I drove up to Carlisle, armed with treasures to prove that, once upon a time, small clubs made it to the top

I still can’t believe that Carlisle were ever in England’s premier league – with a small p – yet on 24 August 1974 they were top of Division One, having beaten Chelsea, Spurs and Middlesbrough.

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How are the mighty fallen. Hmm, not quite the right cliché. How the humble, the modest, overachieve and then tumble back down again?

I was driving in to Carlisle from Loweswater for the Carlisle United-Luton game, wearing shorts and sandals, but with trousers, jacket and tie in the boot. In the directors’ box, where I was going as a guest of David Clark – a member of the first Blair cabinet, well, for ten minutes – you have to be properly dressed. And I should think so, too.

I also had with me some of my football memorabilia – from exactly 40 years ago, the home and away programmes for the same fixture, Carlisle United-Luton, during that wonderful, marvellous season, 1974-75, when both were in the First Division. Won’t the directors of both teams be excited to see my treasures, so I was thinking to myself as I drove through the isolated Caldbeck Fells.

I still can’t believe that Carlisle were ever in England’s premier league – with a small p – yet on 24 August 1974 they were top of Division One, having beaten Chelsea, Spurs and Middlesbrough. After that, don’t talk about it. Both Carlisle and Luton got demoted that same season.

Now, they are both in League Two, the fourth tier of the English league. Carlisle have dropped from League One, while Luton have just come up from the Conference, ie, the non-league. How does this happen, that clubs can fall through so many leagues?

In Carlisle’s case, for a club in such a small, rural area, it was a miracle they ever got there. In London, or industrial Lancs or Yorks, it is easier to attract players on loan when the bigger clubs want to offload. And with small gates, averaging just 4,230 last season, and no millionaire owners, Carlisle can only ever pay small wages.

Will such a club ever get to the top division again? Burnley, a similar-sized town, have managed it this season, but they are in a more industrial area, with a long tradition of top-level football. They have lots of big clubs nearby, such as Man United, from whence they can borrow young players on the way up, or good players not getting a game.

Luton are a different case. They should always have been much higher than Carlisle. Luton has a population of about 203,000, almost twice the size of Carlisle’s, with two MPs and a thriving airport. The team did return to the First for ten seasons in the Eighties, when it had some star players, like Brian Stein and Ricky Hill.

Carlisle has of course had its star players, too – Ivor Broadis, Peter Beardsley, Hugh McIlmoyle – and a star manager in Bill Shankly, but never the wealth or glitter that Luton had . . . Well, now and again. Eric Morecambe was a Luton director and today Nick Owen, the TV presenter, is chairman.

Mismanagement, financial problems and irregularities led to them being docked 30 points in 2008, causing all their problems in recent years. But even in the Conference, Luton averaged crowds of 7,387 last year. Today, they had brought with them a huge support of about a thousand, swelling Carlisle’s gate to near 7,000. As their heroes took the pitch, the crowd immediately started shouting in Spanish, “Shampiones!” This was presumably because they had won the Conference Premier League, which is now called – hold on, I am sure it has a name; some passing firm always thinks it will turn itself into an everlasting household name if it connects itself with football – Skrill Conference, that was it. Lasted only one season. Every time I saw it I thought it was a misprint.

At half-time, I showed all the Luton directors my treasures. And they were indeed awfully interested – even a breathless Nick Owen, who’d been caught in traffic and missed Luton’s goal, the only one of the game.

David Dent, Carlisle’s honorary president, former secretary of the Football League, said he’d been at both Luton games in 1975, home and away. And he’d got Eric Morecambe to sign his programme. He told Eric that he’d left Carlisle at six o’clock in the morning.

“I don’t blame you,” replied Eric, quick as a flash.

Ah, they don’t make them like that any more . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 10 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Britain in meltdown