference facilities and bars.

As this dramatic new dawn broke, there were no ball-juggling antics in the manner of his predecessor-but-one, nor any promises of the Premier League by this year or that time. United, instead, put forward a new businesslike image which was captured on page five of our newspaper when Story, in shirt and tie, posed on the pitch alongside suit-wearing directors Jenkins, Lord Clark and Steven Pattison.

The photographer’s angle made the new owner appear to tower over the East Stand, Knighton’s unfinished, off-centre legacy. The dominant new figure at the heart of Brunton Park was firmly in place.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT: Story presided over a period of immediate and remarkable success, as United were promoted back to the Football League at the first attempt via the Conference play-offs, before Simpson led the Blues to the League Two title the following season. United duly returned to the third tier for the first time since 1998, and almost reached the Championship in Story’s fourth season in charge. After overseeing Carlisle’s most sustained period of success for some time – a spell which also saw legal wrangles with the supporters’ trust – Story decided to move on in 2008 and handed control to the club’s current owners.


Michael Knighton in 1992

John Courtenay in 2002