Part 20 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

While Carlisle United and Leyton Orient have been recent rivals in fourth and third tiers, the idea of the clubs being firm contenders to reach England’s top flight seems, on the face of it, unlikely.

Fifty years ago, when that was indeed the situation, it still took some absorbing. The Blues and the Os were not among the favourites for Second Division honours in 1973/74 yet, come the middle of December, both were very much in the running.

It all meant the approaching showdown between the sides at Brisbane Road made the mouth water more than usual. Orient were second and United were in the pursuing pack.

“Orient are really one of the unfashionable teams, like ourselves,” reckoned Blues manager Alan Ashman. “But they are making a very determined attempt to win promotion this season.

“Dick Young [United’s trainer] was saying when we discussed Orient today that they play a clever push and run game with a great deal of energy. In style here again there is probably some similarity to ourselves.”

News and Star: Leyton Orient were unfancied - but firmly in the promotion raceLeyton Orient were unfancied - but firmly in the promotion race (Image: PA)

The Blues and Orient, in the winter, cannot have known how their fortunes would be intertwined until the very end of 73/74. At this stage, it was a case of jostling for position before the halfway point of the campaign was reached.

United were coming off the back of a home defeat to another contender in Blackpool, hoping for a quick recovery. Ashman was banking on the fine goalscoring form of midfielder Les O’Neill on that quest.

“Les has always had the ability to strike the ball cleanly,” added the manager. “Several of his goals come from the edge of the box and shooting from this range is one way of breaking down massed defenders.”

O’Neill was on the up at United but for others, the future was less clear. Full-back Steve Derrett, the Wales international, appeared to be on his way out of the club having been made available for a free transfer.

Derrett had been on a month’s loan at Aldershot, and now Carlisle awaited permanent interest. Offloading players, though, had not proved easy all term and this was cited at the club’s annual meeting when shareholders were warned the club was on course to make a loss.

This followed an outlay of £50,000 in transfer fees – while chairman George Sheffield refused to point the finger at supporters over the size of Brunton Park’s crowds.

News and Star: Our report from United's annual meeting in December 1973Our report from United's annual meeting in December 1973 (Image: News & Star)

“I have never complained about our gates, because for a city of 71,000 people, and with a population for the whole of Cumberland and Westmorland only the same as Newcastle, I think we do very well from that point of view,” he told the meeting.

Sheffield praised Harry Sherrard, the chairman of the finance committee, and the secretary David Dent for United’s general financial stability. The future would, of course, be boosted greatly should the promotion push remain on course, and Carlisle boarded the coach to London with optimism.

They did so, alas, without midfielder Mike Barry, whose ankle was in plaster after suffering an injury in the recent League Cup defeat to Manchester City. Yet United were otherwise well staffed as they looked to propel their challenge at a time of national crisis, given the fuel shortages and industrial unrest starting to engulf the country and the government of Edward Heath.

There was no gloom at Brisbane Road in the event, as Carlisle produced a performance that lit the way towards brighter times. They had plenty of early Orient attacking to deal with, but Ashman’s side successfully drew the home side’s sting, and then went for the kill themselves.

United’s defence, including the additional height of Tot Winstanley and the normally enterprising John Gorman, were kept busy at base camp early on as Terry Brisley and Ricky Heppolette set a lively pace for the east Londoners. The visitors, though, showed good discipline even if their own scoring opportunities were scarce.

In midfield, O’Neill and Ray Train did dogged work to help the back four with Joe Laidlaw doing lots of lonely and unending work at the front of the side.

Orient’s bluster, though, eventually faded – and then Carlisle struck. With ten minutes to go, Laidlaw’s aggression fashioned a chance for Dennis Martin, and he took the opportunity well with a sound finish from the edge of the box.

News and Star: Dennis Martin was United's hero at OrientDennis Martin was United's hero at Orient (Image: PA)

It was enough to take the spoils, the other remaining event of note being a debut for the young defender Mike McCartney, who came on in midfield after an injury to Brian Tiler saw Bobby Owen switch to defence.

The 1-0 win was certainly an eyecatching one in the context of the tight Division Two tussle, with United’s defensive resolve the key feature. “No matter what the southern people are saying about our style of play, I was very pleased with the result,” said Ashman.

“We showed another side to our game which is foreign to our home supporters. We soaked up a lot of pressure yet still managed to look quite comfortable.”

United, then, returned north with their sights raised once again. And there was more excitement over the horizon, since the FA Cup third round draw, made that weekend, offered the Blues an enticing home tie: against the holders, Sunderland…