Part 37 of our weekly series charting Carlisle United's historic 1973/74 season...

Carlisle United’s prospects of an historic first ever promotion to the top flight appeared to hinge on a pivotal Easter period. The Blues faced two games in successive days, then another three days later, by which point the Division Two race would be much clearer…wouldn’t it?

It remained a battle that was hard to predict all the way towards the closing stages. Carlisle had lost to Bristol City in their previous outing but rivals had not taken particular advantage.

It meant that a trip to Sunderland followed by a home clash with Nottingham Forest offered a brace of opportunities to put down some serious intentions in spite of some variable from.

A prospect to tantalise as many fans as possible in Carlisle? Yes...and no. Interest was certainly growing in United’s crescendo but the club’s finances still highlighted the need for the turnstiles to spin more.

The club announced they were losing up to £500 a week. This was not a perilous situation, stressed secretary David Dent, given United’s historic success in player trading to balance the books - something that would remain their policy.

News and Star: Les O'Neill gives John Gorman a piggy-back as United bid to gallop to the promotion line...Les O'Neill gives John Gorman a piggy-back as United bid to gallop to the promotion line... (Image: News & Star)

Yet gates around the 7,000 mark were not lifting the Blues above the breadline either. “We aren’t in dire straits, although it is hard to keep things going, and we would like more support through the turnstiles,” Dent said.

A sponsorship scheme for the forthcoming visit of Sunderland was one way United would try to lure more pounds into the club. Before then – it was a mission to Roker Park to take on the same opponents.

Manager Alan Ashman was boosted by the return from injury of midfield dynamo Les O’Neill, who was aiming for success on two fronts. As well as driving Carlisle to their glittering target, O’Neill was also coaching the Harraby team which had just won the Second Division title in the Border City League.

“There are three or four really promising young footballers in the side who could go on to make the grade,” said O’Neill of his coaching sideline.

As United ventured to Wearside, Ashman expressed his hope that Carlisle could seize the moment. “A lot could happen in the few days over the Easter period,” he said. “At present it’s wide open, but a pattern could finally emerge.”

The approaching period was also a crucial one for Bill Green and Ray Train to avoid a booking that could trigger a suspension, while John Gorman’s fitness after an abdominal strain was not far enough advanced to return him to the side.

In the event Carlisle came up short in front of a bumper 34,179 crowd. Bob Stokoe’s side, whose defence of the FA Cup had been ended by the Blues in January, were not particularly enterprising themselves but a defining period after the break changed the game.

News and Star: United had dethroned the cup holders earlier in the campaign...but Sunderland then got their own back in the leagueUnited had dethroned the cup holders earlier in the campaign...but Sunderland then got their own back in the league (Image: PA)

Frustratingly it came after United had taken the lead, Dave Watson’s attempt to bring the ball out of the home box costing Sunderland as his pass was intercepted and Joe Laidlaw firing into the net for the Blues.

It appeared to have capped a bright spell where Carlisle’s superiority was emerging. Yet that position was toppled almost immediately as Vic Halom equalised with an impressive shot for Sunderland from the edge of the area.

Then, in a flash, it was 2-1: Billy Hughes running onto Tony Towers’ chip and pipping United keeper Allan Ross to score. United could not find any more inspiration and left Roker Park beaten, and in urgent need of a response the following day.

Happily, they supplied one. It was not a straightforward matter by any means against a visiting Nottingham Forest side for whom Duncan MacKenzie, as he had been in their previous meeting, was a clear and obvious threat - while the game also unfolded after some trouble outside the ground, where roof tiles were reportedly thrown by some warring fans and arrests were made.

News and Star: United kept the promotion flame alive in their second Easter gameUnited kept the promotion flame alive in their second Easter game (Image: News & Star)

Inside Brunton Park, even as United began brightly they found themselves adrift by the break. MacKenzie was the scorer for the visitors, bursting through on the break to round Ross and find the net.

It took Ashman’s side time to summon their response and they had to delve deeply into their reserves to haul themselves back into the game. But eventually, after Bobby Owen had missed a great chance, they did.

Some 20 minutes from time, Owen was on the spot to head a Peter Carr cross powerfully into the Forest net to equalise.

And five minutes later, Laidlaw raised the roof with a terrific solo goal, as he cut past two Forest men then turned in to fire unstoppably past keeper Dennis Peacock.

News and Star: Joe Laidlaw hit a superb winner against ForestJoe Laidlaw hit a superb winner against Forest (Image: PA)

The two-goal burst appeared to drain hope from Forest and if anything, United might have increased their margin. Owen broke away from the visiting defence only for the referee to frustrate United by calling play back for a free-kick, and then Train and Chris Balderstone tested Peacock late on.

It finished 2-1 to the Cumbrians – enough for them to stay on the close fringes of those automatic promotion places. The bid for glory, then, was very much on…and next, a huge night was in store against Sunderland at Brunton Park.

“It could be a stand sell-out,” Dent advised fans days before the game. Destiny was tapping ever louder on Carlisle’s door, and the city was at last waking up to the possibilities…