Through The Turnstiles #1

The first football match I ever attended was on February 26th, 2005. My school was offering discounted tickets to go to Sunderland’s game against Cardiff. I was just getting into football and didn’t have much interest, but a few of my mates were going, so we carpooled — us and our dads.
I don’t remember much of the actual match. I know Sunderland won and I only know by what score because I looked it up, and I spent most of the match chanting ‘Who are ya?’ at the sparse Cardiff support and being amazed that they were surrounded by such a police presence.

I had no idea that I was watching the likes of Dean Whitehead, Jobi McAnuff, Marcus Stewart, Joe Ledley (in his debut season), or Graham Kavanagh, who we’ll get to later.

I didn’t appreciate that I was at a football match. Summarised by my most lasting memories of the outing being singing along to Keane’s Hopes and Fears album there and back, and asking for a ‘plain’ double cheeseburger at the McDonald’s before the match and then receiving two single cold ones.

It was a good day out.

Just over a year later and my love for the game was growing. I was probably content with just running about the school field playing it, but when my dad told me we could go and watch Carlisle United, I jumped at the opportunity.
It had always seemed like such a far-flung, expensive thing. The trip to Sunderland was a slog and I thought that was the closest we were gonna get that wasn’t the Sunday league side, but I guess I just didn’t know Carlisle had a team.

But have a team they did. A team that had just achieved promotion from the Conference back to the Football League at the first time of asking and were riding the momentum into a game against fellow high-flyers Grimsby Town.
Again, I didn’t know Carlisle were in the throes of a promotion season, or that The Mariners were chasing elevation themselves, but I didn’t care — I wasn’t trying to impress my friends with my chants this time, the game had my full attention.
I remember being wowed by Grimsby goalkeeper Steve Mildenhall, one of three names I came away from Brunton Park singing the praises of, one of the others being United striker Karl Hawley, for whom I’d vowed to return to more games brandishing a banner reading ‘Hawley for England’.

On April 8th, 2006, Carlisle United defeated Grimsby Town 1–0 and I fell in love with going to the match.

I stand by it.

The third name I was crowing about in the car journey back home was Zigor Aranalde. Just the most Cumbrian Spaniard there was. With his long flowing hair and designer stubble, the stylish way he rocked his kit, I cheered and applauded every pass, every run, and every move that man made, and I finally understood what The Police were on about all those years.

It doesn’t really fit in anywhere as an anecdote, but I wanted to share my admiration. Though I can segue nicely off of Stewart Copeland and his bandmates into the most intense footballing rivalry mine tiny eyes had ever beheld…

I promise those are police on horses.

I didn’t go to many games for a while after the visit of Grimsby. I think I thought it was a super expensive thing and my dad did have to work the odd weekend, so I didn’t wanna bother anyone. On top of all that, my dad was a Leeds fan, so in the mid-2000’s, he was having his own issues with football.

But come September 2008, who should roll into town?
Only the mighty Leeds.

They’d been down the season before, and there was a bit of unrest. The 2007/08 season was Leeds’ first ever in the third division, and they weren’t set on a long stay.
Coming in to the match away at Carlisle that season, the fallen giants had won eleven of their first thirteen games, drawing the other two. They’d outplayed all who stood before them and were planning on doing the same to the lads at the other end of the line.
See, Leeds and Carlisle are at opposite ends of a lovely train line, and to my young eyes, I could see that this was the opportunity for a wee rivalry to be born.

Apparently everybody else saw it the same way.

Tensions were high as the match kicked off. I wasn’t there, but I could feel it.
Once Leeds took the lead through Jermaine Beckford however, things relaxed. There was a sense that this one was gonna go by the script again — lowly Carlisle beaten by the giants of Leeds — but then the oft-seen Cumbrian second-half resurgence commenced.
Simon Hackney thundered in from twenty-five yards, Joe Garner put Carlisle ahead with his bonce, and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson sealed it.
Come the full-time whistle, there were more coppers in the away end than fans, and that’s saying something when you’re referring to travelling Leeds support.

Fights ensued (that I’m probably blowing out of proportion in terms of footballing violence) and a rivalry was born.

Leeds would get their points back in the reverse fixture, but then the two were drawn against each other in the play-offs. Because of course they were.

I had to watch all of this from a distance, and it was killing me. It killed me when Carlisle beat Leeds 1–2 in the first leg at Elland Road because I couldn’t see it, but it absolutely murdered me when Jonny Howson struck a last minute tie-winner in the second leg.
We had family round, but dad had been polite long enough and flicked the match on to see the conclusion. I was probably too ignorant to appreciate Carlisle reaching the play-off final, but I knew with all my heart that I wanted them to beat Leeds, so when my dad, reclined on the sofa, threw his arms up when Howson won it, celebrating as much as he could without rubbing it in, my heart sank.
It was the first time I’d ever experienced that. I wasn’t a sporty kid up to that point, so this was my first taste of proper defeat — bitter. I felt like I wanted to cry, but out of anger and frustration.

I now realised that winning was even sweeter, ‘cos I’d tasted the dirt.

I was starting to get football. I think.

But Leeds didn’t go up, and Carlisle didn’t go up, so we’d both have to do it all again the next season.
And this time, I wasn’t gonna miss it.

Both sides had got off to bright starts when they met seven games in, and this was atmosphere. The droves of supporters, the stuffed pubs, the fact my dad didn’t wanna take me on the train because it might be ‘too dangerous’, I was loving it.
I finally saw new heroes that I’d only seen on TV or heard about from my friends before now — Simon Hackney, David Raven, Danny Graham — everything was so, you know what, I’ll say it, MAGICAL.

Then Leeds won 0–2.

It was fun watching my dad stifle his celebrations in The Paddock home stand, but that was about it.
Worse, this started a winless streak that would cost Carlisle boss John Ward his job. I witnessed a few more games of that run, the first a 1–2 defeat to Tranmere Rovers. This was a game when pre-match excitement was quickly quashed with a Tranmere goal in the first minute, but where patience from a lad who just wanted to see his team score goals rewarded, when Danny Graham prodded home a late consolation.

I didn’t care about the rut, I just wanted to support a team that, at that point, I considered my team.

To be continued.

C.L.R.

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