You may not know this, but there was a time when Carlisle United were top of the league. The English First Division. The season was 1974-75 and Carlisle were at the top table for the one and only time in their history. Three games in, they’d won all three and were sitting pretty at the summit. Unfortunately, it was downhill from there but nobody can ever take that away.
18 months earlier it was almost a completely different story. They escaped relegation to Division Three by one point. Four clubs were separated by one point. Two went down (Cardiff and Huddersfield), two didn’t (Carlisle and Preston).
Coming into the final week of the season, there were five clubs below them with four games to go. But they were only one point above the drop zone. They drew at Oxford but dropped two places. Two days later they travelled to Sheffield Wednesday, who were pushing for promotion They ground out a goalless draw. A day later they were at home to Millwall and went down 0-1. They had one match remaining. The danger was Cardiff, who were in the bottom three but with three games left to play.
Carlisle’s final match was at home to third placed Aston Villa. They drew 2-2. On the same day Cardiff drew with Millwall. Carlisle’s future was now in Cardiff’s hands. The Welsh club needed three points from their final two matches. They only managed one and Carlisle were saved.
What happened next was remarkable.
They won just two of their first eight games at the start of the following season and it looked as if it was going to be another long campaign. Then things just clicked into place. Their final game was again against Aston Villa, but this time a 2-0 win sealed promotion. They were on the big stage for the first time in their history. Former manager, Bill Shankly called it “the greatest feat in the history of the game”. The summer of the 1974 it was difficult to work out the biggest story. Carlisle into the First Division or Manchester United down to the Second Division.
The club was formed in 1904. They didn’t come into the Football League until 1928, and not into the second tier until 1965. 17th August 1974 was their first ever match in the First Division.
Before the season began they had the Texaco Cup to compete in. This was a pre-season invitational tournament for clubs not involved in European competitions. Travelling was kept to a minimum as their three matches were against Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Sunderland. They drew two and lost to Middlesbrough. Not the best of starts…
As soon as the season started, everything changed.
They had been managed since 1972 by Alan Ashman He’d played over 200 games for the club as a centre-forward. This was his second spell in charge of the club. He took over in 1963 and lead them to promotion from Division Three and then almost from Division Two in 1966. He then took over West Brom and lead them to FA Cup winners in 1968. After a season managing Olympiakos in Greece he was back at Brunton Park
Their first match in the Division One was a trip to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were FA Cup winners four years earlier, but by now they were in transition. They still contained some of the names from the glory days, such as Bonetti, Harris, Houseman and Hollins. But the previous season they’d escaped the drop by just one point.
A crowd of 31,268 turned up. Only the London clubs, Liverpool and Ipswich games brought more in the ground that season. Six foot three inches defender, Bill Green had the honour of scoring Carlisle’s first ever goal in the top tier in the first half. Born in Newcastle, he’d only ever played his football in the North East with Hartlepool and then Carlisle. His goal gave the visitors a half-time lead.
Rather than the expected comeback from the home side, Les O’Neill scored the second for Carlisle as he chipped Bonetti from the right-hand side of the area. An historic moment for the club as they won 2-0.
They were away again for their second match of the season, although this was a little closer to home. They went to Ayresome Park to meet Middlesbrough. Boro, who included Graeme Souness in their side, had also won their opening game. Ashman made one change from the opening day. Frank Clarke dropped to the bench for Dennis Martin, who’d come on as sub for him at Chelsea. Carlisle were on a roll and O’Neill scored in both halves to give them another 2-0 win.
A near capacity crowd turned up at Brunton Park for the first home game of the season with Tottenham the visitors. Spurs had lost both their opening matches 0-1 to Ipswich and Manchester City. They had the likes of Martin Peters, Pat Jennings and Steve Perryman in their side. Carlisle made another change with John Gorman missing through injury. Gorman would later play for Tottenham, and most famously was Glenn Hoddle’s assistant for England in the late 90’s.
The game was decided on a penalty in the first half. Chris Balderstone scored it. Balderstone was familiar to cricket fans. Beginning his career at Yorkshire, by 1974 he was at Leicestershire with Ray Illingworth. His football career began at Huddersfield under Bill Shankly. He moved to Carlisle in 1971 and scored on his debut. That was their first ever goal in the second flight, now he’d scored their first ever goal at home in the top flight. But it wasn’t a straightforward penalty. Balderstone admitted to being very nervous when up against Jennings. The big Irish keeper saved the kick, but the ref ordered it to be taken again. This time, Balderstone scored.
Balderstone had, had a pretty successful summer with Leicestershire as they reached the Benson & Hedges Cup Final. A week after this match he was in the Leicestershire side which won the Sunday League, thanks to a rained-off game against Ian Botham’s Somerset who were second.
