We’re back once again with another edition of Losing My Favourite Game, the feature that encourages reflection on past dejection from the great and good both inside and outside the world of football. And if you were looking for something cheery and lighthearted to distract from military manouvres in the Middle-East, Boris’ Brexit balderdash, or the ever increasing stain of racism on the beautiful game well, you’ve come to the wrong place.
This week’s guest is writer, podcaster, and Balkan football expert Richard Wilson. After falling for the Croatia side at France 98 and the talents of Zlatko Zahovic from Slovenia’s Euro 2000 campaign, following football in the former Yugoslavia came naturally to Richard, to the point where he’s even recently started a Yugoslav football history podcast. Occasionally heard on TalkSport and, more regularly, writing on his own site The Football Life, his current priority (at time of writing) is getting a ticket in among the Dinamo fans for their Champions League game at the Etihad. Originally from the very south of Scotland, Richard was brought up in a mix of the last golden era of Scottish football and the one club local to him - Carlisle United, and its a sliding doors week in the modern history of the Cumbrians that provides the setting for this week’s edition.
Carlisle United 3-3 Exeter City
Exeter City 3-2 Carlisle United
(Exeter City win 6-5 on aggregate)
League Two Play-Off Semi-Final
14th-18th May 2017
My name is Richard Wilson and I am a Lower League Football Fan; in almost every sense of the word. I support two clubs, Celtic, in a Scottish League that is treated like a second class citizen behind the EPL even in its own backyard, and Carlisle United, my local club from my years growing up in the very south of Scotland. I don’t write about the glitz and glamour of the big four leagues. Instead, I write about South-Eastern European football. Where fans of the big leagues worry about a lower league cup tie being played on what is essentially a ploughed field, I worry about watching NK Rogaska playing their games in the middle of a crop yield, like some sort of Slovenian Field of Dreams.
My first game was a Carlisle one - an Auto-Windscreens Final in which the most entertaining part of the 120 minutes was Richard Prokas bodying a corner flag to death. It gave me a lifetime love of football and the 5am start with only The Hobbit given to me to read gave me a lifetime hatred of J R R Tolkien. But the Carlisle game I’ve chosen to write about was really a trilogy - Carlisle against Exeter City from the 2016/17 season, in what was perhaps the greatest playoff tie of all time.
Hindsight possibly identifies this game as by far the most important in the club’s recent history. Carlisle were relatively new to League Two, having only dropped from League One the season prior. The impression of the club as a League One side in League Two were still prevalent throughout the club’s fanbase and this season had been the best opportunity for Carlisle to make hay - they were the last unbeaten club in England at one point and topped the table during the winter. However, the sale of top scorer Charlie Wyke in the winter window had been the catalyst for a run of form that had threatened to send Carlisle out of even the playoffs. The club were left with one game remaining of the season - an away trip to Exeter, about as far as you can go away from Carlisle and still remain on land, and an Exeter City side who had come up having occupied the very bottom of the league while Carlisle were occupying the top.
Carlisle would come from behind twice in that last league game to win 3-2 after Tom Miller evoked the spirit of Rory Delap as a long throw found the head of Jamie Proctor to nod home. It was a game that was more relief than joy, as the season was saved to carry on another couple of weeks at least, with the potential of Wembley on the horizon. Standing in Carlisle’s way was, of course, Exeter once more.
I’d like to say I was there in person to watch the games live but the reality is that, living in a place almost equidistant between Carlisle and Exeter, getting to either was impossible. Instead, I watched at home, viewing a game hidden behind the red button on Sky like some dirty little secret while they showed the big boys of Luton and Blackpool on the main channel. After the first leg, I hoped that promotion to a fully-fledged channel would be in order but as those other sides played out a mini-classic of their own, in the shadows Carlisle would stay.
But expectations were high that Carlisle would escape those shadows and move into the Wembley spotlight. After all, the perfect form line for entering a two-legged tie against Exeter is to go down south and beat them on their own turf immediately prior to it. Football, however, doesn’t particularly like conforming to rational notions of common sense. These two games certainly did their best to defy all logic.
If you could distil into 180 minutes what people outside of the UK think of English football, this would be it. The concept of defence was more or less alien throughout as Exeter had chances at Brunton Park to kill the tie off, going 3-1 up and having goals incorrectly disallowed for offside. Yet Carlisle United rose from these murky depths, much as the city has had to so often this century, with a John O’Sullivan fluke followed by Shaun Miller getting on the end of a so-wicked-its-spiteful cross from Nicky Adams to equalise. It was breathless to the final kick, given the last play of the game was Exeter’s Jake Taylor cracking the post. 3-3 and away to Exeter it was.
The second leg was no less hectic. Ollie Watkins had killed the game stone dead with a double. With 10 minutes to go, the fat lady was already sauntering her way onto the stage before Carlisle’s intent to impersonate Lazarus rather than a competent and organised football team came to the fore once again. Jason Kennedy scrambled home in the 81st minute before John O’Sullivan equalised in the 90th minute. Hope of extra time or penalties or a Carlisle resurrection once more would be killed off by Jack Stacey in the 95th minute, steering home a 20-yard strike to win the tie as Exeter went crazy and Carlisle United set off on a journey that would only get them home by coach the following morning.
Football, at its essence, is a game of contradictions. A game can finish 0-0 and we call it one for the purists and a two-legged tie like this can finish 6-5 and all we do is pick holes in the defending and the organisation. And yes, there is purity in a steadfast defensive performance. Yes, there is beauty in something as simple as a pass. But what is there in this? A two-legged tie of three parts that was so breathless and dramatic that if you paused to have an emotion of any sort, you’d have had something pass you by. This was, in a way, football at its apogee - 270 minutes that managed to pack in storylines a season in the making that threw in the tightest of plotlines around the most incredible action and, if you’re a Carlisle fan, left you with the bitterest of aftertastes.
A bit like Game of Thrones.
The reality, although no-one knew it at the time, was that this was perhaps the high point of the latter half of this decade for the club. As Carlisle United adjusted to life in League Two, budgets were slashed and the city started to feel like the outpost in English football it is. A club of drift rather than a club on the up. A club where the headlines are more about internal turmoil rather than on the field exploits. A club which was just another League Two outfit more interested in survival than progress.
For a fan whose formative years were the Knighton era of grand promises and a young generation with talents like Matt Jansen, who saw it followed by decline into the Conference and bouncing back into League One, the concept of Carlisle as a club without ambition or, at least, without some sort of existential desire or threat with which to spur the entire club on is entirely alien. Be it fighting for promotion, fighting against relegation or fighting against God himself in the floods, Carlisle United has always had that unique purpose. It was a unique purpose that united a city that is unique in itself. This game marked the end of United being a club with a purpose and into an era where the club is simply content to merely exist.
Thanks to Richard for sharing the details of the most painful week in his footballing life. If you want to keep up to date with the latest goings on in Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia, you could do a lot worse than following Richard on Twitter.