A new-year wobble? Results tailing off? Criticism of the manager? Latest performance termed a “disgrace”?

Welcome to March 1982 – the month of Carlisle United’s last home fixture against this weekend’s opponents Reading. Except, back then, the problems weren’t happening at the bottom of the third tier, as they are now.

Some 42 years ago they were furrowing Cumbrian brows in a Division Three promotion race instead. United may have hit the skids early in 1982 but were still in a position where, could they defeat the Royals at Brunton Park, they could go top of the league.

Some crisis. Bob Stokoe’s team, who had build formidable form over the autumn and early winter, had admittedly lost some of their mojo through February and March. A seven-game winless run preceded Reading’s visit, with the most recent game – a 2-2 draw at home to struggling Newport County – bringing some angry letter-writers to their pens.

One, which made the back page of the Evening News & Star, was particularly scathing about Stokoe, questioning how on earth he could be positive about such a performance.

The more measured writing of Ivor Broadis also reflected on the exasperating nature of the high-flying Blues. “I can’t remember a United side with as great a capacity for lifting you and dropping you down in alternate matches,” he said.

News and Star: Pop Robson, right, scores against ReadingPop Robson, right, scores against Reading (Image: News & Star)

Losing a two-goal lead to Newport was, Broadis ventured, “a reflection on their professional approach”, though the situation was clearly something still in United’s grasp, should they demonstrate sufficient “urgency and enthusiasm.”

The March 23 visit of Reading, who were also in the promotion shake-up, promised a firm test of Carlisle’s resolve. This was not an era of bumper crowds despite United’s aspirations, and only 4,557 turned up for the midweek contest against Maurice Evans’ Royals.

Reading’s squad included some future stars, such as the highly promising midfielder Neil Webb, eventually of Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and England. Future Wimbledon FA Cup hero Lawrie Sanchez was also a rising name, while Kerry Dixon was a young striker with a fine goalscoring career ahead of him.

As for Carlisle, they had two new faces in their high-flying ranks. After bringing in the wily Tommy Craig from Swansea City, United also moved ahead of the transfer deadline to sign Sunderland striker Tom Ritchie on loan.

News and Star: Tom Ritchie signs for Carlisle - watched by singer Frankie Vaughan, leftTom Ritchie signs for Carlisle - watched by singer Frankie Vaughan, left (Image: News & Star)

He had been presented to the crowd at half-time in the Newport game – flanked, bizarrely, by the singer Frankie Vaughan on the Brunton Park pitch – and against Reading went straight into Stokoe’s side for his debut, Paul Bannon dropping to the bench.

“I’m hoping he [Ritchie] is able to hold the ball up long enough for players to get into attacking positions when he’s in tight situations,” said the United manager. “It’s something we’ve worked on all season without a great deal of success.”

Stokoe, heading into the game, accepted that fans had been “justified in giving the players stick” yet, after a long inquest following the Newport game, the focus was firmly on ending the winless run on Tuesday night.

This time fortune, as well as form, was with United. Only three minutes had passed when Reading keeper Ron Fearon came out to clear a cross, yet it fell to Blues midfielder Russell Coughlin, who tried his luck from 25 yards.

The shot, not Coughlin’s most powerful, went past Fearon’s dive, hit the post, rebounded against the keeper’s shoulder and nestled in the net.

By the 20-minute mark, United had increased their lead through the most experienced goalscoring head on the pitch. Bob Lee headed on an inswinging Craig corner and there was Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson to snaffle the chance from close range.

News and Star: Pop Robson, left, and Russ Coughlin, right, were United's goal heroes when they last hosted ReadingPop Robson, left, and Russ Coughlin, right, were United's goal heroes when they last hosted Reading (Image: News & Star)

It was the 247th goal of an illustrious career and gave United a crucial cushion. They reached half-time with it intact, despite a few energetic breaks from Webb and a couple of saves from Trevor Swinburne.

But things grew more anxious early in the second half when Webb went down under Jack Ashurst’s challenge. The decision by referee David Richardson was debatable but Webb stepped up to blast in the penalty.

This was now the critical test for Carlisle, yet they passed it competently. Ashurst excelled at the back while Ritchie, at the other end, showed a good touch in the hold-up work Stokoe had been looking for.

United were themselves denied with a couple of penalty shouts, while Lee almost restored the two-goal lead with a shot that hit the underside of the bar. In the end the Cumbrians dealt with what they needed to and banked a 2-1 win that did not just restore some hope – it catapulted the Blues up the table.

It was a tight promotion race but the standings saw United top by a point above Chesterfield, with a game in hand. Just six points separated the top seven but Carlisle were again very temptingly placed with 13 games to go, Reading having been overtaken into third.

News and Star: The Division Three table after Carlisle's win over Reading in March 1982The Division Three table after Carlisle's win over Reading in March 1982 (Image: News & Star)

“It’s given us a lift, and the question now is whether can maintain it,” said Stokoe.

Carlisle, naturally, did not do things the easy way from there. A 4-1 thrashing at Fulham came next, but then an eight-game unbeaten run kept the Blues at the forefront – only for three defeats in four to leave promotion elusive until the last.

Finally, in a rearranged last-day trip to Chester, they got over the line, Robson hitting the only goal to take United up in second place: still their most recent promotion to England’s second tier.

It was not so bright for Reading, who fell away amid the congested battle for promotion and finished 12th. These decades later, the two sides are back in relatively close proximity in the table, but with very different aims in mind, as they finally do battle at Brunton Park again.


United: Swinburne, Parker, Ashurst, Houghton, Rushbury, Lee, Robson, Coughlin, Craig, Ritchie, Staniforth. Not used: Bannon.

Reading: Fearon, Cullen, Hicks, Wood, White (Donnellan), Webb, Sanchez, Beavon, Lewis, Kearney, Dixon.

Crowd: 4,557.