The fan - Hunter Davies needs a lift to the game
When Saturday comes, the lady wife becomes my best friend
I've got one problem this season about going to watch Carlisle United. It's 40 miles away from our house in Loweswater as the sheep fly, which I normally can do easily, pleasantly, in less than an hour, taking the scenic route over the Caldbeck Fells. It's so pretty yet so empty, one of the nicest drives anywhere in Cumbria. The problem is, I can't drive.
No need to go into all the reasons, you'd just be interested, but it's not due to drunken driving. I had a violent seizure in June after my younger daughter's wedding in France. It hasn't happened again, but if you have it once, that's it - you lose your licence for a year.
I'll be your best friend, I said to the wife, Your Majesty, Your Wonderfulness, if only you'll drive me to Carlisle. Yes, I know it's a Saturday. You wouldn't believe the crowds and traffic. Le toot Cumbria pours in, if only to stand on the pavements and look at the shop windows. Rural people don't get a lot of excitement.
She can drive, having passed her test ten years ago in Cockermouth, but has never driven since. Hates driving, hates my car. Gradually, she has begun driving the seven miles into Cockermouth once a week for the shopping. Done very well. All I have to do is ring the police and they clear the road. Joke. Which I'll have to stop making as it's very patronising, and won't help me get to Carlisle.
But she agreed to take me, as she too loves the scenic route, setting off early doors so we'd find parking. It was so strange driving down Warwick Road to Brunton Park. Almost every house had a skip outside and most ground-floor windows and doors were boarded up. Had a bomb gone off? A hurricane struck? I'd forgotten the huge floods Carlisle suffered back in January. The city is still cleaning itself up, and many remain homeless.
Brunton Park itself, which used to boast the best playing surface of any ground in the Football League, was totally flooded, with the water at one stage higher than the crossbars. You're winding me up, I said to David Clark, one of the directors, as I looked out at the perfectly pristine pitch. He's a Labour life peer, ex-cabinet minister, so he wouldn't lie, would he, or even exaggerate.
The club, very wisely, had excellent insurance covering itself for loss of home gates, not just damage. Unlike some of the surrounding householders, Carlisle were able to make repairs remarkably quickly. In fact, the club exudes an air of quiet prosperity, with all the refurbished offices, a sparkling new carpet in the directors' lounge and a handsome new statue of Hugh McIlmoyle outside the ground. You probably haven't heard of him if you live south of Penrith, but he's a legend the length of Warwick Road.
It is as if last season, when Carlisle made the dreaded drop to the Conference League, somehow revitalised them. Now they are back up again, they seem invigorated. On my visit, they were playing Barnet, who ran away with the Conference title last year, but Carlisle dominated the first half and were one up. Second half, hmm, it all went wonky, and Barnet got three simple goals.
Afterwards I talked to the club's owner and saviour, Fred Story, a local builder. He was blaming a certain player, whom he says he can't stand. "Oh, the manager knows my feelings. I've told him." And what does he say in reply? "He makes no comment. He knows anyway I would never interfere, but I am allowed my opinion."
And yet the crowd did not seem too downhearted, convinced that CUFC was the better team. Which has turned out true, as Carlisle has now zoomed up the League and could well get promoted.
Most of the directors were happy, too, when I joined them later for a drink. Or three. Come on, I was a guest. And I wasn't driving, so I could enjoy myself. There are some advantages to losing your licence . . .