The History Boys Part 1 - Carlisle United
In the first of what we hope will become a semi-regular series suggested by John McGee of the Carlisle United Blog ‘Bring Me the Head of Keith Mincher’ he revisits the dirty past of some of his club’s most notorious villains to suggest that history should, perhaps, cast a fairer eye on their efforts. If you would like to contribute for your own club then get in touch through the address on our ‘Write For Us’ page.
For those of you not versed with Ferguson’s ideas, he recasts history through an economic lens, examining teutonic events and received wisdom through the means of extended cost benefit analysis. Most famously, in his book ‘Empire’ he concludes that the positive outcomes for those countries subject to British colonial rule vastly outweigh the oppression and heartache more commonly associated with this era of British history. More recently he has used similar arguments to justify armed intervention in the Middle East and Afghanistan. His detractors claim he is on a one man mission to re-write history and that his blunt analysis could be used to explain away the atrocities of Nazi Germany and sub-Saharan Africa as justifying their ends. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s certainly a conversation starter and a vital voice in modern historo-political discourse.
So can his theories be applied to football? Using three examples from Carlisle United’s recent past, I’m going to challenge common perception and suggest they can.
To the casual observer Michael Knighton (pictured above in full ‘arrogant berk’ pomp)’s name is rivalled only by that of Jimmy Glass as that most commonly associated with Carlisle United in recent memory. Manchester United fans will remember him as the moustachioed arriviste who ham fistedly juggled a ball in front of the Stretford End clad head to toe in club merch like the walking mid-life crisis he quite clearly was. Others will associate his name with bizarre claims that he was subject to an alien visitation which were plastered across the tabloids in the early 2000s.
To Carlisle fans he is their man who drove the club to the edge. A chancer who peddled a Premier League dream and left clouded in acrimony having over the course of his tenure sacked manager Mervyn Day to take personal charge of team affairs, overseen the building of a new East Stand which still, embarrassingly, sits out of line with the pitch he planned to move. Knighton is the man who threatened to padlock the gates at Brunton Park, who was hoodwinked by a penniless curry house barman named Stephen Brown into believing that he was the answer to the club’s financial prayers. A man who, even in an exile forced by a directorial disqualification, controlled the club through his son Mark; as the ‘Alien Man’ from the News of the World. A clown; the man who turned Carlisle United into a laughing stock.
Surely there is little to thank Knighton for? Well that’s largely correct. But we’re thinking like Niall Ferguson here, so what could possibly tip the scales?
Well, Knighton’s later period clouds one of modest success and stability in his early period. A side featuring David Reeves, Warren Aspinall and a pair of waifs called Matt Jansen and Rory Delap were promoted from Division 3 twice (under Day and Mick Wadsworth) and gave Carlisle a first taste of Wembley glory in the Auto Windscreen’s Shield. So what? Fair enough, it hardly stems the flow of bile associated to his later gaiety. It is the proverbial spring of parsley garnishing the plate of shit that Knighton served up to Cumbrians fans.
Knighton’s true coup de grace though comes in something he neglected to do — sell the club to Brooks Mileson. The late Gretna owner long coveted the seat at the helm of his local club and Knighton consistently denied it him. Their war of egotistical hot air was borne out across the back pages of the local press — Knighton consistently suggesting that a Mileson takeover was in the worst interests of the club. We scoffed at the time and Mileson took his vanity and seemingly bottomless cashpit six miles up the road to Gretna.
What happened there is a tale of a modern day Icarus playing at football — there’s plenty ink spilling elsewhere on the internet so I’ll save on detail but you’ll be aware that Mileson flew the Borders club too close to the sun and then, in penury and on his deathbed, put them out of business.
We’ll never know how close Knighton came to padlocking the gates at Brunton Park, I don’t doubt it was unspeakably tight on several occasions (selling prized asset Tony Caig for £5,000 on deadline day springs to mind) but it never happened. It undoubtedly would have under Mileson. Knighton’s eye for a fellow crook saved us from that.
In the ‘Story of Carlisle United’ by Niall Ferguson he is a prince amongst men.
Those of you who aren’t Carlisle fans or resident in Ireland probably aren’t aware of Collins so I’ll start with a short introduction — the man is a buffoon.
Having made his reputation guiding Bohemians to the Champions League he became, in 2001, the latest to lash his hide to the Michael Knighton Bucking Bronco. Brother of Irish hero and Eubank vanquishing middleweight Steve, Collins had a reputation as a straight talking hard man which has seen him carve out a successful niche as a blithe pundit on Irish TV and in the ring as a ‘celebrity’ boxer. Mention Carlisle United in a Dublin minicab and you’ll invariably be met with a heartfelt rhapsody about the man, replete with personal anecdotes of his singular efforts to paint Temple Bar red.
