Part 22 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

A festive triple-header at the top end of Division Two faced Carlisle United before they could start to contemplate their new year FA Cup showdown with holders Sunderland.

By the end of the trio of games, the Blues’ manager Alan Ashman must have felt vindicated in stressing the importance of applying full focus to the league instead of allowing cup distraction to set in.

The final two games of 1973 and the first of 1974 proved pivotal in establishing Carlisle as potential frontrunners in a tightly congested Division Two race. United were handed a Boxing Day trip to Preston North End before a journey to Notts County three days later, then ringing the new year in at Brunton Park against Luton Town.

A sackful of festive points was needed to reinforce Carlisle’s chances. The first mission sent them to Lancashire to take on a Preston side managed by the great Bobby Charlton.

News and Star: Bobby Charlton and his Preston team faced Carlisle on Boxing Day 1973Bobby Charlton and his Preston team faced Carlisle on Boxing Day 1973 (Image: PA)

It was not proving a vintage season for the Deepdale club and Carlisle went with hope of starting their Christmas fixtures on a positive footing. Ashman’s squad was bolstered by Les O’Neill, who had missed the 1-1 draw with Millwall because of a family bereavement, and the return of the midfield dynamo was certainly a good way to start the holiday season.

In front of 11,446 fans at Preston’s ground, a contest played out which was not full of glitter, but ended in the right way result wise. Carlisle often had the better of North End in terms of technique, though the home side stayed in the game, often in spite of their shortcomings.

Charlton’s team included fellow England World Cup winner Nobby Stiles in the autumn of his own playing days, but Carlisle’s play was more cultured, with O’Neill – recalled in place of the rested Chris Balderstone – and Ray Train setting the pace in midfield on a heavy pitch.

At the back, Bill Green and Brian Tiler were steadfast and keeper Allan Ross’s handling was secure, yet in the final third the Blues struggled to add a finishing touch to their initial smooth play.

David Sadler, another of Charlton’s Manchester United alumni, briefly tested the Blues with a first half header, and Alex Bruce then gave Carlisle a scare when he hit the outside of the post from a narrow angle.

Yet United eventually made the home side crack, although not in particularly emphatic fashion. Train’s shot from 30 yards was of the speculative variety yet Preston goalkeeper Ron Healey managed to fumble it into the net.

News and Star: Ray Train was United's matchwinner at PrestonRay Train was United's matchwinner at Preston (Image: PA)

Carlisle’s 72nd-minute lead never came under serious threat from there, Frank Clarke almost increasing it but a 1-0 victory sufficient for some Boxing Day cheer.

It sent United seventh, with manager Ashman reflecting: “It serves to accentuate what we have been saying about the Sunderland cup tie, and keeping league form uppermost in our minds in the meantime.”

Up next, then, were Notts County – and this time a clearer statement of Carlisle’s potential. At Meadow Lane the Blues were imperious, with Joe Laidlaw the prominent player on this occasion.

Ashman named an unchanged side and after four minutes Carlisle were in front. A driving run by Train caught the Notts defence in confusion and when he clipped the ball across, Laidlaw’s reactions were quickest as he drove home the opener.

News and Star: The Evening News & Star headline salutes Carlisle United's 3-0 win at Notts County in December 1973The Evening News & Star headline salutes Carlisle United's 3-0 win at Notts County in December 1973 (Image: News & Star)

A minute later, it was two – and with instinctive style as Laidlaw, again, beat keeper Roy Brown, this time with a 25-yard attempt after good work from Tot Winstanley and frontman Clarke.

Laidlaw’s opportunism had built an immediate platform and he almost completed his hat-trick amid some powerful forward play before the first half was through.

After the break the Magpies tried to fly back at Carlisle but a third goal came in the 68th minute as Laidlaw’s shot was turned over the line by home defender David McVay. A 3-0 victory reflected a comprehensive demolition job…and then came a third win on the spin.

Brunton Park welcomed 1974 with a 2-0 triumph over Luton Town which spelled, according to the Evening News & Star, a “warning” to their promotion rivals. In front of 9,245, they set about the Hatters with a second-half showing up there with the best they had produced all season.

After a well-contested and absorbing yet goalless first half, Carlisle cut loose. With a strong wind at their backs, United applied pressure which told in the 55th minute when Dennis Martin crossed and Bill Green arrived to head home at the near post.

Just 12 minutes later and the second goal came thanks to Martin, who fired in the rebound after he had headed Laidlaw’s cross against the post.

News and Star: Frank Clarke, far right, and Dennis Martin celebrate for Carlisle United against LutonFrank Clarke, far right, and Dennis Martin celebrate for Carlisle United against Luton (Image: News & Star)

Luton could offer little in terms of serious reply, and six points from six had set United up for some thrilling times ahead. On the wider agenda, meanwhile, were discussions over a close-season tour to Zambia.

Discussions involved Donald Lightfoot, a former Carlisle man now based in Lusaka and who had close connections with the Zambia Football Association. United were awaiting terms from the African country before making a final decision.

In the meantime, things on the home front were about to get very interesting…