The idea of going away for an Easter double header sounded practical. Find a league match to attend on the Friday before finding an obscure non-league jaunt the following afternoon with the help of an overnight stay in a budget hotel. We searched high and low for suitable fixtures before we decided that we’d head to Carlisle. The Brunton Park side were taking on Portsmouth in a League Two clash on the Friday afternoon and the town’s non-league side Celtic Nation had a match against a strong Shildon side on the Saturday.
Train tickets had been booked as had the hotel when two weeks later Celtic Nation’s match was postponed due to Shildon reaching the Durham Senior Cup Final. I never understand why certain cup competitions have precedence over league matches, but such are the strange rules in certain parts of the country. We were naturally disappointed as Celtic Nation don’t look like they’ll see out the rest of the season never mind next, so our chance to visit the club looks to have gone.
Not to worry though, we were sure there’d be loads of other possibilities over the Easter Weekend… or maybe not. Penrith, Kendal, Workington, Gretna, Annan and Queen of the South were all away from home which left us looking at matches in Newcastle. We were close to scrapping the weekend off before I stumbled upon the South of Scotland League which contained four Dumfries sides. Heston Rovers ground share with Queen of the South and had a local derby against Crichton; we were saved.
In the days leading up to the trip more bad news hit. Engineering works which didn’t exist when we booked the trip had cropped up. This meant that in order to get my 08:10 train from Wigan North Western I now needed to catch the 06:55 bus replacement service from Atherton.
Stumbling around in the dark I gathered my belongings and pulled on my waterproofs as I walked down to Atherton station. Three brave passengers including myself stood at the entrance to the station as we awaited the arrival of the coach. 20 minutes had passed when we saw a coach drive straight down the main road past us. A confused bloke in the ticket office hurriedly rang Northern Rail HQ and ordered that the coach turn around to pick us up.
Fortunately, five minutes later the instruction had got through and we boarded the coach, greeted by a distinct Yorkshire accent. Northern Rail never fail to amaze me and what was about to happen sums the company up perfectly.
“Reet. Does anybody know how to get to the next station?” The three of us looked at each other and with the other two completely clueless it was down to me to direct the driver around the arse end of Wigan, stopping at every station along the way. I felt sorry for the driver, who had been drafted in from Barnsley for the morning having never visited the area in his life. Equipped with postcodes and a less than reliable GPS it was no wonder why he was running late.
In all, having navigated us to Hag Fold, Daisy Hill, Hindley and Ince we picked up a grand total of two passengers and nearly succeeded in knocking down the fence at Daisy Hill when a u-turn went horribly wrong. My finest hour arrived when one of my fellow passengers assumed I worked for Northern Rail due to fantastic knowledge of the Wigan roadways.
During my coach journey I received a phone call from Matt who was stranded at Manchester Piccadilly. He informed me that the train we were due to catch to Carlisle no longer existed. We agreed to meet in Preston and take things from there but fortunately for me, the train did exist and it was started at Wigan North Western.
As I was now travelling north on my own I thought I would tweet my progress to my Welsh companion, as to make it like a Top Gear challenge. As opposed to racing each other across Europe or through the arid landscapes of Africa, we would race each other up to West Coast Mainline.
There was only ever going to be one winner and I arrived in Cumbria about an hour before my competitor. Carlisle is the largest city, by area, in England and sits 10 miles away from the Scottish border.
We were visiting the city ten years on from when it was severely flooded. In January 2005, two months worth of rain fell overnight and 2,700 homes were left under water along with the football ground. It was raining in Carlisle during our visit but thankfully the only thing the city was awash with were lots of Wigan Warriors fans who were heading south to watch the cherry and whites take on rivals St Helens. I couldn’t quite get my head around the vast numbers of Wigan fans in Carlisle and found it rather embarrassing.
Botchergate is the main drinking area in Carlisle and is right next door to the train station so I opted to start my day of drinking on there. I played it safe with the first of two Wetherspoons, The William Rufus. It was William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, who restored Carlisle to the English kingdom. Rufus entered the city through Botchergate. The long-demolished gateway has given its name to today’s street – Botchergate. In here I had my usual breakfast and Tuborg and it wasn’t too long before Matt eventually joined me.
