Part 35 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

With Carlisle United a point outside the promotion places heading towards the business end of the 1973/74 season, Alan Ashman tried to ease the weight of the situation.

“I don’t believe there is anything to be gained from hammering away at great pressures during the week,” said the manager. “I feel it is important that our attitude should be as relaxed as possible.

“The psychological build-up can be a vital factor.”

That was all very well, but if United wanted to play down the idea of reaching the First Division for the first time in their history, then events on the pitch were about to make a noise too loud to ignore.

News and Star: United's manager was trying to keep the pressure off his players...United's manager was trying to keep the pressure off his players... (Image: News & Star)

Having drawn at Hull City, next for the Blues was a home clash with a Swindon Town side already consigned to relegation. Division Two’s bottom team had recently appointed a new manager in Danny Williams, who had returned for a second spell, and were eager for any improvement before beginning life in the third tier.

As for Carlisle – it was full steam ahead towards their promotion goal. With eight games to play, secretary David Dent made a public appeal for as much support as possible, stressing the importance of their four home fixtures to come. For the Swindon game, United were optimistic of a good crowd in spite of the Grand National drawing attention on the same day.

“The situation is extremely interesting with us just one point out of a promotion place,” Dent said. “If this is not sufficient to interest people, then it’s doubtful whether a change of kick-off time would have helped the gate.”

As United looked to make their entrance into the late-season promotion picture, a new arrival had already come along for one member of the squad. Midfielder Les O’Neill’s wife Anne gave birth to a daughter, Lisa, in the city’s maternity hospital, weighing in at just over 7lb.

News and Star: United midfielder Les O'Neill, wife Anne and new born daughter LisaUnited midfielder Les O'Neill, wife Anne and new born daughter Lisa (Image: News & Star)

The proud parents posed for photos for the Evening News & Star before attention turned to O’Neill’s day job. Carlisle’s line against Swindon was led, as ever, by Frank Clarke, who was a more settled figure now after resolving some accommodation difficulties, while the frontman had opted for a new, clean-shaven look, after removing his trademark moustache.

His goalscoring powers had clearly not gone with the whiskers – for Clarke was sensational against the Wiltshire side. It proved one of the most clinical afternoons of finishing Brunton Park had seen for some time, and primed Carlisle for a serious tilt at making history.  

Just two minutes had gone when Clarke started his spree. Bobby Owen’s corner was glanced on by Bill Green, and Clarke controlled the ball before sending a half-volley beyond keeper Jimmy Allan and in off post and bar.

News and Star: Frank Clarke scores the first of his four goals against SwindonFrank Clarke scores the first of his four goals against Swindon (Image: News & Star)

It set the stage for one of those days where pretty much everything in front of goal would go right for player and team. Swindon were still without an away win all season and, after Peter Eastoe had given Allan Ross a brief scare at the United end, Ashman’s side continued to make merry.

In the 11th minute, it was 2-0, John Gorman and Dennis Martin combining smoothly before Clarke collected a cross and whipped it home.

United were in command even as Swindon played some creditable football in response. The Robins were without any real penetration and Carlisle almost got a third when Peter Carr’s cross came back off the crossbar. John Trollope’s interception denied Owen before the break and Allan thwarted Clarke, but in the second half the Blues’ raids continued.

Clarke remained the kingpin, linking attacks and directing United’s play. A third goal came when Joe Laidlaw headed home a rebound after Allan had parried a Martin shot.

From there, it was convincingly the Clarke show. In the 69th minute, Eastoe inexplicably handled a Laidlaw corner and Clarke converted the penalty for his hat-trick.

Seven minutes later, the ravenous frontman made it five for the Blues, pouncing to convert from close range after Allan had saved a Laidlaw header.

It had turned out to be Carlisle’s deadliest afternoon of the campaign. Although Swindon got one back late on through Dave Syrett, there was no denying United’s superiority and their rampant 5-1 victory, watched by 6,544, put the rest of the division’s contenders on notice.

News and Star: Frank Clarke brings up his hat-trick from the spotFrank Clarke brings up his hat-trick from the spot (Image: News & Star)

It also galvanised belief in the Blues ranks. Clarke began to talk openly about the idea of pulling off promotion. “Provided we can steer clear of injuries, particularly over the busy Easter programme, I think we can make it,” declared the four-goal striker.

“People still don’t seem to rate us as favourites to join Middlesbrough. Yet I’m confident we have a great chance.”

Clarke went on to pay tribute to his team-mates for supplying him with so many chances against Swindon, and United moved on to begin preparations for their next engagement: a trip to Bristol City.

As they did that, there was a bulletin about one of their former stars. Sir Alf Ramsey, the England manager, had named his squad for an international against Portugal the following month, and among the new players selected was a certain Stan Bowles, who had lit up Brunton Park from 1971-72 and was now shining for QPR.

His rise, and that of his old club, appeared to be occurring in tandem.