Carlisle United are on course for one of the gloomiest seasons in their history as they sit well adrift at the bottom of League One. But how does this one compare with previous campaigns to forget?

Fans will have their own ideas. To jog the mind - but certainly not to cheer anyone up - let’s delve into the annals of misery for a few of the other all-time lows…


Imagine the ignominy of being the worst team in the entire Football League and avoiding relegation only because of issues elsewhere?

United fans didn’t have to imagine that in 91/92. That was the reality at Brunton Park as Aidan McCaffery’s side finished at the foot of Division Four with a meagre total of 34 points from 42 game, spared non-league because of Maidstone’s demise and a reorganisation of the divisions ahead of the onset of the Premier League era.

News and Star: Action from Carlisle v Burnley in 1992 as the Blues finished bottom of the Football League but were spared relegationAction from Carlisle v Burnley in 1992 as the Blues finished bottom of the Football League but were spared relegation (Image: News & Star)

The slight irony in Carlisle’s misery is that some of the seeds of revival were sown in that barren soil, given that the team included the likes of Dean Walling, Darren Edmondson and Tony Gallimore, who would become icons of much better times during the better half of Michael Knighton's coming era.

But still – it was a desolate time, after previous desolate times, and in many ways still an all-time low.


As things stand, this remains the worst effort by a United side in the third tier, in the era of four divisions at least.

Carlisle had only come down from the Second Division in ’86, and made an impressively sterile job of going down another rung immediately.

News and Star: United's 1986/87 season broke the wrong records at Brunton ParkUnited's 1986/87 season broke the wrong records at Brunton Park (Image: News & Star)

Harry Gregg’s team broke a club record for the fewest goals in a season – just 39 from 46 games – as they went down in third bottom position.

Come the latter days of the campaign, all hope on the terraces had dissolved. The penultimate home game, against Chester, attracted just 1,287: Brunton Park’s lowest ever (non-Covid affected) league crowd. Poor souls.


This one is so long ago that footage and even memories aren't readily available to recall just how bad United were. Thank goodness for that.

Carlisle had been a Football League club for just six years prior to the 34/35 campaign in Division Three North.

The Blues had performed creditably in some of those campaigns, struggled in others, but this one was the lowest point since United had stepped up from regional football.

They finished bottom of the table by a distance, mustering 23 points from 42 games (in the days of two points for a win). Having started the campaign under Bill Clarke, they ended it managed by player-boss Bob Kelly, who went on to become United’s oldest-ever goalscorer at 41 years and 169 days.

He led them to improvement the following campaign – yet Carlisle were particularly glad, in 1935, for the re-election system in the Football League at the time.


Carlisle’s first relegation in the Football League was all the more deflating given it came immediately after their first promotion (sound familiar?)

United had gone up from Fourth to Third Division in 1962 yet struggled throughout with life in the third tier.

A season which also brought the ignominy of an FA Cup defeat to non-league Gravesend & Northfleet left the Blues in the lower reaches throughout.

They did come up with 13 victories, but 24 defeats from 46 games meant their trajectory was sadly clear, and they went down in second-bottom place on 35 points.

It was, at least, the precursor to a major revival, given that the following two campaigns brought promotion as Alan Ashman took the reins from Ivor Powell.


After the highs of the mid-seventies, the immediate latter years proved anti-climactic for a club that had reached for the stars.

Following the 1974/75 First Division season, United landed with difficulty and struggled in the second tier the following term.

News and Star: Bob Moncur, left. replaced Dick Young, right, as manager during 1976/77 but United fell into the third tierBob Moncur, left. replaced Dick Young, right, as manager during 1976/77 but United fell into the third tier (Image: News & Star)

A year on, and they were adjusting to life back in the Third Division. The 76/77 season featured the extraordinary and iconic late hat-trick by Billy Rafferty against Cardiff City, but that was one of few thrills at Brunton Park.

The season began under the legendary trainer Dick Young before his reluctant managerial tenure gave way to Bobby Moncur’s arrival.

United went down in third-bottom place and, if the Blues have had more disastrous relegations, this one certainly brought some cold reality back in after the top-flight fantasies that had come so recently.


Speaking of decline, how about this one: two seasons after playing in the second tier, United were one position from propping up the entire League.

Thanks to crisis-engulfed Newport County, at least Carlisle were spared the ignominy of non-league relegation and a third straight drop.

Small mercies indeed. Otherwise, this was an era of utterly bereft struggle at Brunton Park, where United were back in the fourth tier for the first time since the 1960s.

News and Star: Action from Brunton Park in the autumn of 1987 with the Blues bleakly back at the basementAction from Brunton Park in the autumn of 1987 with the Blues bleakly back at the basement (Image: News & Star)

Their nosedive ensured a season of consistently small crowds, consistently around or below the 2,000 mark as the club slipped further into hardship.

The continued malaise cost Gregg his job and heralded Clive Middlemass’ arrival. This campaign saw the emergence of players such as Brent Hetherington and, later, Nigel Saddington, who would brighten hard times, while the veteran Malcolm Poskett helped keep them honest.

This was, though, not a vintage time to be a Blue. To say the least.


