In his book on English football grounds, Simon Inglis describes Brunton Park in Carlisle as “A frontier post guarded only by sheep”. From the main stand, I can, indeed, to my left see sheep grassing on the other side of the river Petteril, as Brunton Park is located on the very outskirts of the city.
So I can see what he means. It feels like frontier country. It is a long – but beautiful – train journey through the Lake District to get here. And when you finally get here, there are busses to Glasgow and Edinburg as well as a train taking you to Hadrian’s wall. Border country, where the reivers used to roam in the country not controlled by neither English nor Scottish governments.
The frontier feeling is enhanced by the threatning river so close to the gorund. “Do not disturb the water”, Aragorn says in Lord of the Rings. I bet there are people here saying the same. Only three months ago, the entire area was flooded after the storm Desmond The river stood a full 8 feet high over the pitch.
The statue outside the ground to commemorate the centenary of the club in 2004 just managed to keep its head above water. And all the houses in the street are standing empty, undergoing reconstruction work and drying to make them liveable again.
The offices in the stadium were ravaged as well, and I guess most of the stock in the souvenir shop as well. Apart from a childrens’ hat-and-scarf se, the only scarves on sale are matchday scarves from the FACup-tie against Everton three weeks ago. The first match at Brunton PArk after the flood – and after a new £ 150.000 pitch had been laid.
It wasn’t the first flooding of the ground either. According to English, a flooding in the 1960’s had revealed that the pitch was sloping heavily, although you can’t help wondering why they didn’t test it with a spirit level. Another flooding in 2005 left a goldfish on the pitch as the water receded. Billy the Fish went on to become club mascot for 5 years before dying in 2010.
The perilous proximity to the river is – in my opinion – the only valid reason why Carlisle United should even consider a proposed move to a new modern all-seater stadium, for which a plan was put forward some five years ago. Because Brunton Park has more character and soul than most other grounds in England.
The main stand is from 1954, built after a fired had destroyed the old one. The lower tier a standing terrace full length of the pitch. At first, the roofed, seated second tier with a directors’ box only covered part of the pitch’s length, but it was extended to cover the ful length with two new wings in 1971. The roofs of the different sections are not on the same level, which gives the stand a very distinct profile.
First thing I do, as I arrive, is to go to the ticket office. As the offices in the the ground are still suffering from the flooding, the ticket office is temporarily located in a mobile container. I tell that I am groundhopping from Denmark and ask which part of the ground has the best atmosphere. “The main stand – a if the gets the rain gets heavier, you will only have full cover in the seated area at the back”. I ask her about the new stand from 1994 opposite the main stand. “Well, if you prefer plastic seats to wooden seats, yeah, but I would definetely prefer the main stand”, the girl says, “that’s where I am going”.
Wooden seats vs. plastic seats. I am not in doubt and buy my ticket for the main stand. The centre part, that is. For the two wings from 1971 are both equipped with plastic seats. I take a walk around the ground afterwards. I like the good, old, modest players’ entrances. A couple of the Carlisle players walk across the carpark and stop to have their photos taken with a couple of kids. They laugh and chat. So good to see that players and fans can be on wavelength and not have to be kept strictly apart by security.
To add to the compound look of the main stand, a restaurant building of glass is attached to it. “Foxy’s” it is called, referring to the real mascot of the club, the fox Olga. In fact, a stuffed fox is carried onto the pitch before kick-off and left right at the kick-off spot, where it awaits the players when they enter the field.
But the restaurant “Foxy’s” has lost its “x” on the front side, adding to the feeling that time is competing with the river to take away the most bites of the ground.
Just as the players’ entrance is very modest, so are the sponsors’ and directors’. A small door and a narrow, basic staircase. Amazingly, there are no tunstiles. At the end of the stairs, there are two stewards who scan my ticket, that is it.
I just love these wooden seats. They may not be much more comfortable than plastic seats, but somehow you feel that more work, effort and care have been put Into them. And quite a few of the seats around me have name plaques telling who they belong to, making them distinctly more personal than anonymous plastic seats. And although I rub shoulders with the man in the neighbouring seat, there is sufficient room for my long legs here. A rarity.
It is not just the wooden seats, over my head is a wooden staircase leading to wooden camera platform.
And the BBC reporters are sitting in a small box behind me.
There was a white, closed door halfway up the staircase, and I presume it leads to catering and toilet facilities. Just to make sure, I ask the stewards if that is the place for a snack and a coffee. To my surprise, they tell me that I have to leave the ground again and go to a take-away stall outside the ground. I make my way out again to “Street Food”.
A burger and a chip butty are the only snacks to choose between, and the burger that I do choose must go down as one of my most disappointing prematch snacks ever!
After the match, I try the white door. It hides some very old and small toilet facilities – room for five men at the time – but they are well kept and do not “industrial”. The door also hides a supporters’ lounge bar that apparently only serves beer and cold drinks.
