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23 April 2023updated 12 Oct 2023 11:25am

In football even the lowliest clubs have their time in the sun, however brief

In August 1974, Carlisle United were top of the First Division. Fans still reminisce over when their lads stuffed one of the big boys.

By Hunter Davies

Who was top of the English First Division on 24 August 1974? Come on, guess; amuse an old gadji.

Not sure if the spelling should be gadgy. It was Carlisle slang in the 1950s, meaning a bloke. In west Cumberland, they used the word marra. Can’t spell that either.

It was Carlisle United (CUFC). They were top of the First Division after three games, having beaten Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Spurs. Didn’t last long. They only had one season in the top flight, 1974-75. Blink and you missed it.

CUFC had previously made the national headlines in 1951 when in the FA Cup third round they drew 0-0 with the mighty Arsenal at Highbury. Their manager was Bill Shankly. The return game was on a Thursday at Brunton Park, afternoon kick-off, as there were no floodlights.

Most of the secondary schools, then and now, were situated near Brunton Park, so it was decided all schools should have the day off, to ease traffic congestion

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A 13-year-old schoolgirl called Margaret at the Carlisle and County High School for Girls was furious at having a day off. She loved school so much, believing education mattered more than a silly football game. She started a petition, persuaded other girls to sign, and took it to the headmistress; who, of course, turned it down.

I was at Carlisle Grammar School (for boys) at the time and could not believe some high-school girl was campaigning against our day off school. Potty or what? As I often told her, many years later. Reader, I married her.

In Carlisle, that game against the Arsenal is still remembered – CUFC got stuffed 4-1 in the replay. And of course its year in the top division. The thing in football, and in life, is that you have to hope, to dream. You have to imagine that your time will come, that the pendulum will swing back your way.

[See also: Football was never a truly amateur game, but now even the supporting cast are raking it in]

In the 1980s I thought Liverpool would be at the top forever. Then in the 1990s Manchester United under Fergie seemed invincible. Yet look at them this season. Liverpool have been getting stuffed by lowly, humbler teams. Man Utd have also been stumbling. They are getting better, but for the past couple of years they have been mediocre.

And Chelsea, poor old Chelsea, another of the football aristocracy, who always seem to get into Europe. They’ll be lucky to make the top half of the Prem.

This season we have had the surprise, pleasure and amusement of seeing two unglamorous, unfashionable clubs, with a football history only their own fans will remember, zooming up the league. Brighton & Hove Albion and Brentford look as if they will finish in the top half of the Prem and might even get into Europe. Both of them have been having a moment in the sun.

Almost all clubs, in all divisions, have had their moments, however piddling, which their older fans still talk about. Reminiscing over when their lads stuffed one of the big boys, or they once had a star player, now a local legend, who lit up their games.

In Carlisle, they will talk about Stan Bowles, when he played for them and for a time made magic.

Will the pendulum ever swing again for the UK? We have a rubbish economy, dodgy politicians, we’re low down in all the international polls measuring productivity, wealth, happiness. No one likes us, no one rates us. Our own self-esteem and pride has taken a battering. We are now second division.

Yet for 200 years we ruled the waves, created the Industrial Revolution, bossed poorer countries around, convinced ourselves that other nations looked up to us and our way of life, our institutions, our values. And it was true. More or less. For a while. Now look at us. A laughing stock.

But all is not lost, not forever. Our turn might come again. We have to believe that.

Carlisle United, at the moment, though stuck in the fourth tier or Division Two, have this season begun to stir, winning games, doing quite well. They have a chance at promotion his year. Oh bliss. It seems impossible. How can a little town with small crowds and no money ever rise again? In football, it seems too late for that. The big boys are just far too big and far too rich.

But just as on the world stage the UK is being left behind, things can always change – for football clubs, for nations, for all of us…

[See also: The tragedy of English football]

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age