So where should we start – the event for which we had waited 17 years, or the one that had taken a mere 15 years in coming? 

Typical Carlisle United, eh? Not satisfied with one happening big enough to define a generation, they had to squeeze a second inside the same 12 months. 

We’ll come to the takeover in due course. But even that traces back to May 28, 2023: a day that will live with us forever, no matter what came next or what’s still to come, and which is the reference point for all the year's glories, consequences, emotions and challenges.

Football is a game of dreams, and the Piataks, who were in the Royal Box that day, have certainly tapped into those. Yet it’s also a game of memories, and the play-off final gave us a rich helping of both. Instead of only thinking of what it was supposed to be a launchpad for, let’s also remember it for itself: one of the purest, happiest days following Carlisle in recent memory, an occasion unmatched, in many ways, in United’s history.

Before the guardians of the archives bring up 1974, the Second Division years and other higher successes, that’s not what we mean. We’re talking about the sheer pleasure of watching the Blues win promotion at Wembley – something they’d never done before – with an admirable cast list and backstory.

News and Star: Taylor Charters, the home-grown midfielder, scored the penalty that sent United upTaylor Charters, the home-grown midfielder, scored the penalty that sent United up (Image: Richard Parkes)

A resounding first was the fact Carlisle went up on that baking London day with a Cumbrian manager, a Cumbrian captain, a Cumbrian man-of-the-match and a Cumbrian scoring a promotion-winning goal. In the directors' padded seats were Cumbrian owners, and on the bench were several more individuals from this county. 

That convergence of circumstances was, then, unique. What happened under the big arch was a triumph for us all, for our people – a day that slammed Cumbrian fortitude on the table and invited everyone else to admire it. 

So, Paul Simpson, Paul Huntington, Owen Moxon, Taylor Charters and the others: thank you. We’ll have that day, and how it felt, until our final breaths. We’ll have it even if United are relegated this season, Simpson is sacked at Easter, the Piataks turn out to be asset-strippers and AFC Carlisle United are playing in the North West Counties League in 2027. 

But that’s enough dystopia. The worst surely won't be that bad. And the best, in the long run, might yet be very good indeed. Back, though, to the uplifting sense, in the main, of 2023's first half. Simpson and his team took United on a journey that was laughably improbable when he returned to the club the previous year. 

News and Star: Ben Barclay's winner against BradfordBen Barclay's winner against Bradford (Image: Ben Holmes)

The foundations for promotion were set in a galvanising run in the autumn of 2022. From the new year, things became more challenging, more painstaking as the line drew closer, but Carlisle held firmly enough. From the slog came highlights: thrashing Barrow 5-1, scoring four first-half goals at Crawley, a big-crowd win over Tranmere and then the finale in stages: a Brunton Park afternoon for the ages against Bradford City, Ben Barclay’s header, a stadium aflame.

Then a sweltering afternoon at Wembley and the traditional United scenic route: an own-goal against, frustration and headscratching, substitutions, stress, a rumble of pressure, an Omari Patrick equaliser that ignited the national stadium and a feeling throughout that United’s character, their unbending spirit, would not be broken.

Carlisle’s first promotion since 2006, when their manager was also Paul Simpson, was all the more enjoyable for its pleasant-surprise effect. The travails of 2021/22, on and off the pitch, were still too recent to forget. It remains, then, one of the most stunning Blues turnarounds of all time and we witnessed its frothing conclusion in 2023: a privilege to do so.

In the posh seats, we learned later, were people with the means to transform Carlisle United. If you had told a friend in January 2023 that, come the end of the year, the club would be in the hands of a wealthy transport logistics businessman from Florida and his family you might have been advised that last orders had been and gone and it’s time to go home, and maybe grab a kebab to soak some of it up. 

Yet here we are: United officially controlled by folks from across the pond with the wherewithal to make a difference and the will, it seems, to fulfil some of our long-held wishes for Carlisle.

News and Star: Tom Piatak and his family at Wembley - six months before completing their takeover of UnitedTom Piatak and his family at Wembley - six months before completing their takeover of United (Image: Richard Parkes) 

It is often cynically said that only unsuitable people look to own football clubs. When suitors have no obvious link, scepticism is a necessity. The Piataks, though, proved deeply impressive in their courting and claiming of the Blues and also have in their early offerings since executing a change of control at United for the first time since 2008.

There was a thoroughness about their research, patience in their planning, due respect to the existing set-up and detail never far from the discourse. The CUOSC members' meeting they addressed in September knocked down many potential misgivings with a flourish. Given the historical limitations it was hard to believe, in some ways, that these people were talking about Carlisle United and how they felt they could build it.

These remain the formative days; 2024 ought to see major steps on structure and infrastructure, vision and action, squad and stadium. The welcome the Piataks received at the first game of their tenure was, in many ways, the most remarkable experience of 2023 at United. The future will judge all their (and our) aspirations.

In a playing sense, the year will also be remembered for the steepness of the climb as well as the thrill of making it. Carlisle did not reach League One fully and immediately equipped to handle it, even if it’s far better to be there, and trying, than staying in the fourth tier under an imagined ceiling.

In terms of making a smooth transition United were hobbled by the lateness of their promotion, the limits of their budget, the associated struggle to get enough third-tier calibre players to help them acclimatise and a difficulty, to mention one specific, in replacing Kristian Dennis's goals. Carlisle’s peak in their pre-Piatak form has been revealed as bottom-end League One at best.

