In his programme notes last weekend, Andrew Jenkins issued an appeal for ideas. Carlisle United, chairman Jenkins noted, were losing “about 1,000 people” from their normal Saturday attendances when they played on Tuesday nights.

“I am unsure what can be done about it and we would welcome suggestions as to how we can change this trend,” he wrote.

When I quoted Jenkins’ column on Twitter before last Saturday’s game, opinions varied. Some said the present owners selling the club was the only way to achieve an increase. Others lamented the effect of televised Champions League games, for instance.

No doubt United will consider some views more than others. One wonders, though, if Jenkins ought to be asking a related but different question.

Yes, Carlisle lose 1,000 fans, but not just from Saturday to Tuesday. They have shed nearly that many from their core support on weekends alone this season.

Against Crawley on the opening day, subtract the travelling fans from the overall turnout and you are left with 4,752 United supporters. Against Oldham last weekend, that number fell to 3,805.

The 1-0 win against Dino Maamria’s men saw the fewest number of people calling themselves Carlisle supporters at a home Saturday league game in 2019 so far. The previous lowest, 3,433, came for Colchester’s visit last December, one of those pre-Christmas weekends which often see a dip.

It is true that clubs do not always hold on to opening-day numbers. Yet this season the drop has been steeper, bearing in mind 2018/19’s first Saturday at Brunton Park and the last weekend home game in September saw a decline of 31 in less than two months, compared with 947.

Admittedly, this season’s numbers came down from a higher starting point. The pattern, though, is still unhealthy and is surely where questions in the boardroom must land, rather simply than on midweek occasions when the weather might be foul, some cannot make it from work in time and Manchester City are playing Shakhtar Donetsk for the 17th time on television.

United’s current average home crowd is 4,320: very early to be drawing long comparisons, but considering the lowest average of the post-Knighton seasons (since 2002) is 4,243 in 2013/14, these are plainly not abundant times.

Carlisle do good work with young supporters; their community ticket scheme has long been admirable. Season-ticket numbers also held up during the summer.

Beyond that, though, those who have slipped away from Brunton Park do not appear to be coming back as the Blues negotiate their sixth season in the fourth tier, at present trying to work their way up its middle section after a first home win in six.

Study Carlisle’s crowds over recent decades and a good word to measure what you see, in dramatically different amounts, is “hope”. The late 1980s, their worst time, were not a period of bulging grounds generally, but when you suffer straight relegations from Second Division to Fourth and then struggle some more, try convincing people that all hope has not completely left town.

United crept back towards 3,000 and 4,000 with improvement from there, but by 1992 – another year of emptiness on and off the pitch – figures had declined again.

Then came the surge of the early Knighton years, when hope was not just restored but seemed boundless. Then a levelling off when the future was revealed not to be so glittering, followed by another decline when the dream soured. John Courtenay’s arrival brought great relief off the pitch but was not accompanied by lasting hope on it. Under Fred Story, the two sides of the club looked properly driven again and public optimism was reflected in an average of 7,907 in 2006/7, a level that feels distant right now.

History will judge some of United’s League One years under these owners more kindly than some will accept. Yet regenerating hope since 2014’s relegation has been a flawed and sometimes tired struggle.

Even when Keith Curle’s better-funded side found some in 2016/17, crowds only crept up. It was as though people, even then, were sceptical of the foundations, whether about the team or what the longer innings upstairs told them about their club.

The new path, on tighter budgets, has long been flagged by directors. Fans’ trust CUOSC said a period of “short-term pain” was likely before United became financially balanced and more attractive to investment.

Carlisle have walked deliberately down this road rather than fallen into it. Nobody can say they were not warned.

Without a public steer on the longer term from backers Edinburgh Woollen Mill or other key parties, there can be no expectation of a jump in those numbers, particularly while their new team is searching for consistency in performances and results.

It is still a concern, though, when problems that are not down to investment or public message are felt by those still showing loyalty. There were complaints about the quality of ale last weekend as well as the positioning of sponsorship artwork which blocked the view to the pitch, during the warm-ups, from the Sporting Inn.

Small beer, some might argue, but anything that dents a fan’s day even slightly in this current holding pattern must be challenged and overturned.

It may be obvious to many why the turnstiles aren’t spinning right now. But any time the trend is negative it is still on everyone, from Jenkins down, to give us more reasons why life with the Blues can be about hoping, as well as coping.


After that poignant charity match at Brunton Park in May 2017, which had brought an afternoon of beautiful lightness to Tony Hopper’s courageous battle with motor neurone disease, I interviewed Dave Hewson by the dugouts.

Like many in Carlisle’s ground that day, it had been an emotional day for Hewson. A close friend and former team-mate, it was not as easy as normal for the then Workington Reds manager to talk.

But talk he did, as openly as he could, and one thing he said resonated more than the rest.

“He’ll have a legacy, as far as I’m concerned.”

At a time when Tony was still well enough to trot onto the pitch and slot home a goal, it felt surreal to be talking about the time when we would be reflecting on his life.

That time, though, came 17 months later and as the first anniversary of Tony’s passing approaches, Hewson’s prediction looks the safest of all bets.

Tony’s legacy was being built and established from the moment he went public with his cruel condition. The many thousands of pounds raised for the Motor Neurone Disease Association were testament to that.

Since then, those who knew and loved him have rallied around his name again to help the wonderful Eden Valley Hospice.

Awareness of both causes, and of a disease which needs all the opponents it can get, has also come in spades. Knowing this has only enhanced the legacy of a decent and popular footballer and man.

The anniversary of a loss is always a strange moment in time; the past 12 months must have raced by in one sense, crawled past in another.

When next Wednesday comes, and Tony’s loved ones reflect, I hope they know how the rest of us will think: of someone who is still greatly admired, and who left so much good behind.