Can Carlisle United take inspiration from these great escapes?

·7-min read
A fan's banner at Carlisle United's game at Chester in April 2000. Can the Blues repeat the escape feat this time around?
A fan's banner at Carlisle United's game at Chester in April 2000. Can the Blues repeat the escape feat this time around?

We have been here before. Many, many times.

While many of Carlisle United’s players may be inexperienced, the same cannot be said for their supporters when it comes to relegation battles.

So here we are again, two points above the drop zone with 16 games to go, hoping against hope that things go the way of the successful fights of years past - and not the nine times in their history when the Blues have gone down a division.

In the hope that some inspiration can be found from past escapes, here is a look at some of the campaigns when, despite a gloomy outlook, the Cumbrians somehow clung on.

1998/99

Okay, let’s start with the most famous. Jimmy Glass’s goal against Plymouth is the best survival story not just in Carlisle’s history but arguably football’s.

News and Star: Jimmy Glass, right, prepares to score against Plymouth in 1999 (photo: Jonathan Becker)
News and Star: Jimmy Glass, right, prepares to score against Plymouth in 1999 (photo: Jonathan Becker)

Jimmy Glass, right, prepares to score against Plymouth in 1999 (photo: Jonathan Becker)

The unlikely magic of that moment, as time passes, does tend to take the attention away from how bad things truly were until that incredible point.

With 16 games to go, United were in a very perilous position indeed, with fans turning against owner Michael Knighton and Nigel Pearson having been installed as a rookie manager.

That run-in from mid-February brought just two wins, seven draws and seven defeats, requiring, on the last day…well, you know how it ended.

Let us pray things don’t get so precarious this time. Still, Mark Howard might want to consider a bit of finishing practice all the same.

2008/9

Glance at the squad that took United through much of the 2008/9 League One campaign and it is initially hard to fathom how things became so bad.

News and Star: Greg Abbott and Dennis Booth on the touchline in the decisive Millwall game (photo: Stuart Walker)
News and Star: Greg Abbott and Dennis Booth on the touchline in the decisive Millwall game (photo: Stuart Walker)

Greg Abbott and Dennis Booth on the touchline in the decisive Millwall game (photo: Stuart Walker)

Look closer, though, and one is reminded of John Ward’s alarming loss of control of the team’s fortunes, plus other damaging circumstances.

There were untimely injuries, a number of signings that didn’t work, ruinous inconsistency and a stressful run-in which, from the last 16 games, saw six defeats, eight draws and just the two wins.

Fortunately, one of the latter came at the very end, when Graham Kavanagh and Paul Thirlwell smashed the Blues to safety against Millwall: a timely show of quality after a huge build-up of tension.

1980/1

If only Carlisle United could rustle up a signing like Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson for the home straight this time.

News and Star: Bob Stokoe, second right, eventually kept United up in the 1980/1 season
News and Star: Bob Stokoe, second right, eventually kept United up in the 1980/1 season

Bob Stokoe, second right, eventually kept United up in the 1980/1 season

The early 1980s put the Blues at risk of a drop to the fourth tier for the first time since 1964.

A challenging campaign had unfolded under Martin Harvey, who lost his job after a bad start. Bob Stokoe returned for a second spell, charged with averting the nightmare of the drop.

It took a belated rally for United to pull clear. The classy veteran Robson scored six goals in eight games, and the Blues’ final 16 fixtures brought six wins, five draws and five defeats.

It was enough, late on, to leave the dead men of Division Three behind.

1987/88

Over the years there have been times when the Blues have survived almost in spite of themselves, or through the incompetence of others.

News and Star: United take on doomed Newport in the 1987/88 season
News and Star: United take on doomed Newport in the 1987/88 season

United take on doomed Newport in the 1987/88 season

There was 1991/2, for instance, when Carlisle finished bottom of the entire league but wider circumstances saved them.

The barren campaign of 1987/88 was another such struggle. It was United’s first back in the basement division after a 23-year absence and their nosedive into hardship continued.

Back-to-back relegations left United in a dismal state. League crowds were down to all-time lows and a new manager, Clive Middlemass, was hired to avert a further drop.

United, in the end, were grateful that Newport County were in much worse condition. When veteran Mally Poskett rifled home two goals for an April win in south Wales, it left Newport further adrift.

