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24 September 2015

Take my hand and step back in time to the day that changed Carlisle for ever

I had just turned 15 at the time, and all the local Carlisle schools were given the half-day off.

By Hunter Davies

I should think there’s only a handful of Prem fans aware that on 23 September there’s the third round of the Milk Cup – sorry, Rumbelows – hold on, Coca-Cola – no, it’s Carling, innit – correction: it’s now called the Capital One Cup.

When it began in 1960, as the Football League Cup, it was a big event in the football year. Now, elite clubs can hardly be arsed, which of course is the nature of all elites, whether football clubs, universities or streets in Kensington. They just have no idea how the other 90 per cent lives.

But in Carlisle, the sheep are dancing in the streets, the Carr’s water biscuits are in cracking form, Eddie Stobart lorries are getting ready to park in the goalmouth at Brunton Park, in the hope that CUFC get a draw at Anfield next Wednesday and so earn a return game against Liverpool. Because Carlisle, oh joy, oh wonder, have reached the last 32 in the League Cup.

Obviously no one else in the nation cares, but for a small club in a small town it is headline news, a financial lifeline for a club nearly kicked out of the Football League last season. In fact, most seasons.

All towns in the country with a league club have had a day in their history when the town supposedly came to a halt, which old men still remember. Carlisle’s Big Day happened 54 years ago. Local people still date their lives by it.

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It was Thursday 11 January 1951. Carlisle had a replay at home in the third round of the FA Cup against the mighty Arsenal, having drawn 0-0 with them at Highbury. You have always to say “mighty” Arsenal. It’s one of the rules when you go down this memory lane. But Arsenal were far bigger and mightier than Liverpool are today.

Carlisle’s manager was Bill Shankly, which is a neat connection with Liverpool. He had been a Carlisle player from 1932-33, then in 1949 his first job in management was back at Carlisle. Twenty minutes before each home game he would pick up a microphone and address the crowd. “This is your manager speaking.” Then he would list the team members and explain why he had chosen them.

Before the first game, Shankly went on stage at the local cinema, the Lonsdale, and introduced all the players. “These are the lads who are going to take on the mighty Arsenal. I can assure you we’re going to give as good as we get.”

In the Highbury dressing room, he told the Carlisle players he had seen the fear in the Arsenal eyes as they arrived. Which is what he always said. At home, he would say the other side were so tired and exhausted after their long journey to Carlisle that they weren’t fit to play.

They got an excellent 0-0 draw, hence the return to Carlisle. The replay was in the afternoon, there being no floodlights. It was also half-day closing, which helped with the crowd.

I had just turned 15 at the time, and all the local Carlisle schools were given the half-day off. The main Carlisle schools were, and still are, very near Brunton Park, so it was thought the huge traffic jams would stop all children getting to school that day. It was a record crowd of 22,000.

At the Carlisle and County High School for Girls, a second-year girl called Margaret was so furious at being given a half-day off that she protested to the headmistress at the school council. Twelve-year-old Margaret loved school so much, she did not want to miss one lesson, especially not for something as boring and silly as a football game.

I remember hearing about this girl and not believing than any schoolkid wouldn’t want half a day off school. Her protest was rejected.

I was at the game and still have the programme, but alas Carlisle got beaten by the mighty, 4-1. Not surprising, with all their internationals.

Whole books have been written about those two games, how seven trainloads went to London, how the city came to a halt for the return, how everyone kept their memories and how Shankly went on to glory.

The story of the high-school protest gets mentioned but not the name of the girl who began it. Reader, I married her. Today, of course, she’s a total football fan, oh yes, ask her anything, the names of John Terry’s twins, Gareth Bale’s wife, she knows it all. 

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This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War