Three wins from three matches and Carlisle United were top of the league. Ipswich Town had also won their first three matches but they’d scored a goal less.
For some odd reason, the second round of fixtures were reversed for the fourth round, so Carlisle entertained Middlesbrough. The run came to an end through a David Armstrong goal. The run was always going to come to an end and Carlisle won just one of the next ten matches. They only scored in four of those matches too.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. They held Manchester City to a goalless draw. A side which contained Bell, Marsh, Summerbee, Hartford and Tueart. They narrowly lost at home to Liverpool, to a Ray Kennedy goal. They went to White Hart Lane and got a 1-1 draw.
Three days after the Spurs result they welcomed Derby County to Brunton Park. Derby were champions in 1972 and third the season before this. Derby were still full of players who played in that championship season. Todd, Hector, Webster, Boulton and Gemmill were still there, along with Francis Lee and Bruce Rioch.
Ray Train scored his first of the season to give the home side a half-time lead. Then in the second half they built on their lead with goals from Dennis Martin and Frank Clarke, who both opened their accounts for the season. Clarke was the older brother to Allan at Leeds United.
3-0 over one of the best teams in the country was a wonderful story. But it clearly went to their head as they lost the next six. One of these was when the reigning champions, Leeds United came to visit. The season had been a tumultuous one for the Yorkshire club. Legendary manager, Don Revie, had left to take up the England job. Brian Clough famously slid into his seat at Elland Road but after 44-days and one win, he was off. Jimmy Armfield came in to steady the ship.
The names in all-white just tripped off the tongue. Harvey, Reaney, Cherry, Bremner, McQueen, Madeley, McKenzie, Clarke, Jordan, Giles, Yorath.
Carlisle manager, Ashman, had dipped into the transfer market to give some depth up front. Eddie Prudham was signed from Sheffield Wednesday and went straight into the team for this match. Prudham was involved in the first goal as he dispossessed McQueen to set up Dennis Martin. Martin fired the home side in front. They’d played some lovely football in the first half and were good value for their lead.
But early in the second period Jordan equalised from close range. Then with five minutes to go McKenzie followed in on his ball into the area and Leeds won it. Carlisle keeper, Alan Ross, would claim his side’s first half showing was the best they ever played. The Leeds players were full of praise for their opponents too.
It was scant consolation as they were now second from bottom. They were only conceding one or two a game, but it was up front where they struggled.
At the beginning of December Arsenal arrived. The Carlisle faithful were really enjoying the array of stars they were watching they side pit their wits against. Captained by World Cup winner, Alan Ball, they also contained John Radford, Brian Kidd, Pat Rice and Eddie Kelly. The Gunners themselves had made a poor start to the season and were only three points better off than Carlisle going into the game.
Prudham rewarded his manager with a first half goal and, as with the Leeds game, they lead at the break. Brian Kidd equalised for the visitors but Dennis Martin won it for Carlisle. Finally a win.
They couldn’t build on it when Chelsea arrived and so their trip to Goodison Park just before Christmas was a tense one. Everton, under Billy Bingham, were second to Ipswich who had provided The Toffees with their only defeat of the season back in September.
Bob Latchford scored his eighth of the season to give them the lead at the break. When he doubled their tally in the second half it looked like a fourth straight win for Everton. Joe Laidlaw then got one back for the visitors.
Laidlaw had missed the Arsenal and Chelsea games, and had only played in three of the last 11. This was only his second goal of the season and if Carlisle were going to get out of the relegation zone they needed him to fire from here on in. Within minutes they got their wish. Laidlaw equalised. Could they hold on? Would Everton come back at them? In the end the winning goal came from Les O’Neill, who headed in Balderstone’s cross.
They’d come from 0-2 down to win 3-2 for only their second away win of the season, with the first one coming in just their second match. The Christmas celebrations were all the sweeter for it.
Again they couldn’t build on it, though. Three 1-2 defeats followed. Two wins in the FA Cup over Preston and West Brom were either side of Ipswich’s visit to Cumbria. Ipswich were top of the table, although they’d lost more than those around them. They just didn’t draw many matches.
Trevor Whymark put them in front before Frank Clarke levelled things before the break. To the delight of the home crowd, the winning goal came from Laidlaw.
No matter what was to unfurl for the rest of the season they could look back on some memorable moments. They’d beaten the, then leaders of the league, Ipswich. They’d beaten second placed, Everton. They’d beaten the 1971 champions, Arsenal and the 1972 winners, Derby County.
Still unable to register back-to-back wins they had another six-game losing run. The last one was a vital clash with Luton Town. The Hatters had beaten Carlisle, 3-1 at Kenilworth Road back in September. By now Carlisle were rock bottom of the table, with Luton just above them. Both sides needed the win, but Luton did and now Carlisle were really in trouble.