In the end Carlisle’s last 16 games saw four wins, two draws and ten defeats as they finished second bottom, 19 points above the doomed Exiles. Survival, then - but hardly one to be proud of.

1999/2000

Proving they had learned precisely nothing from the scrape Jimmy Glass got them out of, United were at it again the following season.

News and Star: United's 1999/2000 squad
News and Star: United's 1999/2000 squad

United's 1999/2000 squad

Knighton’s reign was heading into its true crisis period. The team was a shadow of that which had led the Blues on such a buccaneering ride in the mid-90s.

Carlisle were goal-shy all season and a long and traumatic struggle played out involving the Blues, Chester City and Shrewsbury Town.

Scott Dobie’s winner at Chester appeared a decisive blow, but United failed to score in five of their last six games as things once more went to the wire.

From their last 16, it was four wins, five draws and seven defeats, the last of which came on the final day at Brighton. Fortunately Chester also lost that afternoon, and went down to the Conference on goal difference.

2000/1

Another in the sequence of struggles, and by this stage supporters were beginning to wonder how on earth United kept managing to avoid the inevitable.

News and Star: United's Steve Soley is mobbed as the Blues stay up at Lincoln in 2001
News and Star: United's Steve Soley is mobbed as the Blues stay up at Lincoln in 2001

United's Steve Soley is mobbed as the Blues stay up at Lincoln in 2001

This one in particular saw the Blues very much up against it: increasingly dire off the field (it was the campaign of the Stephen Brown and Mamcarr takeover debacles) and, on it, the task of all tasks facing new manager Ian Atkins.

He had to build a team on the eve of the season and it took all his resolve and fighting appetite to keep its neck above water.

The turn of the year, though, saw occasions when Atkins got true character out of his makeshift line-up. They finished, from the last 16 games, with five wins, six draws and five defeats: enough to stay up in their penultimate game, when Carl Heggs volleyed them to a crucial point at Lincoln.

Given the state they were in, it remains among United's most unlikely survivals.

2014/15

With Keith Curle newly at the helm, United’s journey out of crisis was never going to be dull, and the 2014/15 campaign is remembered as much for unorthodox sayings and happenings as the poetic way it ended.

News and Star: Gary Dicker, right, with fellow scorer Billy Paynter in the Plymouth game (photo: Louise Porter)
News and Star: Gary Dicker, right, with fellow scorer Billy Paynter in the Plymouth game (photo: Louise Porter)

Gary Dicker, right, with fellow scorer Billy Paynter in the Plymouth game (photo: Louise Porter)

Curle, Graham Kavanagh’s replacement, arrived in Cumbria with novel ideas about new signings. He brought a lipstick, a brick and photos of the Lake District to press conferences to make various symbolic points.

He rounded up the players he wanted for the struggle and obliged others to carry out extra training in a scenario which saw those involved consult the Professional Footballers’ Association.

Then there was the “male genitalia” outburst after a wretched defeat at Accrington Stanley, which pushed them closer to back-to-back relegations.

By hook or by crook, though, Curle kept United up. Their last 16 fixtures yielded four wins, five draws and seven defeats, their side bolstered by Jason Kennedy and driven by Danny Grainger and Kyle Dempsey.

With two weeks remaining, two of the ostracised group, Gary Dicker and Billy Paynter, scored against Plymouth, and the nightmare of non-league was finally banished.

2002/3

Another season of late salvation which showed that, in that particular period, Carlisle pretty much wrote the book on clinging on by their fingernails.

News and Star: United's 2003 saviour Brian Wake (photo: Phil Rigby)
News and Star: United's 2003 saviour Brian Wake (photo: Phil Rigby)

United's 2003 saviour Brian Wake (photo: Phil Rigby)

It was also in keeping with United’s history of melodrama that they reached a cup final in the same campaign they almost lost their Football League status.

The character that fuelled a run to the LDV Vans Trophy was not, alas, enough to have Roddy Collins’ side sitting higher in Division Three. A basement battle unfolded and it took a few decisive wins late on to bring a chaotic campaign to a relieved conclusion.

From their last 16, United won five, drew five and lost six, staying up in their penultimate fixture thanks to a famous Brian Wake hat-trick against Shrewsbury.

After that game, there were the usual pledges that the Blues couldn’t let things get so close again. Well...

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