The great escape artists of English football, Carlisle United, finally surrendered their league status this month. Roger Lytollis reports on their relegation to the Conference

On December 20 last year Carlisle kicked off their home game against Torquay 16 points adrift of Third Division safety. Their first 21 matches had yielded a grand total of five points: one win, two draws, 18 defeats. The next 23 games produced 39 points. A team which had just set a club record of 12 consecutive League losses embarked on half a season of promotion form. And now it all counts for nothing. Carlisle United, football’s great escape artists, have finally been snagged on the barbed wire. 

Many outside Cumbria will say we’ve had it coming. The previous five seasons have seen two final-day escapes and two more secured with one game to spare. Any club which owes its League status to a last-second goal by an on-loan goalkeeper can hardly claim to be unlucky. But the luck we have enjoyed is far outweighed by the damage which former chairman Michael Knighton inflicted. It’s a miracle of Jimmy Glass proportions that Carlisle United still exist after years of Knighton’s asset-stripping and his threats to close the club down.

Knighton sold out in 2002 to Irish businessman John Courtenay, who inherited a club crippled by debts and strait-jacketed by administration. The administrator, appointed by Knighton, arranged 100 per cent pay back to creditors whereas most clubs don’t achieve more than 50 per cent. Paying back around £3 million tied John Courtenay’s hands until last November. Player/manager Paul Simpson then transformed his team by bringing in experienced players such as Andy Preece and Kevin Gray, but the damage had been done.

Simpson’s predecessor Roddy Collins, who was sacked four games into the season, must share the blame with Knighton for Carlisle’s demise. Collins squandered money on substandard players and bullied his squad into paralysis. Ironically, after all those lucky escapes Carlisle have dropped into the Con­ference with their strongest team for nearly a decade.

There’s more. This is Carlisle’s centenary year and relegation came 30 years almost to the day since the club were promoted to the old First Division. Our occasionally glorious past gives us a claim to fame we really didn’t want: only club with top-flight experience to have gone down to the Conference. No other team has fallen out of the League with average home gates of 6,000. As recently as the 1980s we were beating Chelsea, Newcastle and Leeds in the old Second Division. Now it’s Tamworth and Forest Green Rovers. It’s less than 30 years since we reached an FA Cup quarter-final. Next season we’ll have to enter at the qualifying stage.

We disappear off the footballing map after 76 years, leaving a big gap north of Preston and England’s second-largest county without a League club. The fans hope it will be a one-season blip, but we can’t help wondering if we’ll follow our neighbours Workington and Barrow into permanent obscurity.

Until recently Carlisle fans believed we were destined to get over the barbed wire again. At Mansfield a few weeks ago we needed a win to stay up. We were leading 3-2 when the Stags were awarded a last-minute penalty. Our goalkeeper, Matty Glennon, saved it.

The following Saturday Cheltenham came to Brunton Park and scored the late equaliser which sent us into the Conference. Another goalkeeper, Jimmy Glass, sat on the steps of the Paddock with his head in his hands. We’d finally run out of miracles.

From WSC 208 June 2004. What was happening this month

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