Part 31 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

The fear of Carlisle United blowing a good position at the business end of a season is ingrained in supporters, and those concerns were certainly alive when, for the first time since September 1973, the Blues suddenly put together back-to-back defeats in a key stage of their Division Two promotion push.

Alan Ashman’s side had come unstuck at Bolton Wanderers but had the chance to atone two days later.

The February visit of West Bromwich Albion represented an opportunity for the Blues to get back on the horse. Instead, they stumbled to the line again and another setback raised questions about their stamina to fulfil their big ambition.

Carlisle, back on home soil and watched by a 6,407 crowd, looked jaded in their work, having recently returned from an enforced three-week break. From the beginning they struggled to match Don Howe’s Baggies in terms of freshness and general invention.

Ashman’s former club were much the brighter team in the first half and, other than a rare break from Frank Clarke, did not see their goalkeeper, Peter Latchford, unduly tested before the break.

News and Star: West Brom stunned United at Brunton ParkWest Brom stunned United at Brunton Park (Image: PA)

United had to resort to too much sideways passing in order to build any sort of possession, and they did not have the wit to penetrate an organised visiting team. Asa Hartford and Len Cantello were supremely effective in the visiting midfield and they helped Howe’s side establish a position from which they could win the game.

The decisive moment came in the 35th minute, and from an unlikely source in terms of the United man whose error cost them. Slips from Chris Balderstone were not exactly plentiful yet on this occasion his mistake was seized upon by Hartford, and then driven past keeper Allan Ross by Willie Johnston on the break.

Carlisle, challenged to mount a comeback, then fell short. Clarke was the attacking kingpin but once he went off injured, United’s threat faded further.

The Blues did apply better pressure in a more urgent second-half spell, but speculative shots were the best they could muster. Disgruntled fans often targeted the hard-working Stan Ternent as an outlet for their frustration but United’s more creative figures were well below their best too.

News and Star: Evening News & Star headline after Carlisle's back to back defeatsEvening News & Star headline after Carlisle's back to back defeats (Image: News & Star)

A 1-0 defeat left manager Ashman seeking solutions in time to reignite what, until recently, had been a highly intrepid campaign.

“I still don’t blame our lay-off of three weeks without a league match,” he told the Evening News & Star. “I thought it might even have the effect of bringing the players back fresh, but in fact we have lost twice, failed to score on both occasions, and still more worrying failed to create chances.

“There will have to be a big improvement against Preston on Saturday.”

Ashman, meanwhile, came to the defence of Balderstone following West Brom’s killer goal. “It wasn’t really his fault that we lost,” said the manager, who instead felt Balderstone’s team-mates had not made good enough runs for the arch-creator to supply from the back.

Clarke, thankfully, was not carrying a serious knock, while the looming transfer deadline was not producing anything immediately likely. “We made a 500-mile trip [the other day] but at this moment I have no irons in the fire,” admitted Ashman of the Blues’ scouting efforts.

News and Star: Our report on Brian Tiler's transfer request in February 1974Our report on Brian Tiler's transfer request in February 1974 (Image: News & Star)

On, then, to Preston, amid midfielder Mike Barry’s ongoing fitness ordeal, an achilles tendon injury keeping him sidelined and a second opinion now being sought from a leading specialist in Wigan.

Another significant piece of squad news was a transfer request filed by defender Brian Tiler a week before the deadline. “The last give games I played in before I was injured, we didn’t concede a goal and I thought that I was playing reasonably well,” Tiler said.

The defender said he had not wanted to “rock the boat” but his frustration had finally led him to post his request to chairman George Sheffield.

Carlisle had taken a hit in terms of form but the promotion race remained tight – and at the mercy of any side who could put together a potent run of wins. That could still be United, Ashman insisted. “I can understand supporters criticising us, but I can still see there being a lot left for us in our remaining fixtures,” he said.

“I don’t write us off yet by any means.”

As Britain faced political change, with Labour’s Harold Wilson returning to office following the recent General Election, Carlisle looked for an uplift in the polls. Against Bobby Charlton’s Preston, they at least ended to mini-rot of defeats, but the winning habit still eluded them.

Ashman moved Balderstone from defence to midfield as Les O’Neill returned from suspension. Against a defensive visiting side, Carlisle went on the attack – but were hit twice by a counter-attacking North End.

News and Star: Bobby Owen's equaliser against PrestonBobby Owen's equaliser against Preston (Image: News & Star)

On 14 minutes, teenager Mike Elwiss poked home after a scramble, and later he swept another past Ross after a fine through-ball by England World Cup midfield hero Nobby Stiles.

Carlisle, at least, staged a strong response in the second half, with Ray Train tenacious in midfield and O’Neill going close from 30 yards. After Clarke’s header hit the crossbar, pressure finally told in the 62nd minute when O’Neill forced home a Bobby Owen pass.

Owen then brought the Blues level with a cool finish past keeper John Brown. It earned a 2-2 draw and a position of sixth which still offered possibilities for United – if only they could get back into the victory habit…