From the main stand, I have got a good vied of the most odd thing about the ground. The location of the new stand opposite me. To my right, it only extends to about the penalty spor. To my left, however, it extends about 10 yards beyond the admittedly very small end stand.
The immediate impression is that the constructors must have been drunk when they did the planning or have started building in the wrong place down the other end. There is, though, a good but still bizarre explanation.
The businessman Michael Knitghton made a spectacularly unsuccesfull attempt at buying Manchester United in 1989, even appearing in Manchester United kit onto the Old Trafford pitch juggling a ball prior to kick-off of the very first match of that season. His bid having failed, he purchased Carlisle United who were languishing at the bottom of the league table at the time, and promised to make them great.
The greatness-to-be include a modern, all-seater, amphitheatre style stadium to be in place for the club’s centenary in 2004, and work started on the first stand in 1996. The idea was to move the entire ground a bit closer to the river, and therefore the new stand was moved some 20 yards to the north to mark, where the new stadium would be.
It was a grand plan. Apparently, Knighton even had rooms build in the new stand for “The National Football Museum” of England, which had not yet opened in Preston. Knowing that the museum struggled to get visitors in Preston and eventually moved to Manchester, you wonder how it would have done at Carlisle. But certainly the story illustrates Knighton’s ambition.
Alas, things didn’t turn out according to plan. Knighton sacked popular manager Mervyn Day and took control of team affairs himself in 1997, leading the club to relegation, and the following season Carlisle only retained their league status by the skin of their teeth.. His popularity now declining, Knighton left the club in 2002, and the grand stadium plans fell apart, leaving the club with a very oddly placed stand. The Pioneer stand, it is now called after the sponsor – and it flashes a huge billboard for sausages and steak pies.
The relocation of the stand meant that one of the four floodlight pylons has been removed. Floodlights on top of the roof of the new stand are apparently intended to replace them – but it does seem strange that there are just as many at the end of the pitch with a pylon as at the one without. And speaking of pylons, they look rather peculiar.
Walking around the ground, the new stand look grim and lifeless. Not a place you want to go. There are, though, quite a few spectators sitting there for the match, and in the first half, it is from there that one or two of the very few, feeble attempts of getting a “United”-chant going emerge.
The away support is also put in this stand, but to the side that extends beyond the pitch. On this day, though, it is not a problem. The 100 or so travelling Stevenage fan all sit well within pitch length, even though they sit remarkably scattered. Usually, away fans stick together tight, trying to make as much noise as possible. The Stevenage fans are not heard at all.
I expect most of the noise to come from the Warwick Road End, an old standing terrace from 1965 with a triple triangular roof. It holds a capacity of 3.500 and must – together with the terracing at the front of the main stand offer one of the biggest standing areas in the UK. But the Warwick Road End can hardly be heard where I sit in the main stand. Once or twice it sounds as though somebody has a drum. But the main stand seems to offer just as much or rather just as little noise.
I make my traditional count of 100 hundred random spectators in the main strand to get some idea of the crowd composition. 100% ethnic white, 86% male. But it is not the same hardcore male audience in their 40’s and 50’s. There are all ages – and it doesn’t seem hardcore.
It is a crowd of 4,780 this Saturday, and they spend most of the time chatting with each other – or moaning over the quality of the match. With good reason. It is one of the poorest matches I have ever attended in England. Although the visitors from Stevenage seem to be marginally better, neither side seem capable of putting more than 3 or 4 passes together, let alone beat their opponent. Instead, there is a string of miskicks, unprovoked loss of possession, collisions etc. The best chance of the first half characteristically come, when the Carlisle keeper unprovoked kicks the ball straight out to a Stevenage forward.
With the prehistory of Brunton Park in mind, the game reminds me of underwater football. Everybody seems to be unable to combine movement of body with intention of mind.
In the first half, the man behind me at least 5 times calls out for “JESUS!!!!”. In the second half, he changes his strategy and calls for “Bloody hell!!”. And it does seem to work. A Carlisle substitute beats his man and sends in a good cross resulting in a corner. The crowd rises and chants – and it gives Carlisle enough momentum for the next two or three minutes to actually take the lead.
After that, it is mainly about seeing out time without making too many or at least too costly mistakes. Stevenage get 3 or 4 very good chances, but don’t take them. A rather fortuitous win for the homeside.
At the uncovered Waterworks stand there is a banner proclaiming “Be just and fear not”. If you can win on such a bad day, Carlisle are destined to do well and don’t need to fear.
And there is nothing to fear going to football at Carlisle. It is so quiet and peaceful, perhaps to quiet for a football match. I only see two policemen at the ground, doing their rounds. No need to fear.
It is really odd. As a ground, Brunton Park is almost up there with Everton on top of my “football heritage list”. That is the materiality of the ground with traces of different modes of consumption of the game over so many years. And still, the fans at both grounds are remarkbably quiet – and if you look at crowd engagement through singing and chanting, the are both at the bottom of my list.