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Friday, 25 July 2014

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Former Carlisle Utd striker says 'there is place in Championship' for Blues

It’s like 1986 all over again. Margaret Thatcher is back in the headlines, shoulder pads are in fashion, Duran Duran are going on a reunion tour and Carlisle United have a team capable of reaching football’s second tier.

Paul Baker photo
Paul Baker

Paul Baker’s hair may be a little greyer than it was in his eighties heyday at Brunton Park, but the former Carlisle United forward reckons his old club is ready to roll back the years.

It’s 26 years since Carlisle were last in the old Second Division, with Baker leading the line, and now a whole new generation is hoping to prove they can cut it with the big boys.

Baker, who scored the first and last of his 152 career goals during his two spells with Carlisle, knows how tough it is to get out of League One as his brother-in-law is Huddersfield Town boss Lee Clark, but he is confident the Blues have what it takes to be playing in the Championship next season.

Greg Abbott’s side will be looking to underline their promotion credentials on Saturday against another of Baker’s former clubs Hartlepool United, where he made 235 appearances.

“Carlisle have a great chance of getting a play-off place this season as they have already shown they deserve to be up there fighting it out,” said Baker.

“There is a place in the Championship for a club like Carlisle because of its support and expectation. They are big enough to be in there.

“I think there is a realisation that they can get back up there and, of course, they now have the stadium plans for when they get there, so they have a great opportunity.

“The management team is doing really well with the resources they have.

“The game has changed in the 26 years since they were last there but they will easily adapt to the style of play in the Championship.

“League One is a very strong league with clubs like Huddersfield, Charlton and the two Sheffield clubs. They’re clubs more accustomed to the higher divisions and they have far bigger budgets than Carlisle.

“But it seems as if Greg and Graham Kavanagh know how to get the best out of every player and that is just as important as going out and spending money on players.”

When he heard Carlisle wanted to sign him in 1985, Baker’s immediate reaction was that he would rather go back to working on the Tyneside shipyards.

A product of the famous Wallsend Boys Club that brought through Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley, Baker was devastated when his first taste of the professional game with Southampton ended with him being released after a single season.

Saints boss Lawrie McMenemy was old pals with Carlisle manager Bob Stokoe and had put in a word for Baker.

Now 49 and a lecturer at Gateshead College Academy for Sport, Baker said: “Bob persuaded me to go through and have a chat and as soon as I sat down in his office I knew I would sign.

“He was such a legendary North East figure after taking Sunderland to the 1973 FA Cup final that I was awestruck.

“I signed a contract for £200-a-week plus bonuses, but it said I had to live within a five-mile radius of Brunton Park.

“I thought about living nearer Brampton but he refused permission so I bought a house in Sandsfield Park.

“Bob was superb – very old school, very regimental but willing to put an arm around you. He was a smashing character and knew how to get the best out of you with his man-management skills.

“It was a very decent team with a good blend of players like Kevin Carr, Paul Haigh, Mike McCartney, Jack Ashurst and Billy Wright.

“Ian Bishop came from Everton and he was brilliant, technically very good, and you knew he was going to move on to better things. He was the playmaker and Mick Halsall was the box-to-box player who would do the tackling.

“John Halpin was an amazing talent who was interesting other clubs, but he had terrible luck with broken legs.”

However, the club was involved in a relegation scrap all season and their stubborn resistance ended when they were relegated along with Middlesbrough and Fulham at the end of the season – never to return to the second tier.

Baker was signed as a central defender but halfway through the season was switched to a striking role because of an injury crisis.

The first of his 152 league goals came in a 2-1 win at home to Leeds United in November 1985 when he fired past Mervyn Day.

Little did he know that 14 years later he would make a shock return to Brunton Park to help rescue them from relegation during a period of disruption, rancour and recrimination that characterised the latter years of controversial owner Michael Knighton’s reign.

After two spells with Saturday’s opponents Hartlepool United, where he made 235 league appearances, scoring 77 goals and captained them to promotion in 1991, and moves to Gillingham, Scunthorpe, York City, Torquay and Motherwell, he found himself out of football at 37.

He asked former Hartlepool chairman John Smart if there were any vacancies with his road resurfacing company, only to discover Smart was a director at Carlisle and would set up a trial as Blues boss Martin Wilkinson was desperate for a forward.

Baker scored on his debut, a 1-1 draw with Mansfield, and then the following week in a 4-2 win at home to Plymouth, but it turned out to be a false dawn as Carlisle, having been saved from relegation thanks to the boot of Jimmy Glass the previous season, faced another grim battle.

Baker stepped up to the role of No2 to Wilkinson after the departure of Neil Cooper, but it was a traumatic introduction to management.

They were spared relegation only on goal difference, with Chester falling through the trapdoor into the Conference.

But Baker’s dedication and loyalty was rewarded with the sack, along with Wilkinson.

“When we were safe of relegation, I’ve never felt such a weight off my shoulders,” he said.

“Then there was just a wall of silence and no one would tell me what was going on.

“I came over to try to find out what was happening and to pick up my stuff. I had files detailing coaching sessions, videos, analysis from scouts and paperwork. Stuff that was very important to me.

“I was told Michael Knighton had ordered the groundsman to put it all in a skip and set fire to it.

“I’d helped to keep them up and worked really hard, but I felt it was six months wasted. I left on a sour note which was sad.”

Twelve years on, Carlisle have been transformed into a promotion-chasing team, and the feel-good factor surrounding the club is enhanced by a proposed move to a modern new stadium at Kingmoor Park, suitable for hosting Championship football.

An eight-game unbeaten run has moved them to within three points of a play-off place and left it all to play for.

Baker is predicting a fiercely-competitive contest on Saturday when his two former clubs do battle at Victoria Park.

“It will be a tough place for Carlisle to go because Neale Cooper will have Hartlepool fired up,” he said.

“Hartlepool have improved and won’t want to lose at home, but if Carlisle go there and win it shows they mean business.”

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