Carlisle United 1 Forest Green Rovers 2 (24th November 2018)
Getting up at 6.30 am, with the prospect of spending nearly 6 hours driving up to the edge of Scotland, to watch a football match between two teams I don’t support, doesn’t readily come across as a sensible way to spend a Saturday. It did, however, offer the opportunity to drive (or be driven, to be exact, being a passenger) through the Lake District on the nicest part of the M6 (although there’s not much competition for the honour, it has to be said).
It also offered the chance to see a game at Carlisle United, the very name of which sends travelling fans from the south into a kind of giddy excitement, at the sheer lunacy of attempting such a trip. Preston and Blackpool are a long way, but Carlisle? It’s almost in Scotland.
My mate, who was doing the driving, had actually “done” Carlisle before, but while I would spend the afternoon at Brunton Park, he’d be going a couple of miles away to the ground of Carlisle City, to see a North West Counties League Division One Cup fixture. Now, if you ever go to a game and pray that it doesn’t end 0-0, that probably would be it. Fortunately he’d be spared a 0-0 by virtue of 13 goals rattling in throughout that game, eleven scored by the hosts.
With traffic delays ruling out a walk into the centre to see Carlisle Castle, my main concern outside Brunton Park was finding something to eat, having not had anything since about 7 am. A convenience store opposite the ground sold, among other things, a “Chinese chicken” bap. It was big and filling, but I say that even though there are 1.2 billion people in China, not one of them would ever identify the flavour of the sauce in the bap as being remotely Chinese.
After having a quick look round the vicinity of the ground, such as the rugby club next door, and collecting my tickets, I made my way into the ground. I’d opted for the “new” stand (it is over 20 years old now, and starting to show its age) as it was the least interesting, but would offer the best view, and also act as a windbreak on an afternoon which wouldn’t rank as the warmest I’d experienced.
I wouldn’t quite say the concourse of this new stand was pleasant, but it did at least managed to avoid the “1960s breeze block and concrete bus station chic” that sports stadium architects in this country apparently think football fans love. A bar area with seats and tables is a rarity. It even had a small mural near the entrance, although what the female supporter in full kit, lying on the ground and lost in her own world of joy, was meant to be so happy about, wasn’t so clear.
One thing that was clear was that when I’d chosen my ticket online, I’d badly stuffed up my choice. This new stand was meant to part of a complete rebuild of the ground, moving everything about 20 yards north, but the other three sides are resolutely unchanged since then. This meant that anyone too close to the southern end of the ground would have at least some of the pitch blocked by the end of the stand. Fortunately, the visit of Forest Green Rovers wasn’t one that would test the ground’s 18,000 capacity, and I was spoilt for choice picking out an alternative seat.
I’d thought about going behind the goal at the Warwick Road End, mainly for the rarity of being able to stand on a decently sized covered terrace, and being able to enjoy the sound of the atmosphere from under one. I opted out though because it can be harder to take pictures on a terrace as people get in the way. As it turned out, it wouldn’t have been an issue, as only a small number of the 4166 crowd watched from that end. On the other hand, there was no atmosphere in their either. There was strangely very little singing from either set of fans, and I don’t think there was any from under the roof.
Much more popular for standing was the completely open main stand paddock directly opposite me. Facing directly into the wind on this day, I can only imagine the locals are hardy types, who wear their hardiness like a badge on their sleeve, wishing to stoically brave the harshest elements the day has to offer. The main stand seats were also pretty popular, with even the awkwardly jarring extensions either side fairly well occupied.
In contrast the away “end” was completely empty. This open terrace is only opened when sides with a large following come to town, and with Forest Green bringing just 116, this was not one of those days. The end instead housed four Carlisle flags hung over banners, and is also home to an odd five row deep block of just 60 seats at the edge of the terrace. Stevenage’s entire following from earlier in the season of 59 fans, could have been housed in this block.
If the home fans can be pretty stoic about the weather conditions, they are less forgiving of poor home performances. And Carlisle started really poorly. Forest Green play a decent passing style of game, and were passing the home side to death for the opening 20 minutes. With Carlisle limited to the odd break, and it didn’t take long for the groans and complaints to start. This would be Carlisle’s sixth home defeat of the season in the league, and patience was obviously wearing thin.
Things weren’t helped by Forest Green taking a deserved and completely expected lead after just 12 minutes. A few passes in and around the area pinged about, leading to a chance from 12 yards calmly passed past the keeper for the opening goal. 116 green clad fans celebrated at the far end of the stand, with the noise barely making the distance.
The home side did improve, a bit, simply by upping the effort. They did even have a couple of good chances, more or less out of the blue, but it was no surprise that they trailed at half time.
I did consider trying to sneak into the Warwick Road End for the second half, with Carlisle kicking that way. Some people were clearly walking past the stewards who were manning the gap between the two adjoining smoking areas, but there was some kind of nod and agreement as they passed, and I decided not to bother.
I did move a few rows lower down in the stand though, from the back to around the middle – a move I did regret a bit due to the proximity of a group of kids who’d been playing on the pitch at half-time, deciding to sit nearby. Without wish to tar them all with the same brush, they were the kind of kids the phrase “obnoxious brats” could have been invented for, with them practicing the “cool” new swear words they’d learned recently as if they were being sponsored to do so, while treating those in the vicinity to the benefit of their 10 year old wit, as they shouted out encouragement and insults at the players and officials.
Carlisle’s involvement in the game increased as the temperature decreased, and halfway though the half they appeared to be putting on a bit of pressure. A succession of corners were gained. One effort was cleared off the line, and another went over. Despite Forest Green having had the odd decent chance or two of their own, on the break, Carlisle looked the most likely to score, but then they were hit with a sucker punch. Another break, another calm finish, and it looked like game over, as the boos rang out.
Carlisle kept battling away though. A chance to pull one back was spurned as a player just couldn’t connect with a ball flashed across goal. From the resulting corner though a handball was spotted, and a penalty given. Smashed in with ease, it set up a tense finish.
Deep in injury time Carlisle got a corner. A youthful voice behind says, without swearing for once, “we need a Jimmy Glass moment”. The Carlisle keeper is indeed up. He makes a nuisance of himself and the Forest Green keeper can only manage a weak punch away. It’s clipped back in with the keeper stranded, and the Carlisle keeper leaps and tries to stretch and make contact towards the gaping net. He can’t though, and the ball clips the outside of the upright and goes behind for a goal kick. Game over. That goal kick is followed immediately by the full-time whistle, and the tense finish probably staved off even more boos. The fans leaving the ground, engaging is their home defeat post-mortems, probably went in search of booze of the other kind instead.