It was like a huge step back in time in the home dugout on Sunday afternoon when former manager Mick Wadsworth took charge of the 94/95 United Legends team who, thanks to some excellent work behind the scenes, were adorned in a replica of the eye-catching deckchair kit that had captured the imagination as the team of that era romped its way to the Division Three title and a first ever appearance under the famous twin towers of Wembley.
It seemed remiss not to take the opportunity for a brief skip down memory lane ahead of kick off in the big game and, as ever, he was more than obliging.
“It’s always nice to come to Carlisle,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of friends, some great memories, and it’s nice to see Paul [Simpson] and pit my wits against him - although I’ve just looked around my dressing room and I’m not feeling hugely confident, we seem to have a lack of running power, aerial speed, and manoeuvrability. But we’ll enjoy it.
“They were a special group and Paul will say the same about his lads. When you have success it’s the years after you realise how good they were as a group, how tough they were, how well they got on with each other, it’s that perfect storm situation.
“We had a great blend of youth and experience, and that’s represented here. Derek Mountfield’s here from the experienced end of the squad, and at the younger end we’ve got Richard Prokas and Paul Murray and so on. It was a great time at the club.”
Having been given the opening, we asked him to look back to recall when he first realised it was a special group of players that had been assembled.
“The first half of the first season I was here was really tough,” he reflected. “We were in the bottom six or seven until Christmas, fighting away.
“We were getting rid of players, trying to bring young players in and add a little bit of experience. But when we got on that run in the second half, to drive towards the play-offs, you felt yeah, we’re ok here.
“There was just a little bit of tweaking needed in the summer. We brought a couple of players in, in terms of David Currie who added a hell of a lot, Derek who was immense, and half way through the season we brought Steve Hayward, who was a key player both for me and Mervyn afterwards.
“It was that period when we thought we had a chance. And from the first game of the season I thought we’d be there or thereabouts. I didn’t expect us to run away with it like we did, but I felt we had a chance.”
And almost from the off in that 94/95 campaign it was a group that gelled, with tenacity and bite complemented by some excellent football to watch.
“We worked very hard,” he told us. “We were so lucky in the sense that the players we brought in by and large did really well, and that doesn’t happen all the time.
“But we had that fantastic crop of youth to fall back on as well. When you’ve got people like Paul Murray coming through, Rory Delap, Lee Peacock, Richard Prokas, Tony Hopper, God bless him, Will Varty and so on.
“There were more, waiting to come into the group, I was so lucky to have those. I’ve always been fearless with young players and was happy to put them in as well. That blend was quite magical.
“And as we were doing what we were doing, I don’t think we clicked that it was history in the making, or anything like that.
“The funny thing about football and I suppose any successful period in business, entertainment, whatever - while you’re living it you don’t appreciate it as much as you should, how much you should be enjoying it.
“I remember years later, Gordon Milne at Newcastle, the wise old fella, said Mick, you’ve got to toast every win you have. When you leave a job, have a glass of champagne and look at the cheque. They were wise words.”
With the Wembley trip always a find memory, he confirmed that the standout achievement would always be topping the table, with that being the aim for every club form the moment they get together in pre-season.
“That will always mean a lot, without a doubt, but close behind that I would say, and this is from my career as well, is putting young players in the team,” he insisted.
“That means more to me than most things. Giving young players a chance. I worked it out a few months ago and I gave just short of 100 debuts to scholars in the Football League.
“That’s a high number, it’s like 10 teams. They didn’t all make it or have glittering careers, but most of them had a career and some fantastic careers. Putting those young players in that Dave Wilkes provided for us, that was important.
“And behind us we had the fans. The Paddock, it was full of wit, ribald comment, advice. I used to sit in the directors’ box in the first half and if things weren’t going so well, they were never shy of telling me what should be done. But they were a fantastic bunch, a really good bunch.”
Tentative reports of links with Norwich surfaced early in 1996, and the rumours became fact when he headed to Carrow Road at the beginning of that year.
“Massive regret,” he confirmed. “I’ve two regrets in my career - leaving here and leaving Newcastle.
“It was just stupid basically. I know why it happened at the time and I think people who know me and knew what was going off at the time understood, it was a difficult time. but that’s not throwing mud at anyone, far from it.
“I wish I’d stayed at that period and wish I’d stayed at Newcastle in that period. It was difficult here but you find a way.
“Mervyn Day did a great job after me, got promoted again, went to Wembley and won it. The basis of a team was there.
“Mervyn brought Stephane in and people like that, it’s great to see Stephane because he played for me at Colchester, and when I went to the African Nations Cup he was my security as well.
“And I needed it, but I’m sure we’d have coped somehow. One thing when you work in the lower divisions in English football you find a way of coping. There are plenty of players, particularly if you’re happy to go with young players.”
And it was obvious that walking down the tunnel was going to spark those fond memories, with the reception from the fans in the Sunday sunshine a reminder of just how highly regarded he is round these parts.
“It’s nice, just pleasant, it’s as it should be,” he said. “I’m comfortable here. I think I had three promotions, a couple of play-offs, and equally some tough times through my career.
“The highlights of your career in terms of success do stand out. I’ve always taken a more philosophical view that you just do your best everywhere you go, in terms of trying to make a club better than it was when you started, generally I think I’ve done that, but that’s just the nature of the job.”
“Overall it’s just good to see the place again,” he concluded. “And it’s a day that has the serious side, as we look to raise money for the player fund, that’s coupled with a chance to celebrate two great squads.
“It’s lovely Paul’s back at the club. I was absolutely delighted when he got the job - mission accomplished, he’s kept you up which was looking perilous at one point.
“I was looking at two of my old clubs in Oldham and Carlisle, and it’s so sad Oldham have gone out of the League, a club with such heritage.
“It would have been more sad for me in a sense if this club had gone out of the league, because it’s so tough. I was looking at the National League and NL North, there are 15 ex-Football League teams. It’s not easy to get back.
“Like I say, I’m pleased for Paul. My first experience of him was when I was youth coach at Barnsley in the early 80s before I joined the FA. If we had some injuries I’d play in the reserves.
“We played Manchester City at home in a Central League game. I was playing on the right wing and Paul was playing on the left wing for Manchester City. And I could run, it was one of my great qualities I could run like the wind.
“But blooming heck, not like him. I was blowing through my backside after about 20 minutes. I was 33 and he was 17 or 18, galloping about.
“I’ve watched his career, did a wonderful job with the FA, marvellous job here first time round, in a tough period when he pulled it back round and got us back to where we should be, played against his team a few times, for example with Shrewsbury.
“He’s a good man and he’s a local lad. I truly hope he’s here next season.”
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