I’m not the first Scotsman to cross the border headed for Carlisle and prior to me two others arrived at the Cumbrian cathedral city with the intent to conquer. The first was William Wallace, who arrived with an army in the winter of 1297, determined to take hold of the North of England, buoyed by his recent victory at The Battle of Stirling Bridge. Of course he made an arse of it, failing to capture Carlisle Castle as well as the ones at Durham and Newcastle so was soon heading homewards ‘tae think again’. Unlike our second Scot who eventually came to rule over not England itself, but a massive part of her culture; English football. I am of course referring to Bill Shankly who was born of humble beginnings in Glenbuck, Ayrshire and went on to take Liverpool to the top of the game in Perfidious Albion with multiple league & FA Cup successes, even kick-starting the club’s charge across Europe. However if it was on Merseyside where he attained fame & glory then it was Carlisle where that journey began, at the very club I visited this weekend; Carlisle United.
Shankly started both his playing and managerial career at The Cumbrians, arriving the first time as a promising eighteen year old right-half from now long defunct SJFA outfit Cronberry Eglinton. He played one season at Brunton Park before leaving for Preston North End in 1933, the only other club he’d ever play for. In 1949 Shankly returned to Carlisle as gaffer as the side languished in the bottom half of the Third Division North and he set about a transformation using hard work and psychology. While William Wallace had the ‘scorched earth’ tactic available to him in the thirteenth century, Shankly preferred the burnt shirt approach and on arrival set fire to the club’s tatty auld kits before purchasing new ones on the way to a game at Lincoln City. He reasoned that if the players felt smarter they’d play that way too and little tricks like that saw United rise from 15th position at the end of the 1949 campaign to 9th a year later and 5th the year after that.
Alas Shankly’s time in Cumbria was not to have a fairytale ending. The board, not knowing a good thing when they saw it, backed out of promised win bonuses for players which pissed the boss off so much he was actually willing to move to Grimsby Town. For United the Shankly era was over and he became just one of the plethora of Scots on a list of former Carlisle men, a list including: Hughie McIlmoyle who went from Port Glasgow to become a Carlisle favourite, Celtic’s John ‘Dixie’ Deans, current Albion Rovers manager Kevin Harper, ex-FC Twente star Rob McKinnon and Scotland internationalist Lee Miller.
With the Scottish context out of the way let’s look at the history of Carlisle United in general. Formed on the 17th of May 1904 as a successor of Sheddongate United, they initially played in the Lancashire Combination and the North Eastern League before being appointed to the English Football League in 1928. Beginning in the Third Division North, The Cumbrians remained there until it merged with its southern equivalent in 1958 to become the Fourth Division. The Sixties and seventies were to be golden period for Carlisle as they solidified themselves as a Second Division club who played European football in 1972 before a single season of top tier action in 1974-75.
The European football came in the form of the Anglo-Italian Cup, where United went unbeaten and enjoyed a memorable night in the Eternal City of Rome. In June of ’72 The Blue & White Army invaded the Stadio Olympico and defeated the mighty AS Roma on their own patch by three goals to two. Then that solo First Division season saw Carlisle win their first three games to top they English football pyramid in what Shankly then called “The greatest feat in the history of the game”. They came back to Earth with a bump however, finishing second bottom and getting relegated (not before claiming scalps like Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur along the way).
It was largely downhill for The Cumbrians for the next few decades, with the early eighties to mid-noughties being a particularly lean time that culminated in relegation from the league itself into the Football Conference. Exiting the league was to be a single season blip however as they came straight back up to enjoy a mini-resurgence, reaching the League One play-off places in 2008. Since 2014 however, Carlisle United have been League Two basement boys who sit four spots and twelve points from the bottom of the EFL as I arrive in town.
Arrival in rainy Carlisle came on Friday afternoon where I headed along Botchergate to add yet another BrewDog bar to my collection; BrewDog Carlisle. Just over a year old, like Inverurie a misleadingly small frontage gives access to a carvernous place that is decorated in the typical abandoned industrial style, however it is much darker than the average ‘Dog meaning you’ve no idea if it’s midnight or midday. The bar is long with pizza ovens at one end emitting a pleasant smokey aroma, doubling up the effect of being in a cave.
Twenty nine beers to choose from and the highlight is one the bar staff made at the nearby Hawkshead Brewery. They call it ‘Costa del Solway’ and it’s tart & refreshing, eminently drinkable. As for those bar staff they are top notch too and they’ve received the memo; tattoos, plaid shirts and beards are all on display. I’ve talked before about BrewDog boozers fitting into two categories; friendly locals or big franchise places and I’m glad to say that the Cumbrian venue is very much the former. They have regulars in abundance and are committed to the commendable work of converting the Carlisle masses to craft beer.
