In March 2001 a meeting of four football supporters occurred in a pub outside Carlisle. They didn’t know each other, but they all had a common goal – to get an organisation together that could ultimately buy a share of their local football club. Different groups had been talking separately about setting up such a venture but that day, four of them came together to pool their collective talents and get a committee up and running to do just that. These were:
- Kate Rowley, a former police officer, who was working for the Police Federation.
- John Wilson, a Carlisle-based lawyer.
- Alan Steel, a long-time supporter who had been living for a while in South Wales.
- Brian Hall had been involved for many years with the Supporters’ Club and had recently set up the Cumbrian Independent Supporters’ Association (CISA).
In many ways, the CISA was the forerunner of the new organisation. However the new group would be run on different lines, and would be part of Supporters Direct, a government-backed initiative that had begun the previous year.
The four founding members signed the initial constitution and set about recruiting more people to help with the creation of the organisation, which used the trading name Carlisle and Cumbria United Independent Supporters Trust (or CCUIST). The reason for this convoluted name was quite simple – to avoid having the magic words ‘Carlisle United’ appear together. Such a move was likely to incur the wrath of the common enemy – Michael Knighton.
Knighton had been owner of United since 1992. For the previous two years he had been trying to dispose of the Club. At least, that’s what he insisted in public. Efforts by would-be buyers such as Brooks Mileson, Fred Story and a group of existing directors led by Albert Doweck had all foundered.
At the start of 2001 a bizarre episode unfolded when a former curry house waiter called Stephen Brown, from Peebles, was unveiled as the club’s new part-owner, alongside a shadowy organisation known as MAMCARR who were based in the tax haven of Gibraltar. Nobody knew precisely who MAMCARR were, but suspicions arose that they had more than a minor association with Knighton himself.
The letters in MAMCARR were the first letters of all the Knighton family names – Michael, Anne, Mark, Chevonne, Anna, Rosemary, Rory. Knighton, for his part, denied any connection with them. The Brown/MAMCARR era lasted precisely a week. Brown, who claimed to have sold a hotel in Spain for £6 million, was revealed in the press to drive a ‘clapped out’ Vauxhall Cavalier and to live in a sheltered housing scheme. The deal to sell the shares never went through. MAMCARR disappeared as quickly as they had emerged – into the background.
It was against this backdrop that CCUIST came into being. Fans were fed up of the shenanigans going on behind the scenes at the Club and vowed to help bring about a change of ownership. They received widespread support. Knighton’s stated ambition back in 1992 was to take United into the Premier League within 10 years. In 2001, the Club had just finished 3rd bottom of the entire league – the third straight season they had finished in the bottom 3. In 1999, goalkeeper Jimmy Glass’s 94th minute goal had saved them from relegation to the Conference. The Club’s recent history was pockmarked with failure, embarrassment and under-achievement.
In May 5, 2001, on the morning of the final day of the season, CCUIST was formally launched at a large public gathering in The Sands Centre in the city. Almost 2,000 attended this meeting, and within a few months more than 1,000 had signed up as members.
They were asked to make one-off or regular donations, and very soon a significant ‘war chest’ had been gathered. CCUIST had a six-figure sum in their bank account. Knighton came under increasing pressure to sell. Irish businessman John Courtenay began negotiations with him in January 2002, amid protests against the Knighton regime organised by CCUIST.
Courtenay’s convoluted attempts to fashion a deal dragged on for more than six months. In late May 2002 the Club went into administration following the issuing of a winding up order by HM Customs and Excise. Fans vowed to boycott United the following season. Season ticket sales dried up – only seven had been sold by late July. It was then that Knighton finally agreed to sell. Courtenay took over and promised a brighter future, with CCUIST firmly involved.
CCUIST and Courtenay negotiated an historic agreement in the closing weeks of 2002 and signed in early 2003. It allowed CCUIST to own up to 40% of the Club’s holding company, CUFC Holdings, in two tranches of shares that would have to be paid for over a six year period. CCUIST took possession of the first 20% tranche, and handed over a cheque for £100,000 before that season’s LDV Vans Trophy Final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. That, however, still meant they needed to raise a further £700,000 to reach their 40% target. Alan Steel, the chair of the Trust, was elected by members as the first supporters’ representative on the Board.
That figure of £800,000 was essentially the only fly in the ointment. CCUIST had acquired a significant stake in the Club and had a board representative but raising such a daunting sum was to prove problematical – and on the field, fortunes hadn’t improved much. During the 2003-04 season, United sank well adrift at the bottom of the league, amid more financial problems. A scheme was proposed that would involve CCUIST giving up their second tranche of shares and investors buying up that tranche, to help the Club at a time when it was in urgent need of fresh financial help.
The first hint of trouble came when Steel dramatically resigned following a row with Courtenay over the issue of voting rights. The plan was revised, and a Special General Meeting in April 2004 voted to give the CCUIST Board the power to negotiate a revised agreement. However a matter of weeks later came the unexpected news that Courtenay had sold his controlling stake to builder Fred Story, who had been on the Club’s Board for a year since joining in 2003.
What followed was over two years of legal disputes and negative headlines in the local paper. CCUIST were to change their name that summer, but were soon pitched into an unwanted and draining battle, after an intervention by another millionaire, one who had been in the background for some years.
The second part of the CUOSC story continues soon.
Written by Alastair Woodcock