Remembered above all else for the miracle of Jimmy Glass, but this was also an appalling misadventure for 45 games and the majority of the 46th.

Carlisle could not have come closer to losing their Football League status, just a year after coming down from the third tier, and there would have been no great injustice had they sunk.

The Knighton era was firmly into its crisis period as the owner, flanked by the coaches John Halpin and David Wilkes, were in charge of a side that had lost most of its mid-90s stars.

News and Star: Carlisle celebrate a goal in 1998/99 - an all too infrequent sightCarlisle celebrate a goal in 1998/99 - an all too infrequent sight (Image: News & Star)

United were not without their good performers or emerging stars (Ian Stevens, Scott Dobie) but the campaign felt like a tailspin for too long, with sentiment turning against owner Knighton.

One win in 12, before the last game, looked to have sealed things, only for the bloke in the red jersey – sent forward by new boss Nigel Pearson, who was hired in December – to write himself into legend.

Had he not, the alternative reality doesn’t bear thinking about.


In many ways this was worse and more ignominious than the campaign salvaged by Glass. Carlisle showed they had learned nothing from the previous struggle and this time went just as close to demise.

Goal difference kept them up on the final day, United losing their last game at Brighton & Hove Albion and having to rely on Chester City also losing, which thankfully they did.

News and Star: The 1999/2000 was another grim season at Brunton ParkThe 1999/2000 was another grim season at Brunton Park (Image: News & Star)

Before that humiliating, almost apologetic finale, it had been one of the lowest-scoring, lowest-excitement seasons the Blues had known. They failed to find the net in 18 games, managed just 42 goals in total, and scored one in their last six.

For the well-remembered anomalies – Scott Dobie’s winner against Chester the most obvious – the general picture was dismal and, once again, was a hair’s breadth from being even worse, in an era when it felt like every season was a marginal stay of execution.


A season of two halves, with one historically bad outcome.

How can you fall out of the Football League for the first time in your history yet not feel completely desolate about it?

The answer was supplied by the turnaround in 2003/04, which began and continued with some of the worst form Carlisle have ever endured – yet finished at a gallop which would have lasting, positive ramifications.

Roddy Collins’ race was run by late-August, a bereft and broken team that was streaked with indiscipline having to be picked up by the veteran summer signing, a certain Paul Simpson.

News and Star: The squad that started a campaign which ended with relegation to the Conference. The bloke third from the right on the middle row then turned things dramatically aroundThe squad that started a campaign which ended with relegation to the Conference. The bloke third from the right on the middle row then turned things dramatically around (Image: News & Star)

Twelve consecutive defeats – still a club record, thankfully – made it a hollow autumn. Then Simmo started bringing in some hardened pros, flushed out some bad attitudes, and made the greatest escape feel possible.

It didn’t quite happen, and United’s relegation to the Conference on the penultimate day was certainly a significant low point in the club’s existence.

Yet the trajectory was still changed, and as a result Simpson led Carlisle straight back up, and then up again, meaning 2004’s drop did not define the era in the disastrous way it could have.


United’s most recent relegation was among their most chaotic, certainly in terms of player turnover, which reached record numbers as Graham Kavanagh failed to keep the Blues in League One.

The team went from struggling to middling to vertically hopeless and completely devoid of identity come the closing stages.

By this stage Carlisle’s latest third-tier story was on the wane, a couple of top-half finishes under Greg Abbott giving way to a sad struggle under his successor, Kavanagh.

News and Star: United in 2013/14 were an ever-worsening propositionUnited in 2013/14 were an ever-worsening proposition (Image: Barbara Abbott)

United were 14th by February but from there a loss of control over the team’s fortunes was everywhere.

We had, during the run-in (more a limp-in) the debacles of all those unready loan signings, the tragicomedy of Nacho Novo’s late-career Blues spell, Gary Madine returning on loan yet unable to play in certain games because of a curfew, a 6-1 annihilation at Preston and then the drop, to howls of dismay and the suspicion they wouldn't be back at that level for a while.

In goal, for the last League One rites, was a certain Jordan Pickford. Even he couldn’t prevent the decline.


From August to February, a club-imperilling struggle. From then on, an astonishing recovery.

The job required of Paul Simpson was considerable, because of how awful it had been until then.

The revival under the returning boss was for the ages, and made the table not look as bad as certain other dreadful campaigns.

News and Star: Harry McKirdy rubbed it in - before Carlisle came back from the brink in 2021/22Harry McKirdy rubbed it in - before Carlisle came back from the brink in 2021/22 (Image: Barbara Abbott)

But make no mistake: this was a season when United flirted seriously and longingly with a future in non-league. The nadir, a 3-0 home defeat to Swindon Town, left fans feeling as utterly miserable as they had for many a year.

Without the actions of that February, which resulted in Simpson returning in place of Keith Millen as well as the departure of director of football David Holdsworth, Carlisle would surely have gone down dreadfully, and who knows where they’d be floundering now?

In the event, Simmo saved them, and then took them up to League One, before the latest season of cold struggle unfolded in the third tier this time around.

The precipice they arrived at just over two years ago was, though, more troubling by some way. Thirty-nine goals in 46 games equalled the low mark of the 86/87 side: evidence enough of how bad things had got.