Part 25 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

Carlisle United’s promotion challenge was entering a crucial phase in January 1974 but many supporters in the city had eyes only for one thing – and one place.

The Blues’ progress in the FA Cup had teed up a fourth round trip to face Liverpool at Anfield – and a seating allocation of 3,500 tickets was swiftly gobbled up by hungry United fans.

Huge queues formed as the grandstand tickets went on sale and, after season-ticket holders got the first chance to buy them, a subsequent period of general sale was short and sweet – at least for those lucky enough to get their hands on one of the in-demand tickets.

Hundreds of fans were left disappointed as secretary David Dent said: “Every ticket has gone, so there’s no chance for people who haven’t already got seats booked. We sold about 1,800 tickets in a very short time this morning.”

News and Star: Our coverage shows Carlisle fans queueing for Liverpool FA Cup ticketsOur coverage shows Carlisle fans queueing for Liverpool FA Cup tickets (Image: News & Star)

With terracing places included, a travelling army of about 6,000 was expected for the Merseyside trip. And one of United’s players was particularly concerned about being involved in the big game.

Midfield terrier Les O’Neill was anticipating a two-match suspension after collecting 12 penalty points, but Carlisle were hoping his Football Association hearing, at which O’Neill would appeal, would not take place until after the Anfield glamour tie.

Before all that, though, there was the small matter of keeping on track United’s bid to reach the top-flight of English football for the first time. Alan Ashman’s side were now fourth in Division Two and faced another test of their aspirations at Cardiff City on the approaching weekend.

The Welsh club were keen to switch the game from Saturday to Sunday, but United were among the many clubs so far resisting the idea of football on the sabbath day. After discussions at board level, Carlisle confirmed they would stick to the Saturday fixture with an unusually early kick-off time at 11.15am.

Starting times had been in a state of upheaval for a prolonged period given the ongoing energy crisis and limitations on floodlight use. United simply ventured to south Wales keen to keep the lights on in terms of their promotion bid.

Ashman had injury concerns over defenders Tot Winstanley and Brian Tiler ahead of the game, with both being assessed until late in the day, while there was a familiar face in the home ranks given that Cardiff had recently brought in ex-United favourite Willie Carlin.

News and Star: Willie Carlin and Alan Ashman, pictured at Carlisle in 1966, were on opposite sides eight years laterWillie Carlin and Alan Ashman, pictured at Carlisle in 1966, were on opposite sides eight years later (Image: News & Star)

In the Bluebirds’ hotseat was Frank O’Farrell, who had taken the Cardiff helm after an ill-fated 18-month spell as Matt Busby’s successor at Manchester United.

“They [Cardiff] seem to be having some kind of revival since Frank O’Farrell took over, and we will be on our guard,” warned Ashman ahead of the game.

Selection wise, it proved too early for Winstanley and Tiler, as Ashman went with the same XI that had drawn with Sheffield Wednesday last time out. They duelled with Cardiff on a blustery day at Ninian Park which saw the home side give little quarter to their high-flying visitors.

Carlisle played the more polished football but struggled to find a way past O’Farrell’s side. O’Neill, Frank Clarke, Joe Laidlaw and Bobby Owen were involved in some hopeful attacking work but Cardiff offered threats such as the persistent John Farrington, while the wily Carlin also tested Allan Ross with a free-kick.

Yet the danger from that moment had not passed, given referee Harry New had spotted an infringement and ordered a retake. This time Carlin found Leighton Phillips, whose drive was parried by Ross into the scoring path of Andy McCulloch.

Cardiff’s hopes of unseating United were then met by a feisty fightback in the second half. Just two minutes after the restart, Carlisle were level thanks to a splendid strike by Ray Train from the edge of the box.

The visitors were committing more men to the attack but were then hit a second time when Phillips scored from close range following a corner and a scramble.

News and Star: Frank Clarke rescued a 2-2 draw for promotion-chasing United at Ninian ParkFrank Clarke rescued a 2-2 draw for promotion-chasing United at Ninian Park (Image: News & Star)

Carlisle narrowly avoided conceding again when Farrington shaved the crossbar and United had to summon all of their promotion-chasing character to salvage something from the latter stages.

From a dominant late spell, their midfield of Train, O’Neill and Dennis Martin finally exerting real control, the Blues eventually found their second equaliser. After pushing Cardiff back with a series of corners, their pressure finally told three minutes from time when Owen crossed and Clarke converted a clinical header.

A 2-2 draw was, in general, as good as it got for United at a ground where they’d found little joy over the years. It kept their challenge ticking along – and was watched by an extra pair of very interested eyes, given that Liverpool’s Reuben Bennett was at Ninian Park to watch their forthcoming FA Cup visitors.

A familiar Cumbrian face in Geoff Twentyman, the former United star turned Liverpool chief scout, had seen his old club’s previous Division Two game, and Shankly’s men were certainly leaving little to chance.

All roads, then, led to Anfield, where the home team had not been beaten in domestic competition all season. Could Ashman’s ambitious Blues pull off a major first?