Collins time at Brunton Park was pock-marked with financial constraints but he coped admirably and built a team which twice survived relegation by the skin of its teeth. He is fondly remembered by fans as limited but spirited coach whose affability adhered him to them and whose easy manner was particularly good with young supporters. However his time will forever remain fraught in the eyes of most — he projected his own image to create a brutal brand of thuggish anti-football. United’s two seasons under Collins were chequered by a string of red cards and the littered body parts of innumerable Division 3 midfielders on the wrong end of some ‘treatment’ from Mark Summerbell or Will McDonagh. It reached its nadir as striker Steve Livingstone was sent off for biting York centre half Chris Brass in his first game back from a three game suspension for another red card.
His tenure also saw the biggest influx of Irish paid labour to North Cumbria since the potato famine as Collins consistently raided his native League of Ireland to bring in players he invariably described as ‘the best uncapped player in Ireland’. Some (Brian Shelley and the aforementioned McDonagh) filled a shirt at Division 3 level whilst others, such as his prize turkey, £100,000 centre back Darren Kelly left fans gnashing their teeth with anguish on a weekly basis. The ‘Irish Contingent’ was also central to a negative ‘win or lose on the booze’ culture in which the manager was a key player and which pervaded the dressing room throughout his reign.
Collins left Brunton Park after 4 straight losses to begin the 2003-4 season in which Carlisle would eventually be relegated under Paul Simpson’s helmsmanship. In a recent interview ahead of Carlisle’s JPT triumph (Collins finest hour was an unlikely appearance in a Cardiff final as his team scrapped for their league lives) he attempted to recast history himself, suggesting he’d have saved Carlisle that season. This would be a step to far even for Ferguson. Simpson’s team of Collins cast-offs limped to a record losing streak and a turn around was only threatened through the injection of old lags and young whippets which he administered in January. At another pre-Wembley event I heard former Blues fullback Lee Maddison give a Q&A — he described Collins knowledge of football as ‘appalling’ and added ‘he was by far the worst manager I ever played for’. Hardly an endorsement for a man to keep the club from ruin.
So why does Collins earn a reprieve? In the same interview he was at pains to state that he personally saved Carlisle United from rack and ruin — and he was right. So enamoured was Collins with the club (or the cushty post in English fooball anyway) that he made desperate entreaties to his Dublin contacts to save them from closure. His friend and fellow barfly, the businessman John Courtenay, stepped in in the close season of 2001-2 and, after a drawn out process, wrested the club from the rancid hand of the Knighton dynasty. Courtenay saw sense a season later and ‘did the dirty’ on his old pal. His time as owner of CUFC was a short, but colourful period and he left them in far ruder health as he passed custodianship to Carlisle lad Fred Story as the club slipped into the Conference.
‘JC’ is universally popular as the man who saved Carlisle United — a sparky presence and a natural salesman who, despite the on pitch trauma, brought the good times back to Brunton. United history will be kind to him. If life were just, it’d save a glowing footnote for Collins vital role in his chapter.
Richie Foran was the posterboy of the Collins era. A £120,000 purchase from Shelbourne he had been on the verge of joining SPL giants Aberdeen who were put off by his bad boy reputation. The bare stats of his Carlisle career make for positive reading — 29 goals in 100 or so appearances is a strong return from a player who brought some much to the team in way of work rate and ability.
This, however, belies Foran’s true contribution to the team. To see him on the pitch was to watch a red card waiting to happen — how he only accumulated 3 in his time at Brunton Park beggars belief. In one dust up he broke the tooth of Huddersfield’s Steve Yates and served a 5 match ban. After a sending off away at Lincoln he and John Courtenay brawled with stewards — in a recent interview with Carlisle’s News & Star he claimed that he was ‘protecting the owner’. The reality is that he was a footballing wild child in its most literal sense — a coiled spring bruising for his next confrontation; his fuse shorter than Brian Clough’s reign in West Yorkshire.
Foran took his attitude off the pitch too. A central figure in the club’s drinking culture he made regular court appearances for assault, affray and drinking offences as fans took their opportunity to share a few home truths.
Under Simpson, Foran became a pariah. Undoubtedly still the squad’s most talented individual he was cast out to set an example to his peers — his ignominious low point a loan stint at Oxford United as the Cumbrians struggled for goals and their Division 3 lives. He was first against the wall upon relegation as Simpson’s new broom era rebuilt the club round the steadying, professional influence of Tom Cowan, Kevin Gray and Andy Preece and on to successive promotions.
Motherwell manager Terry Butcher took a punt on Foran’s talent and their fruitful relationship continues to this day at Inverness Caley Thistle. It’s a credit to them both that he has become a talent fulfilled. He will forever remain a fondly remembered footnote in United history — a talented but ill tempered scamp with fire in his eyes and Guinness in his belly. Perhaps we owe him a little more — as the sacrificial lamb of a new era, the passing on of Richie Foran was the first, and perhaps most significant, act in the club’s most successful period in 30 years.
As a man who cites food shortages, rather than popular uprising, as the root cause of the great 19th century emancipation of male suffrage, Niall Ferguson would most certainly approve.