Carlisle United will do well to emulate what happened after they last went to Reading, a game also played in the third tier at a time of rising hope at Brunton Park.

The most recent meeting between these two clubs, at the Royals’ former home of Elm Park, was as long ago as 1982. Unlike tonight’s fixture, it was a late-season showdown and, unlike the present predicament, Carlisle were competing very much at the right end of the table.

Not just that: they went into the game in Berkshire at the very top of a tight division. Bob Stokoe’s Blues, with four games to go, had a five-point lead ahead of Oxford United, with Lincoln City, Fulham and Burnley all a point further back.

It was a narrowly-fought promotion race with United having constructed their own chances on impeccable home form. Stokoe’s closely-knit side, featuring stars such as Trevor Swinburne, Bobby Parker, Jack Ashurst, Gordon Staniforth, Tommy Craig, Russell Coughlin, Paul Bannon and Pop Robson had won 17 of their 22 home games as hopes of a return to second-tier football were ignited.

It had been a five-year absence from that level yet United still had work to do in order to see it home – and a more modest away record gave rise to a certain trepidation as they prepared for the trip to Reading, who were slap bang in the middle of Division Three, albeit with a creditable home record themselves.

News and Star: The Division Three table before Carlisle's last visit to Reading in May 1982The Division Three table before Carlisle's last visit to Reading in May 1982 (Image: News & Star)

United had, in their previous game, slipped up against Burnley, keeping the door ajar for one of their rivals. The 1-0 defeat also brought a groin injury concern to defender Parker – yet Stokoe was remaining relatively upbeat.

“I’m not going to tempt fate and say that we are certainties to go up,” he said before the Reading trip. “But I would rather be sitting where I am than where Jim Smith at Oxford and Colin Murphy [at Lincoln] are now.

Carlisle were now at the stage where five more points would take them up, and fewer would probably be enough given the games facing their rivals. “We can’t rely on anyone else, and we can’t leave anything to chance,” offered the evergreen Robson, who was named North East football writers’ player of the year ahead of the game. He added: “People talk about the pressures involved in our position, but you get pressure in every walk of life, and this sort of pressure is a lot better than the sort we had last season.”

It was indeed a more refreshing campaign than 1980/81’s struggle – and, in front of a crowd of just 2,715 at Elm Park, the Blues inched closer to the line.

They could not claim the win that would make things all but secure, but United held their nerve against Maurice Evans’ Reading side that included an 18-year-old Neil Webb, the future England, Nottingham Forest and Manchester United star, as well as another young forward with a top-flight future, Kerry Dixon, plus future Wimbledon FA Cup winner Lawrie Sanchez.

News and Star: Lawrie Sanchez was among the future stars to face Carlisle in their most recent meeting with ReadingLawrie Sanchez was among the future stars to face Carlisle in their most recent meeting with Reading (Image: PA)

Indeed, the Cumbrians took the initiative as early as the 17th minute when, thanks to some trademark craft from midfielder Craig, they got in front. Craig held up a pass from Bannon before threading Tom Ritchie through the middle. The former Sunderland man’s finish was not emphatic, but home keeper Ron Fearon let it slide under him, and Carlisle were ahead.

The goal settled the Blues after an earlier scare which needed keeper Swinburne to see off Dixon after a rare slip by skipper Ashurst. Yet Carlisle could not muster complete control, nor enough decisive work in attack, and Reading hit back.

After Swinburne saved from Webb, Dixon was sent into the box and, though Dave Rushbury’s challenge was initially deemed fair, a linesman’s flag led referee Tony Ward to change his mind and award a penalty. Webb hammered home the spot-kick and United had some readjusting to do.

So they did – but only from an even worse position since, early in the second half, Reading struck again, This time Dixon pestered Tony Larkin, stole the ball and rounded Swinburne to score.

It was now Carlisle’s turn to respond, and respond they did. The equaliser came with great style as, from a short Craig pass, midfielder Coughlin controlled the ball and eyed the target from 30 yards. The Welsh schemer sent a brilliant dipping shot over keeper Fearon’s head, and the Blues were on terms.

It was then a case of end-to-end skirmishing with neither side quite able to seize the day. Robson cleared a Mike Kearney effort off Carlisle’s line, before Coughlin and Bannon went close for the yellow-shirted Blues.

News and Star: A section of Ivor Broadis's match report on Reading 2-2 Carlisle United in 1982A section of Ivor Broadis's match report on Reading 2-2 Carlisle United in 1982 (Image: News & Star)

It was close all the way to the end yet United were able to bank a useful 2-2 draw. “We’ve shown we have the ability to score one or two goals and battle for a result,” reflected Stokoe afterwards. “It would be nice to win the championship, but that would be the icing on the cake after we secure promotion.”

It could not – this is Carlisle United after all – be so simple. After returning from Elm Park, the Blues did what the Blues do, and made life unnecessarily hard for themselves. With three games to go, and a win all that was needed, they proceeded to lose at lowly Wimbledon, and then fluffed their lines again in a 2-1 anti-climax of a defeat at home to a Bristol Rovers side who included a certain Keith Curle.

It put the championship out of reach, and meant their promotion hopes hung on their final game: a rearranged trip to Chester, the original game having been abandoned because of fog. Finally United got the job done, Robson hitting the only goal to take Carlisle up in second place: still their most recent promotion to the second tier at last in the bag.

News and Star: A brilliant goal from Russell Coughlin, pictured, earned United a point at ReadingA brilliant goal from Russell Coughlin, pictured, earned United a point at Reading (Image: News & Star)

Much is changed, it’s fair to say, at both Reading and the Blues since that distant day, with the home side now at the Madejski Stadium (their home, in fact, since 1998) after a variable journey indeed, including top-flight football and their current points-deduction crisis at the foot of League One under owner Dai Yongge. Carlisle have spent most of the intervening 41 years in the bottom two tiers but now, fired by their own new ownership ambitions, are thinking bigger again.

A result that simply alleviates some of their bottom four stress, though, would do on this occasion.


Reading: Fearon, Williams, Hicks, Wood, Lewis, Beavon, Webb, Sanchez, Earles, Kearney, Dixon. Sub: Donnellan.

United: Swinburne, Parker, Ashurst, Larkin, Rushbury, Ritchie, Coughlin, Craig, Robson, Lee, Bannon. Sub: Staniforth.

Crowd: 2,715.