Part 33 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

Carlisle United spending their way to success has not often been a feature of the Blues’ history. So it was in the early spring of 1974 - even with the First Division in tantalising sight.

Despite a series of scouting missions, Alan Ashman ultimately declined to add to his squad before the March transfer deadline. Unlike some other clubs, United had only been scouring the market for bargains, to no avail.

“People probably think we should go out and spend £100,000 on a couple of new players to add the final push to our promotion campaign,” said the manager. “It would be nice to do that – but we just don’t have the money.

“Carlisle lose a small amount of money each week and when people start talking in terms of £40,000 and £50,000 for players, that’s when I have to lose interest.”

News and Star: Alan Ashman admitted defeat in United's pre-deadline transfer effortsAlan Ashman admitted defeat in United's pre-deadline transfer efforts (Image: News & Star)

United limited spending power was also a consequence of failing to move on certain players on their transfer list. The experienced pair of Brian Tiler and Stan Ternent did not attract offers before the deadline, and so the final phase of the Blues’ attempt to make history would continue without any last-ditch changes.

Next up for Ashman’s side was a trip to Villa Park. Aston Villa were not flying as highly as their reputation might have implied, but there was a clear and present threat in their ranks all the same.

One danger man, highlighted by ex-Villa man Tiler, was the creative Chico Hamilton. “He’s a similar sort of player to Stan Bowles in that he can beat players on a sixpence,” said the Carlisle defender.

News and Star: Chico Hamilton was a dangerous opponent when Carlisle took on Aston Villa in March 1974Chico Hamilton was a dangerous opponent when Carlisle took on Aston Villa in March 1974 (Image: PA)

United went into the game with the double boost of John Gorman and Chris Balderstone’s availability after stomach and toe problems respectively. The latter, who had missed the victory over Fulham, had to be content with a place on the bench at Villa.

His case for a recall was made by a Carlisle performance which did not, for all their efforts, quite come up to scratch. It was not a particularly enterprising contest with neither side offering much in the way of early attacking danger.

Yet Villa made their sparing chances count. Moments after Allan Ross, the Carlisle keeper, had saved superbly from Alun Evans, the Villa man was supplied again and this time gave Ross no chance with a fine 25-yard shot.

News and Star: Ray Train takes on an Aston Villa opponent in United's 2-1 defeatRay Train takes on an Aston Villa opponent in United's 2-1 defeat (Image: News & Star)

In response, United struggled for rhythm in spite of the industry of such as Gorman and Ray Train. And things got even more difficult when, early in the second half, Tiler tripped Brian Little, and Hamilton’s penalty, rifled down the middle, beat the diving Ross.

Carlisle finally applied some better pressure once two behind, but could not produce enough to get fully back into things. They did pull one back in the 75th minute when Frank Clarke pounced on a Fred Turnbull slip, and went after Villa in the closing stages, but to no avail.

A 2-1 defeat was certainly not part of the plan for a side trying to revive themselves as leading promotion contenders. Ashman conceded: “We can’t afford to drop many points now if we are to stay in the hunt.”

His warning was heeded in the next game, against Malcolm Allison’s Crystal Palace. It was one of those occasions where result had to trump anything else, and United got there despite their best efforts to make life difficult for themselves again.

News and Star: Frank Clarke was the goal hero against PalaceFrank Clarke was the goal hero against Palace (Image: News & Star)

With Balderstone swiftly recalled, Carlisle were the dominant side and more enterprising in their play, and Palace keeper Paul Hammond made some strong saves from Train and Les O’Neill. The midfield duo were terrier-like in retaining Carlisle’s superiority, and it told in the 26th minute.

The Brunton Park crowd of 6,964 roared their relief when Bobby Owen’s cross was collected by Joe Laidlaw, who swiftly found frontman Clarke in space for a straightforward finish.

It did not prove a cue for Carlisle to cut loose, since their further attacking efforts were dashed. Palace, in response, were reasonably inventive in midfield and in the second half both Don Rogers and Tony Taylor missed good chances, but United, as things went on, were the bigger culprits in front of goal.

Laidlaw and Clarke, mainly, were guilty of squandering opportunities but in the event it did not cost Carlisle, who were able to take a 1-0 win to the bank – and then learned that several of their rivals in the upper reaches of Division Two had lost.

Things, then, were bunching up in the race for the third promotion place, given that Middlesbrough looked over the horizon in first place and Luton Town looking increasingly secure in second.

A trip to Hull City would be the next test of the Cumbrians' mettle. Off the field, meanwhile, United’s early ventures into the commercial world led to talks with a travelling circus troupe who wanted to perform in the Brunton Park car park in the close season. United’s first sponsored game, against Sunderland, was also looming over Easter.

The real riches of promotion, though, remained foremost in the Cumbrians’ sights…