Next up, in the older part of the town centre, is a very different but also excellent Thin White Duke, which is named after a David Bowie persona but has only subtle nods to him rather that being a fully themed place. From bare brick walls stuffed stags heads and auld portraits in baroque frames hang, while chesterfield sofas are paired with 70s hi-fi’s turned into coffee tables. It’s both fancy & decadent as well as warm & cosy. Estrella & Guinness are the two regular beers with two cask lines and six kegs providing a rotating range of ales while shelves are overflowing with gins, malts, rums and liqueurs. Never in my life have I seen a wide selection of at least four limoncellos to choose from in one establishment.
I come here twice, first on the Friday evening where the place is like a prohibition era speakeasy. Cocktails can be selected from an extensive list or custom orders can be taken and all are made from scratch by skilled bar staff. For me the result is a Knob Creek Old Fashioned for just £7.50, a drink that would be a tenner in a comparable place like Aberdeen’s Tippling House. Then at Saturday lunchtime I order food, from a very interesting menu I select the belly pork with panko breadcrumbed pulled pork and Pak choi. The dish that arrives looks stunning and is one of the best things I’ve eaten in a long time. Utter perfection.
After fully confirming that Cumbria has hipsters just like anywhere else, I take a long walk down the Warwick Road to my first football pub The Beehive. Across the street from Brunton Park it is mobbed with fans at one o’clock, including the one I’ve been invited to meet; Lee Rotherham. Lee and I spend an hour discussing the modern history of the club while quaffing £3.45 pints of cask ale from Cumbrians Kirby Lonsdale Brewing. This place has it made on game day, making a fortune from fans who can watch the early kick-offs on one of many tellys. However, since it is a very clean and smart family pub, the only one for quite a distance in a mostly residential area, I bet it’s pretty busy most lunchtimes and evenings regardless.
I enter Brunton Park by way of the Pioneer Stand; a modern, single tier affair that’s no different from what you’d see at McDiarmid or Rugby Park with the exception of the alcohol and ‘double carb’ meat & potato pies available inside. The advantage of sitting here however is the fantastic view of the rest of an absolutely glorious ground. Directly across from me is the main stand, an old pitched roof relic that straddles the halfway line and that has been latterly extended on either side to run the full length of the touchline. Rather unusually the top tier is covered and seated, while the lower section is an exposed terracing called The Paddock.
Behind the goal at the Warwick Road End is a vast bank of even more terracing that helps make Brunton Park the largest non-all-seater in the whole of England. Hanging over this is one of the most spectacular/unusual/dilapidated things I’ve ever seen; three pitched roofs joined together into a single vast covering, painted blue with a massive ‘Carlisle United’ sign upon it (incase you forgot who you came to watch). At the centre of it all you’d expect to find a scene from the Somme, a muddy pitch the likes of Billy Bremner did battle on in the seventies and not just because of the throwback aesthetic of the ground but also because of a fortnight prior of incessant rain. Yet the surface is perfect, lush and green. It is the confirmation of the common claim that Carlisle has the greatest groundsman in the English Football League.
Carlisle United didn’t have the best start in this League Two ‘local derby’ against a Morecambe side that have travelled sixty eight miles to get here. Within the first half hour they were two nil down after struggling to clear the ball from their box in the blustery conditions. It must have particularly stuck in the craw when former Cumbrian Cole Stockton ran the length of the pitch to celebrate with Shrimps fans after opening the scoring on the eighteenth minute. A glimmer of sunshine through the gloom came just before the break however, when the talented Omari Patrick struck to make the game anyone’s.
What then followed was an exciting second half that kept everyone in their seats until the final whistle. It was end to end stuff in very windy conditions and just after the hour a training ground manoeuvre saw Aaron Hayden nod home a clever equaliser. From then on in both sides worked very hard for the winner with Phillips and Mafoumbi having solid chances for each team. At the death the referee gave The Shrimps a free kick twenty yards from The Blues goal after a big blonde defender committed a little spot of GBH. It was the perfect opportunity for Morecambe to go home with all three points and much care was taken in the set up. Thankfully the ball was blasted recklessly into empty away terracing and the final whistle was blown.
After forty eight hours I leave Carlisle with a genuine sadness. In my brief time here I’ve eaten and drank like a king, met some lovely people and at BrewDog as well as The Duke I’ve encountered pubs where I could become a regular in a heartbeat. This beautiful Cumbrian capital is an awesome place to visit for the weekend being just ONE HOUR away from Glasgow Central Station, with multiple trains an hour.
In regards to the fitba, this weekend I visited a brilliant club with fantastic fans in the form of Carlisle United. There is no doubt they are a big club drawing crowds in excess of quite a few SPFL Premiership sides but at the same time they have the friendly community vibe of their close neighbours in the ranks of the Ayrshire Juniors. Sometimes I go to places and beforehand I’m offered a nugget of club history for the write up or invited to meet a fan of two for a pint or three. Before Carlisle I was inundated with such offers that even resulted in me making my podcast debut yesterday. Maybe this isn’t uniquely a Cumbrian thing, last year the folk at Gateshead were rather helpful and hospitable, but I certainly got a welcome that similar sized teams North of the border rarely furnish me with. Instead of asking ‘Why is he coming to here?’ The Blue & White Army said ‘Welcome, anything we can do for you?’ and that is something I won’t soon forget.