Carlisle United Football Club was formed in 1904 at the annual general meeting of Shaddongate United A.F.C. Club members voted to change their team’s name to “bring the Club additional support and establish a representative Carlisle team.”
Nicknamed the Cumbrians for their base in Cumbria County, the team quickly went to work in establishing a fine reputation for themselves in 1904-05, winning both the Cumberland Senior League and the Cumberland Cup Final in their inaugural season. In doing so, they became the first side ever to manage the double.
In 1905-06, Carlisle United joined the Lancashire Combination League at the Second Division level. The following season, they took the Division title and move up to the top rung. By the end of 1907-08, they had proven their prowess as runners-up in the First Division.
Home games were initially staged at Milhome Bank and later at Devonshire Park, before the Cumbrians finally settled at Brunton Park on Warwick Road in 1909. The location has been their home ever since, and the current 18,202-capacity facility has the distinction of being the largest football stadium in England which isn’t all-seated.
For the 1910-11 season, Carlisle United made another change, leaving the Lancashire Combination to enter the North Eastern League. Thereafter, the team struggled, however, both on the field and off, quite nearly going broke by the close of the 1914-15 campaign, when they finished a dismal 17th on the League table.
After the First World War, interest was renewed in football across the nation and Carlisle benefited from crowds in excess of 5,000 at Brunton Park. The team rebuilt and improved so that by 1921-22 they were true contenders. Indeed, they went on to win the North Eastern League championship that season—their first major title and trophy.
Unfortunately for fans, the feat was not to be repeated. The best the Cumbrians could muster was a runners-up finish in 1927-28. They then joined the Football League’s Third Division (North) and remained there till the hiatus of the Second World War. That period witnessed the Club’s best and worst outings, an 8-0 thrashing of Hartpool United in 1928 and an embarrassing 1-11 loss to Hull City in 1939.
After the War, Carlisle United reclaimed their place in the Third Division and held on there until 1958. Relegation put them in the Fourth Division, where they remained until 1964 with just a brief reappearance at the third tier in 1962-63.
Between 1964 and 1975, the Cumbrians experienced what many have called their “Golden Era.” It began with winning the Third Division title in 1964-65, followed by a solid decade of play in the Second Division. For all but four seasons, they finished in the top half of the table, making it as high as third in 1966-67 and again in 1973-74. That last effort was rewarded with the ultimate wish come true—promotion to the First Division.
Then the miraculous occurred. By winning their first three games of 1974-75, Carlisle United rose to the top of the table. Standing undefeated above all others, they were briefly the number one club in all of British football.
Of course, such mighty teams as Derby County, Liverpool and Ipswich Town were not about to let Carlisle’s ship of jubilation sail any further. They quickly capsized the upstarts, sinking the team to the very bottom of the Division, where relegation was waiting at the end of the season.
It is worth noting, however, just how brilliant and special was the Cumbrians’ short-lived moment at the top. To this day, Carlisle still remains the smallest location in England, by local population, to have had a resident top flight football team since 1906. Their ascent gave hope to millions of fans and players that greatness is possible anywhere. Some have branded the team’s climb to the top as “the greatest feat in the history of the game.”
In the decades that followed, Carlisle spent most of their time scrambling, slipping to the third tier in 1977-82 and then fighting back to the second level for four seasons in the 1980s. The 1990s were spent mainly at the fourth level, with two single season promotions to level three.
Amid the gloom, a bright spot appeared in 1996-97. Carlisle United won the Football League Trophy for the first time, outlasting Colchester United after the final match ended in a 0-0 draw after extra time. The 4-3 penalty shootout went the Cumbrians’ way and the trophy went straight to Brunton Park.
Although Carlisle United skidded to the forth tier and eventually lower, losing their Football League status in 2004, the Club has taken a page out of their storied past and mount a revival since then. They regained League entry in 2005 and have risen steadily, making it out of League Two (tier four) to League One (tier three).
What’s more, their Cup form has improved greatly in the new millennium, with visits to the Football League Trophy finals in 2002-03, 2005-06 and 2009-10, followed by a resounding victory in 2010-11, defeating Brentford 1-0 at Wembley. For those who fancy underdogs, there can be no better choice than the Cumbrians to succeed against the odds.