Just before the Luton game their FA Cup hopes were dashed in the Sixth Round at the hands of Second Division Fulham. Now they had just nine matches to save their First Division status.
Next up was a trip to Maine Road to take on Manchester City. Two Joe Laidlaw goals gave them another memorable win. They weren’t lying down.
But three days later they suffered their biggest defeat of the season. A Terry Conroy hat-trick gave Stoke a 5-2 win. To make things worse Luton beat Leeds to open up a three point gap at the bottom. Carlisle were seven points adrift of safety with seven games to go, including trips to Liverpool and Derby and a home meeting with leaders, Everton.
They then lost at Birmingham on the same day Luton registered their third straight win when they beat Arsenal. Carlisle were still seven points from safety with only six games to go.
Everton arrived at Brunton Park leading the league by a point from Liverpool. They’d drawn more than they’d won but were proving difficult to beat. Carlisle had been one of only five sides to beat Everton thus far when they won at Goodison Park just before Christmas.
After a goalless first half, Carlisle were awarded a penalty. Joe Laidlaw converted it for his tenth of the season, and his sixth in the last seven. As with the win over Derby back in October, Martin and Clarke added to the lead and Carlisle had now done the double over the best team in the country.
On the same day Luton were thumped 0-5 at Derby. But Spurs had won too and so the gap to safety was still five points with games running out.
This was the Easter period and so Carlisle were back in action two days later. This time the visitors were Burnley. They were on a poor run of no win in their last five. Laidlaw and Martin scored for the home side to give them a 2-1 lead at the break. Laidlaw then scored his second, from the spot, and although Leighton James got one back for the visitors, Ray Train made the win certain. 4-2 was a great result at a vital time. This was their 38th game of the season and yet the last time they registered back-to-back wins was their third.
Carlisle now had four matches to gain the six points necessary to stay up. It looked a tall order. Things looked tougher when they could only draw 0-0 with Coventry. On the same day Spurs beat Luton and although Carlisle were off the bottom, they now needed to win every one of their last three matches to stay up. Next up, the league leaders Liverpool.
Many of the Carlisle players had grounds they really looked forward to playing at. Anfield was obviously one of them. This was Bob Paisley’s first season as manager after former Carlisle manager, Bill Shankly stepped down. They’d lost just one of their last 11. Carlisle battled hard and it was still goalless at half-time. But Toshack and Keegan scored in the second half and Carlisle’s First Division dream was over.
Their final home match of the season was against Wolves. It ended in victory too, as Dennis Martin scored the only goal of the game. It had been a great ride with some wonderful moments, but the heady days of being top of the league back in August seemed a long way off.
They finished the season against Champions, Derby County, who they’d beaten back in October. Ipswich were held at Manchester City and this handed the title to Dave Mackay’s team for their second title in four years.
Carlisle earned a creditable 0-0 draw in front of 38,000. In the end they’d scored in just one of their final four matches and only one side had scored fewer in the season.
Luton and Chelsea went down with them, with Spurs avoiding the drop by one point.
Joe Laidlaw was top scorer in the season with 12 in the league, 14 in total. Les O’Neill chipped in with nine for the season. Ray Train, Bob Parker and Bill Green played every league game.
22nd in the First Division remains their highest ever league finish. Rather fittingly, their appearance in the FA Cup Quarter Final during this season also remains their best ever performance in that competition.
It was just one season but they had some wonderful memories to treasure as Carlisle have never been back to English football’s top table since.
CARLISLE: P 42, W 12, D 5, L 25, F 43, A 59, Pts 29
KEEPERS: Ross 33, Clarke T 9
DEFENDERS: Carr 39, Gorman 30 (+1 sub), Green 42, Parker 42, Winstanley 1, Spearitt 13 (+1 sub)
MIDFIELDERS: O’Neill 36, Martin 37 (+1 sub), McIlmoyle 15 (+3 sub), Train 42, Balderstone 27 (+4 sub), Barry 8 (+4 sub), McCartney 1 (+1 sub)
STRIKERS: Laidlaw 33 (+1 sub), Clarke F 30 (+2 sub), Owen 19 (+4 sub), Prudham 5 (+1 sub)
LEAGUE: Laidlaw 12 (2 pens). O’Neill 8, Martin 7, Clarke F 4, Owen 3, McIlmoyle 2, Train 2, Green 1, Balderstone 1 (pen), Parker 1 (pen), Prudham 1, Carr 1
FA CUP: Laidlaw 2, Owen 2, Clarke F 1
LEAGUE CUP: O’Neill