The Cumberland was the next on our hit list before heading over to the Travelodge around the corner where we attempted to check-in or at least dump our bags. We weren’t allowed to check in until 15:00 but we were kindly given the option of paying £5 each and waiting half an hour for early check-in. The girl behind the desk did seem rather embarrassed to be so obstructive and awkward and she informed us that a bar opposite the train station takes in bags for £2 an item.
Bar Solo thankfully took our bags off our hands and we pressed on to our second Wetherspoons of the afternoon. This one was named the Woodrow Wilson after the President of the United States in 1912 as his mother was born in Carlisle; a strenuous link if ever there was one. This establishment was full of away fans who had made the 350 mile journey north to watch their side.
With around an hour and a half left to go until kick we opted to head towards Carlisle’s ground which is found a short walk outside the city centre down Warwick Road. There were a few younger Portsmouth fans who had obviously been drinking since they set off from the south coast and they set about lying down in skips and kicking recycling boxes. We also bumped into Warrington Town fan Town who for one reason or another had also opted to come to this fixture.
We collected our tickets after a bit of faffing around and headed to the club shop to waste a bit more time. The club had a big sale on so I was determined to grab a bargain while Matt was determined to have another pint. He left me to try on different shirts and I was now left to fend for myself.
I guessed that he had headed off to a sports bar at the ground as the bloke at the Ticket Office had told us they had one. However, when I went up to a group of stewards asking them for a sports bar they directed me to the nearby rugby club where Carlisle City FC play. I knew this wasn’t the right place as all of the away fans had been pointed there. I had to explain more than once that I was a neutral and couldn’t care less who won, only then they guided me to a bar which overlooked the pitch.
It was a complete guess but it paid off as I found Matt in the corner supping a Carlsberg. Not my beer of choice but it was a nice place to drink so I joined him.
Gradually the ground began to fill up so we headed for the Warwick Road End where our tickets were purchased for. I chose this end because a goldfish was found there during the floods of 2005 and I’m a big fan of fishes on football pitches with my favourite one being Connor Sammon.
Evidently, Billy the Fish was moments away from being sucked up through a large industrial pump during the clean-up operation. The goldfish was then spotted and Billy was rescued before the club tried to reunite the family pet and its owner. While waiting for the owner to come forward, United recorded a 3-1 win over Redditch United in the FA Trophy, ending a poor run of results.
The owner of the fish was eventually revealed as a four year old who lived nearby on Brunton Crescent. The child’s mother confirmed that Billy was in fact a she and was really called Judy. She had been swept away from her bowl in the hallway of their house and somehow found her way to the lake that was once the Brunton Park pitch.
Both parties agreed that the club could keep Billy as a lucky mascot, with the club buying the young girl a replacement fish. Billy did the trick as the club returned to the Football League and won promotion to League One as well as competing in finals at the Millennium Stadium and Wembley. Unfortunately, Billy passed away in 2010 and the club drafted in replacements. Unfortunately, since Billy’s death things have all gone downhill and the club are treading water once again as they try and prevent relegation into non-league.
Going into the match Carlisle found themselves fourth from bottom and three points clear of Tranmere Rovers who occupied the final relegation spot. This from a club who once sat proudly at the top of English football pyramid when at the beginning of the 1974/1975 season the Cumbrians won their opening three league matches. It seemed to be one of those stats that the older fans were immensely proud of; a bit like when I went to nearby non-league side Workington and they insisted on reminding visitors that the Busby Babes once played at Borough Park.
Before the football league was even dreamt of a newly renamed Carlisle United joined the second division of the Lancashire Combination in 1905. After two seasons they were promoted and found themselves competing against the likes of Manchester United Reserves, Manchester City Reserves, Bolton Wanderers Reserves and more importantly Atherton Church House who played their matches next to where I went to primary school. All of which means, Carlisle United would have at one time played on the same pitches which I used during play time at school.
Of course, Carlisle are in no danger of having to travel to Atherton again anytime soon, but on this showing they will do very well to retain their football league status despite grabbing a point against Portsmouth.
It was a decent start for United who opened the scoring after just two minutes when Brad Potts picked the ball up after a deep free kick was only half cleared. He had a shot and it bounced out to Kyle Dempsey who drilled the ball past Paul Jones from the edge of the area.
Portsmouth came close to equalising on 17 minutes when Nigel Atangana volleyed the ball against the crossbar.
