Part 29 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

As Carlisle United continued striving towards their greatest height, a rare misstep in that surging period was finally consigned to the past come mid-February.

Kenny Wilson had scored prolifically for Dumbarton when Carlisle paid £36,000 for his services. Little more than a year later, though, the Cumbrians were cutting their losses and waving the striker back across the border.

Wilson had never fully adjusted to the English Second Division and seldom looked capable of emulating the form that had produced more than 80 goals in two Dumbarton seasons. After a series of talks, a move to Hamilton Academical was eventually agreed.

There was a certain melancholy as the situation was summed up in the Evening News & Star. ‘The £36,000 ‘extra’ United could not afford’ headlined an article by Ross Brewster which put Wilson’s struggles, and Carlisle’s transfer work, into perspective.

News and Star: Kenny Wilson, pictured on the far right of the middle row, left Carlisle's 1973/74 squad in FebruaryKenny Wilson, pictured on the far right of the middle row, left Carlisle's 1973/74 squad in February (Image: News & Star)

“The fee which Carlisle paid out for Wilson remains a record for the Cumbrian club,” noted Brewster. “A buy totally out of character with their usual success in the transfer market just goes to prove that everyone can make mistakes or errors of judgement sometimes.”

United had indeed long built their progress on sourcing players from the fringes elsewhere and moulding a fine team, through the coaching of Dick Young and management of Alan Ashman.

It was never to be a failsafe policy yet Carlisle’s record of hits meant the misses stood out. “Wilson’s reputation was basically founded on his goal-poaching skill close in,” added Brewster. “United rely more on strong running and maximum involvement.”

News and Star: Ross Brewster, in the Evening News & Star, reflects on Kenny Wilson's departureRoss Brewster, in the Evening News & Star, reflects on Kenny Wilson's departure (Image: News & Star)

His departure for Hamilton left Carlisle’s squad at 18 professionals, one of whom was seriously sidelined. Midfielder Mike Barry’s ankle was still in plaster while a more minor injury to goalkeeper Allan Ross was being assessed by Ashman and physio Herbert Nicholson.

United, at least, had a brief break from the intensity of their promotion challenge by way of healing their No1. After their trip to Oxford United had fallen victim to a waterlogged pitch, another free weekend followed.

Yet the Blues, fifth in Division Two, did not sit on their hands, and instead arranged a friendly with Third Division side York City. “This should be good competition, as they are a good side and doing quite well in the league,” said Ashman.

“It will certainly be better than just practising among ourselves.”

Carlisle could rest Ross and give Tom Clarke, who had been set to deputise in goal at Oxford, the chance to impress. Both the Blues and York were out of league action because rivals had FA Cup fixtures.

Any thoughts of a good but winning workout were, though, dashed at Bootham Crescent, for Tom Johnston’s Minstermen gave United’s higher-level hopefuls a chastening day. York played at a standard above their third-tier station and claimed a surprise victory over Ashman’s men.

York proved quicker to the ball from the outset and offered greater urgency against a Carlisle side for whom Stan Ternent stepped into midfield alongside Ray Train and Mike McCartney.

News and Star: Tom Clarke deputised for the injured Allan RossTom Clarke deputised for the injured Allan Ross (Image: PA)

The home side came close on a number of occasions early on, and Clarke had to show agility to deny Jimmy Seal. Yet York went on to take the lead in the 37th minute as Seal found space in a loose Blues defence to head home.

That triggered a busy period at both ends during which United levelled but then fell behind again before half time. Joe Laidlaw fired Carlisle on terms but a minute later Cliff Calvert embarked on an impressive dribble which he capped with an unstoppable 25-yard attempt.

United tinkered at half-time, with Peter Carr replacing left-back John Gorman, while some skilful work from McCartney almost set up Bobby Owen for an equaliser.

Yet they could not fully find a way back. Les O’Neill came off the bench late on and both Ternent and Laidlaw came close, but York, in front of a 1,840 crowd, held on for a notable 2-1 scalp.

News and Star: Our report of United's surprise friendly defeatOur report of United's surprise friendly defeat (Image: News & Star)

It had been, all in all, a reminder for United not to let their guard slip when the serious stuff resumed. Next up was a trip to Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park – an attractive away day in the league which attracted so much supporter attention that British Rail announced it would be putting on a ‘soccer special’ service from Carlisle to Penrith.

The fight for league glory, then, was on its welcome way back – while Carlisle were working on other fronts too. It was revealed that the Blues were, in the early months of 1974, giving trials to an unnamed teenager from Scotland.

“We can’t name him while he isn’t signed on for us, because otherwise it would put his junior status in jeopardy north of the border,” confided Ashman.

United simply had to hope this Scottish venture proved more fruitful than their expensive one of before, as they shaped up for some era-defining challenges to come…