THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Carlisle United have spent two decades at either end of the table. Plenty of excitement but Roger Lytollis just longs for a little calm

Carlisle 1, Huddersfield 2. Disappointing, although no disgrace to be beaten by one of League One’s better teams. Back home I checked the league table. Carlisle had dropped one place to 12th. That may not seem unusual to most people, but to me it was remarkable. It’s been a while since my team floated in the calm waters of mid-table. Twenty-one years, to be precise.

Every fan likes to think their club is special. Carlisle supporters have traditionally had to content themselves with such morsels as having the League’s youngest-ever player-manager (Ivor Broadis, aged 23 in 1946) and taking part in the first floodlit FA Cup tie between League clubs (against Darlington, November 1955). Now we have a claim which is much more difficult to quantify but well worth making the effort for – Carlisle United as the most exciting club in English football.

Carlisle ended 1988-89 in 12th place in Division Four. This was an aberration for which we have strived to make amends ever since. The next 20 seasons saw the Cumbrians blow raspberries in the face of mediocrity. We’ve been good and we’ve been appalling, mainly the latter. But we’ve never been predictable. Pointing out that none of those 20 campaigns saw Carlisle finish in the middle third of the table only hints at the drama.

The 20 seasons have seen: four promotions; three relegations; three last-day survivals (two of them to stay in the Football League, one of them Jimmy Glass’s last-minute miracle); twice staying in the League with one game to spare; once finishing bottom of the League but being saved by Aldershot’s demise; two play-off defeats; once dropping out of the play-off zone on the final day after being top for much of the season; once missing out on the play-offs with one game to spare; twice finishing fifth-bottom of the League after struggling all season. The nearest we came to mid-table was 2001-02 when we were 17th in the fourth tier. But even this followed a terrible start which saw us bottom after 20 matches.

So I wonder – has any other club ever had such a lengthy period of drama? I am admittedly loading the dice in Carlisle’s favour when I suggest that sustained success should not really count here. There have been some undeniably impressive examples of excellence. In 19 seasons from 1973-91, Liverpool won 11 League titles and were runners-up seven times. Manchester United are about to finish in the top three for the 19th consecutive season, having already secured 11 titles and four runners-up slots. But “big club wins lots of matches” does not stir the soul like Carlisle’s rollercoaster.

A major factor behind the club’s unpredictability requires little elaboration: for ten years we were owned by Michael Knighton. An erratic existence on the pitch mirrored events in the boardroom. The survival scraps came during years of mismanagement. The promotion pushes were sparked by just a little stability making us too strong for the fourth tier or, in 2004-05, the Conference. And let’s hear it for the Football League, whose introduction of the play-offs and relegation to the Conference made several of these seasons more meaningful than they would previously have been.

The 2009-10 season looks like being Carlisle’s first straightforward season since 1989. For years I’ve prayed for a campaign like this. I imagined sitting on the Paddock in a deckchair, sipping my tea through a straw while shrugging off a home defeat as an annoyance rather than a knife in our promotion hopes or a shove towards relegation.

The reality is different. Mid-table doesn’t generate the stress felt at either end of a division but it’s no breeze. Although we’re not teetering on a trapdoor or peering up at an escape ladder, both those places feel closer than they are. The past two decades are doubtless contributing to my struggle to relax, although I suspect that fans are hard-wired to live in fear. Whether we like it this way is another matter.

Looking for drama which isn’t really there may be a sign that I’m missing the real thing, but I honestly believe it would be nice to have just one season where I can switch off. Unfortunately, this is probably it. At the time of writing, Carlisle are eight points above the relegation zone. We should be OK. Almost certainly safe. And I’m convinced that we won’t get another point and will again go into May with everything to play for. Would I have it any other way? Yes – please.

From WSC 278 April 2010

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