THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Won their first three games in 1974-75

icon striker14 August ~ Newly promoted teams often do well in the first weeks of the season, occasionally leading the table in the first few games. One such occasion happened on August 24, 1974, to Carlisle United. For the club to even get to the top division at all was described by Bill Shankly as "the greatest feat in the history of the game" when interviewed ahead of the FA Cup final between Liverpool and Newcastle, which was played a day after Carlisle had clinched promotion. He would know, having started his managerial career at the club in 1949 and struggled with limited resources and its remote location.

Carlisle had become a fixture in the second tier. Earlier in the 1973-74 season they had knocked holders Sunderland out of the FA Cup before taking Shankly's Liverpool to a replay. A late run of form took them into the top three for the first time on the last full day of the season. Orient, two points behind with a better goal average, still had a game to play but unexpectedly drew at 1-1 home to Aston Villa to leave a surprised Carlisle celebrating promotion.

Presumably Shankly ran out of hyperbole as his reaction to what happened next is not as well documented. Following an opening day win at Stamford Bridge and a midweek home win against Middlesbrough, Carlisle returned to the capital where a Chris Balderstone penalty at Tottenham placed the Cumbrians top of the first official league table of the season.

From this unlikely peak Carlisle quickly slid down the division, relegation became inevitable and the club finished bottom. It remains the club's only season in the top flight, although a return seemed possible in 1983-84 as a top-three place was reached in the spring, before a late slump left local cynics questioning whether the board really wanted Division One football again. Three years later this became a moot point as Carlisle were in the fourth tier struggling to attract crowds above 2,000.  They have yet to return even to the second level, with a late implosion in 2008 convincing a new generation of cynics that the club wasn't ready to step up.

The 40th anniversary of the Division One season has been marked quietly but proudly.  A dinner was held honouring the surviving players, with BBC Cumbria providing a compilation of all of the known footage from the season, and T-shirts have been printed bearing the Shankly quote. Most visibly, the current team will wear modernised versions of the 1974-75 strips, the "toothpaste" home and yellow away, with the Virgin Trains sponsors' logo being one sign of how the times have changed in what remains an important railway city.

Shankly's pride in his former employers may have encouraged some exaggeration on his part, but Carlisle remains one of the smallest English towns or cities to host top-flight football, let alone enjoy a brief moment at its very pinnacle. Paul Todd

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