It's so exciting for we country people, travelling 30 miles from our rural retreat to the Big City to see a Big Match. Even more fun for me last Saturday, I got an invitation from the sponsors of the day, Baines Wilson, a leading firm of solicitors. You must have heard of them. Very big round here. It meant I was rubbing shoulders with the quality in the sponsors' lounge. Fiona Armstrong was there, the TV news presenter, vee elegant in white and blue, chosen carefully to represent the club colours, though it turned out it was her very first football match. The local MP was there, Eric Martlew, and the editor of the local paper, Keith Sutton. I even met a real live lord, no not Lord Melvyn of Television, but Lord Clark of Windermere.
Their presence was highly significant, showing that the great and the good of Cumbria have returned to supporting their local team, Carlisle United. It has been a huge story up here, this long drawn-out battle against the reign of Michael Knighton, with petitions and blockades and demonstrations, but now it's all over, he's gorn, though the club has got no money. I arrived planning to go mad in the club shop, buy some of those awfully attractive Eddie Stobart tops, but the shop was closed. I pressed my nose to the window and saw all the shelves empty. On match day? What's going on? I was told later that all stock was sold when the club went into administration. They haven't yet got any money to start again.
Baines Wilson was therefore doing its bit by sponsoring a game. Their main partner told me that he hated Knighton so much he'd refused to go to matches, but now they were lashing out around £2,000 to help the club. For this they were getting a buffet meal for 40 of their guests, a free page advert in the programme and a chance to vote for Man of the Match. He would come into the lounge after the game, meet the guests in the flesh, wow, and be presented with his Man of the Match trophy. "Today, it'll be an imaginary trophy," said an official. Something else they haven't been able to afford. But each guest did get a free CUFC pen, complete with fox logo. I will treasure mine for ever.
Football in its rural roots, down at the bottom of the Third Division, does mirror what's happening at the top. The tensions and worries and restraints are much the same. You just have to add about six noughts to all the figures. That day the opponents were Boston United, just up from the Conference, but already with their own dramas, points deducted, losing a manger, no doubt fearing they could be Lincolnshire's one-season wonder.
Throughout the match, I expected Roddy Collins, Carlisle's manager, to have a heart attack, back and forth, screaming and shouting, but then they had had six games without a win. The sun was blazing hot, and I had to shield my eyes while watching him, partly because he was wearing what appeared to be dazzling, pinstriped trousers. On his way to a City boardroom, after he gets the sack? Nah. Carlisle won 4-2, so he was safe for the moment. Which is more than could be said for Peter Reid or Glenn Roeder, up at glam end of the football ladder.
Life in the Third Division, behind the scenes, in the sponsors' lounge, on the bench with the manager, might be aping what happens elsewhere in football, but the most notable difference is out there on the pitch. They never seem to have control of the ball. It's as if it's their enemy, out to get them. So many of the players are lumpen, clumsy, cart horses. They make Premier players look like ballet dancers. Premier salaries are now obscene, but you can see clearly how the differential came about.
Third Division fans know all this, have no illusions about the quality, but, given half a chance, decent directors, hard-working players, they do take pride in supporting their local club. That's excitement enough for a Saturday afternoon.