Leadership lessons from Carlisle Football Club’s epic journey

At 10am on a bright late summer morning in August 2015, the official bus for Carlisle United Football supporters pulled out of the club’s ground, not far from the Scottish border. Its destination was Plymouth. It was to be an epic journey that would enter into club historyCarlisle United

The plan was for the fans to make the 779 mile return journey (1250 kilometres) to Plymouth on the South Coast of England in order to support their team in a mid-week evening match.

The official attendance at this match was 6071 of which 169 were Carlisle fans who were reported as as remaining as vociferous as the 97% of the home support throughout the match.

Five a.m the next day

At approximately five a.m. the next day, the coach was approaching the outskirts of Carlisle. Dawn was breaking on another fine day. A few weary passengers are waking up, some bracing themselves for a day’s work. Others had stayed awake throughout the journey. Fatigue has replaced the despair they had experienced as they watched their team plummet to a heavy defeat the previous evening.

Seizing the gifts of fortune

On the journey back, the fans glumly discussed how theirs was by far the better team in the first half, launching a series of attacks from which they could have gone three or four goals up. Then mistakes. The wrong sorts of boots. A brilliant shot slides wide.

The Gods of football were not pleased at such profligate failure of the team to seize the gifts of fortune. Just before half time, the optimism of the Carlisle supporters flipped into despair.

“It was a fantastic first 35 minutes”

The descent from optimism to grief was summed up by manager Keith Curle after the match.

“It was a fantastic first 35 minutes. We had a game plan and we got a shape which caused them problems. I think we had four good chances where we could have scored and some of the passages of play were excellent.Then a defender slipped and the ball ends up in the back of our net from a rifled shot.The second goal came from poor defending at the near post zone. That’s something we’d worked on and something we’d given the players information about.

The third goal was another player slipping, and the fourth came because a player didn’t know what was around him. He tried to receive the ball on the half way line and he got caught, so they were able to break.”

Heroic loyalty

The loyalty of supporters of little clubs like Carlisle is a matter of marvel. They have not been inspired by a charismatic leader to go to considerable lengths to watch their team. Yet the distinction between these fans and fanatics is worth preserving. A cruel loss will not result in the fans abandoning their club. The interesting question is why is such loyalty so difficult to sustain in many work environments.

There is something heroic about such loyalty. Sky Bet sponsors this league. Within Sky Bet there was someone who had a good idea. The fans were met as they entered the ground to receive reimbursement for travel and match ticket costs.

Disdain for the Premiership culture

There is even disdain for what such supporters see as the sell-out in the Premiership to the forces of big money.

On the journey back, the coach will have passed close to Old Trafford football stadium. While Carlisle’s Blues were battling Plymouth’s Pilgrims, Manchester United Reds were hosting Brugge in a European Cup qualifier. The Belgian fans showed all the passion of the Carlisle supporters as their team also slipped to a defeat. If they had driven over via Calais, their trip would have been roughly half that made by the Carlisle supporters.

Many United fans will have missed their third goal scored in extra time, having left their theatre of dreams to beat the traffic rush.

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