Part 30 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

If Carlisle United’s 1973/74 team were on their way to iconic status come late February, one of their number had, it’s fair to say, already got there.

Chris Balderstone, United’s peerless all-rounder, was as influential as ever in the United side – as well as a superb first-class cricketer.

Balderstone’s double sporting life was deemed prominent enough to warrant a mini-documentary film which was broadcast amid the Blues’ promotion push.

Made by Border TV announcer Robert Hall, the film traced Balderstone’s school days, analysed his work at United, explored the views of those who knew him best at Brunton Park, and also ventured into his cricketing background.

News and Star: Chris BalderstoneChris Balderstone (Image: PA)

It helped cement the 33-year-old’s much-admired standing at a time his club faced more crucial engagements in their push for the First Division. Carlisle’s league campaign was back up and running after an enforced break, while it was also down to United to move on from their close FA Cup tussle with Liverpool which had gone the Anfield club’s way after a replay.

One remaining legacy from that contest was dealt with in a committee room in Manchester given that Carlisle’s Joe Laidlaw had agreed to give evidence in support of Reds hard man Tommy Smith’s appeal against two bookings.

On their own disciplinary front, United had to plan for a trip to Bolton Wanderers without Les O’Neill, who was about to serve a belated suspension of his own. Better news saw the return of Frank Clarke, who had been back to former club Ipswich Town amid an ongoing dispute with the Blues over his accommodation.

News and Star: Bolton's west Cumbrian Peter Nicholson faced Carlisle in February 1974Bolton's west Cumbrian Peter Nicholson faced Carlisle in February 1974 (Image: PA)

The unsettled centre-forward returned to Carlisle training and, given it was getting on for three weeks since their last Second Division game, Ashman was not leaving things to chance. A double session of training was called, in the hope it would reignite a side that had performed rather underwhelmingly in a mid-season friendly defeat at third-tier York City the previous weekend.

Plans for Bolton were formed with due respect to a home side who had shown markedly improved form recently under the great Jimmy Armfield. The Trotters had gone seven games without defeat and also benefited from the efforts of two notable Cumbrians.

One was Peter Thompson, the great Carlisle-born player who had recently joined Bolton from Liverpool. Another was wing-half Peter Nicholson from Cleator Moor, a former United apprentice.

A strong travelling army prepared for Burnden Park. “I think we can look forward to a good following – certainly in the region of 2,000-plus,” said Blues secretary David Dent, as United’s promotion prospects brought growing intrigue among the fanbase.

Before that, Ashman had to weigh up questions about the transfer deadline, which was three weeks away. The manager said there would be no panic moves, though the departure of players such as Kenny Wilson, along with the ongoing injury to Mike Barry, kept the prospect of business in mind.

“If we do make any move it will not be a snap decision,” said Ashman. “We will go for a player we have been watching throughout the season.”

That consideration was parked as United tried to get going again at Bolton. It proved, though, one of those days that fed the doubters rather than an afternoon to give those fantasies of top-flight football any further fuel.

News and Star: Promotion-chasing United came unstuck at Burnden ParkPromotion-chasing United came unstuck at Burnden Park (Image: News & Star)

Carlisle made some early adventures with Dennis Martin striking off target after Laidlaw had controlled a Peter Carr free-kick. Next, Clarke came close when latching onto a Balderstone pass only to roll the chance across goal and wide.

A lively opening continued with Allan Ross, in United’s goal, parrying well from Neil Whatmore, while Thompson’s skill was a reliable danger for the home side.

In Bolton’s goal, future Carlisle keeper Barry Siddall dealt with more half-chances and then, on 29 minutes, the home side struck. Carlisle struggled to clear their lines and eventually the ball was fed to John Byrom, and the Trotters’ leading scorer advanced towards Ross before slotting home.

Carlisle had to work to prevent the deficit growing before half-time, Ross saving from Gary Jones, but the task of growing back into the game after the break proved frustratingly beyond Ashman’s side.

It was mid-table Bolton who continued to give most of the 16,675 crowd encouragement. Nicholson laid on a superbly hard-working performance while fellow Cumbrian Thompson was always keen to offer inroads down the left.

For United, O’Neill’s replacement Stan Ternent was producing a typically combative performance but Carlisle’s busy search for chances produced little of real temptation.

Then their day took a controversial turn. In the 67th minute, Blues skipper Bill Green moved across to deal with Whatmore and his challenge, which felled the home dangerman, looked to have taken place outside the penalty area.

Referee John Yates, though, pointed to the penalty spot, yielding furious protests from the visiting players, a number of whom were shown the yellow card.

The official consulted his linesman before reaffirming his decision, and Jones’ penalty had just enough to beat Ross’ attempted save.

News and Star: Blues keeper Allan Ross tries in vain to save Gary Jones' Bolton penaltyBlues keeper Allan Ross tries in vain to save Gary Jones' Bolton penalty (Image: News & Star)

There was no way back, Ross preventing Bolton from further increasing their lead, and a 2-0 defeat had exposed a certain lack of imagination in United’s attacking play.

At least the chance to atone would come quickly, with a clash with West Bromwich Albion due two days later. The longer-term, meanwhile, came under consideration when it was confirmed that a pre-season tour of Zambia was now looking unlikely.

The cost to the Zambian authorities, as well as travel charges, meant the African idea went on the backburner. The focus, with increasing importance, remained on United’s domestic goals...