The visitors did equalise on 38 minutes when Jed Wallace cut in from the left and fired the ball into the roof of the next from 30 yards out. Seven minutes later and Pompey took the lead when Matt Tubbs poked in a Ryan Taylor cross at the back post. That was the final meaningful action of the first half and we headed into a pitchside bar to catch up on the latest results and stick our phones on charge.
Carlisle offered very little in the second half but threw bodies forward in an attempt to salvage a point and it worked with the very last kick of the match. The goal summed up Carlisle’s play as the ball was pumped forward, tripped over by Jason Kennedy, missed by a Portsmouth defender and then passed into the bottom right hand corner by Charlie Wyke. A far from pretty goal but did anybody in the Warwick Road End care? No, they didn’t. The roof was lifted off and the Blues had a point.
The ground had emptied by the time we had left as we had another brief chat with Carlisle fan and first aider Geoff. More importantly though, Geoff is a groundhopper and has even visited the mighty Atherton Collieries. He seemed made up with a point which turned out to be quite a crucial one as both Tranmere and Hartlepool also gained a point each while York recorded a rare three points at home.
Matt and I strolled back up Warwick Road towards the city centre where we headed to Bar Solo. I felt a bit out of place in my football shirt as everybody else was dressed up and seemed to be having dates. It has to be said though, this place probably was the most upmarket bar in Carlisle so it came as no surprise when the round landed on me and it cost me over £8 for two Birra Moretti’s. Fortunately Matt made up for it when we hit town for the evening.
Before that though it was time for a kebab and more importantly a shower. I am no kebab connoisseur but when a takeaway hands you a bag containing numerous cartons and holders for separate components of your takeaway you know you should have gone elsewhere. If I wanted to build my food I would apply for a job as a chef. Worse was yet to come as we went to check into our hotel. Yes, that’s right. We were finally allowed to check in.
Walking into our room we strolled over to the window to admire the view. It really was spectacular. We were staring straight at what appeared to be an old industrial unit which was home to a collection of BT vans. We weren’t even lucky enough to see the vans, we had to put up with a rotting old grey and white building. The scene on Fawlty Towers came to mind.”Well may I ask what you expected to see out of a Carlisle hotel bedroom window? Sydney Opera House perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain…”
Matt did point out that the view we had was far more interesting than when we stared at a red brick wall in Bruges for two nights and on that note we headed out into the town for the night. Both Wetherspoons looked busy and I was soon persuaded to visit the “edgier looking pubs”. The Cumberland was our first port of call followed by the Border Rambler. Both were decent enough and in the latter I even convinced the DJ to play ‘The Smiths – Panic’ simply because Morrissey sings “But there’s panic on the streets of Carlisle”. There was to be no panic though as Botchergate had been closed for the evening and there were more police walking around than for a derby match between Millwall and West Ham.
The evening ended in the hotel bar where Matt rang his mate Ed. “I’m just with Gibbo at the moment.”, “Wait, does Ed know my name? Can I speak to him?” I for some unknown reason thought I was speaking to Ed Miliband on the phone at 02:00 in the morning. Now, that really is dedication to young voters during an election campaign. Even more bizarrely, I apparently informed Ed to vote Labour… just in case Mr. Miliband was unsure of who to vote for. It was evident we had both had enough to drink and we went off to bed looking forward to the following days adventure to Dumfries…
Carlisle United – Dan Hanford, David Atkinson, Sean O’Hanlon, Danny Grainger, Patrick Brough, Brad Potts, Jason Kennedy, Paul Corry (Billy Paynter), Kyle Dempsey (Gary Dicker), Charlie Wyke, Steven Rigg (Derek Asamoah) – Substitutes: Mark Gillespie, Nathan Buddle, Mark Beck, Matt Young
Portsmouth – Paul Jones, Joe Devera, Ben Chorley (Nyron Nosworthy, (Adam Webster)), Jed Wallace, Ryan Taylor, Matt Tubbs (Danny Hollands 84), Josh Passley, Wes Fogden, James Dunne, Nigel Atangana, Dan Butler – Substitutes: Craig Westcarr, David Cornell, Ben Close, Conor Chaplin
- DISTANCE TRAVELLED TO GROUND: 108 miles
- ADMISSION: £10
- PROGRAMME PRICE: £2