News and Star: United have found the step up challenging so farUnited have found the step up challenging so far (Image: Richard Parkes)

Now it falls to a pumped-up January, with that “step-change” budget in action, to see what the first months of a new era can make them look like. United, most urgently, need their goal threat to improve, and must be calculated, ruthless and urgent in enhancing other areas. 

The job has been made harder by certain circumstances. Sure things are at a premium in the current XI but Callum Guy was one of them and his ACL injury robbed Carlisle of a true competitor. So far mostly undamaged in the plus column are Jon Mellish, Sam Lavelle and Jordan Gibson, who’ve all handled League One well.

Others have done so either fleetingly, with qualification or not at all. Joe Garner has been a yeoman up front but is having to shoulder more of the burden than is ideal at 35. Different departments have seen form and fitness fluctuate. Then there is Moxon: a shooting star in his first EFL season, now a more enigmatic figure, who has been faced with the varying demands of running United’s midfield at a more difficult level and doing so at a contract impasse. 

Moxon hasn’t written as many headlines in the second portion of 2023, uncertainty over his future a constant companion. He remains, though, one of Carlisle’s best recent stories and the only hope is that 2024 will remove at least some of the clutter and see Denton Holme’s finest go on again. If that isn't to be with his home-city club, let a future parting at least be mutually reasonable.

News and Star: Owen Moxon was in the spotlight throughout 2023...Owen Moxon was in the spotlight throughout 2023... (Image: Richard Parkes)

Doubtless it’s a relegation battle that will go to the last. Losing it would not be terminal but it would throw United’s big march forward into a degree of uncertainty on a timescale basis. Win it, and the platform the Piataks are building could lead to some serious positivity and a quick path to a glinting new era.

Firmly attached to that era will be United’s supporters, for whom this has been a largely emphatic year. Carlisle’s home attendances have been at their highest for a generation and some of their away followings have taken the breath away.

Whether at Barrow or Bolton, Wimbledon or Reading, this has been a vintage period for the Blue Army: more evidence of the size of Carlisle United, when good and better times allow it to show.

It has been a heartening period in particular respects given the proactive and admirable work of some young supporters in refreshing and reinvigorating the Warwick Road End. CUOSC, the supporters’ trust, have also been more polished this year and more representative in numbers than for many. Their challenge – to remain relevant with a reduced shareholding – comes in the wake of some positive work in the wooing of the Piataks, and a more professional image in some of their operations.

News and Star: Young fans revitalised the Warwick Road End in 2023Young fans revitalised the Warwick Road End in 2023 (Image: Barbara Abbott)

All these aspects deserve a much higher billing than the lesser elements from the terraces, but 2023 should not be whitewashed in this respect. Carlisle leave the year having been punished for supporter racism as well as other crowd disciplinary matters. Damage to a fan-fundraised banner, fireworks going off in the Warwick…these things have tarnished an otherwise surging spell. Attendance-wise, meanwhile, a new record Brunton Park low against Harrogate in the Bristol Street Motors Trophy was the loudest message yet against that wretched, warped competition (not that it will be heeded).

Some of United’s issues have survived the turns of many a year: the ageing ground, the limited facilities. The Piataks have thrown an early splash of colour and creativity on some of those – the Warwick Road End urinals, for instance, the souped-up fanzone and refurbished rooms and lounges – and the rest will hopefully follow. Plans for the East Stand, revealed recently, look forward-thinking and are historically overdue.

Strategically, a new training facility – also on the cards – could also be transformative. If all this is coupled with the good pre-Piatak progress in areas like fan engagement, so much the better and brighter.

Much else in Carlisle’s future remains ripe for resolving. Simpson, late in the year, aimed a stinging rebuke to the club’s academy, and one senses that isn’t an issue that will be allowed to lie. Alongside that must be a continued celebration of the many good people who staff and run United.

One or two of those left this year (such as Andy Hall, the long-serving and dedicated media officer) and others are soon to go (like Colin Nixon, the popular and ebullient kitman). People like this give United its heart and soul as much as players and managers. This must continue to hold true even as the club seeks to expand under its ambitious new dawn. On a directorial front, the ending of Andrew Jenkins’ 64-year spell on the board is a major moment in time: Carlisle, and in many ways the wider game, won’t see such longevity, such steadfastness, again.

Some things that depart will be less openly mourned. The removal of the debt cloud, and the termination of increasingly remote and troubling connections to Purepay Retail Limited / Edinburgh Woollen Mill, felt like letting fresh air back into the building. 

Yet other things should be preserved at all costs. The garish ‘fruit salad’ away kit has been such a stunning hit that Carlisle must surely consider keeping it for a second season, instead of letting it go the same way as other, less remarkable strips which are dropped annually.

News and Star: 2023's saddest news at United was the passing of David Wilkes2023's saddest news at United was the passing of David Wilkes (Image: News & Star)

That’s the fun part, though. The serious stuff will enrapture us, one way or another, in the months to come. United’s tragedy, at this pivotal point in their story, is that a person on whom much of the modern club was built will not be here to see it. This year’s most solemn occasion was the passing of David Wilkes, far too young at 59.

The youth coach was a catalyst, a shaper of careers, a maker of lucrative talent and a loyal, friendly and selfless man with a laugh you can still close your eyes and hear. He deserves a substantial memorial at Brunton Park, and a permanent place in everyone’s thoughts as United move towards different and, it seems, richer times in 2024.