In March 2001 a meeting of four football supporters occurred in a pub outside Carlisle. They didn’t all 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.
Kate Rowley was a former police officer who was working for the Police Federation. John Wilson was a Carlisle-based lawyer. Alan Steel was 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 Cumbrians Independent Supporters’ Association (CISA).
In some ways, the CISA was the true 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.
On 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.
In 2004, CCUIST became The United Trust. Acronyms were proving unpopular so the new name, together with new logo, were largely welcomed by members. Kate Rowley was installed as chair and board rep in place of the departed Alan Steel. However the new identity and new personnel at the top didn’t mean a smooth year ahead. It turned out to be anything but. On the pitch, United had just been relegated to the Conference, ending their 76 year stay in the Football League. Problems quickly developed off the pitch, too.
The problems stemmed from the 2003 agreement via which the Trust had paid over £150,000 towards their 20% shareholding. New owner Fred Story had agreed behind the scenes to put £1 into the club for every £1 the Trust raised towards their own share target. But before ‘Fred’s Big Match’ saw the light of day, the United supremo decided, for his own reasons, to pull out. Enter Brooks Mileson. The owner of Gretna FC, a multi millionaire insurance magnate, agreed to take on the scheme, putting £1 into the Trust’s fund for every £1 raised by members. ‘Brooks’s Big Match’ then became the biggest donation in supporters’ trust history, as he agreed in November to make a £600,000 gift to the Trust to allow it to complete purchase of the first and second tranche of shares in the agreement, enough to become a 40% shareholder.
Story opposed this move and publicly questioned the efficacy of the 2003 agreement, claiming it was ‘fundamentally flawed’ and suggesting the supporters would never own more than 20% by sticking to it. This pitched him into a legal argument with the Trust, who defended the agreement strongly with their own legal advice, which they shared with members. A postal poll of members comfortably backed the 2003 agreement, which the Trust attempted to enforce.
Hence the two sides entered into a long and protracted dispute that would drag on for over 18 months. Bringing the two together proved problematical. There were two meetings with solicitors, one in January and the next in June, both arranged and paid for by the Trust. In between, there was a near-total impasse, with accusations flying back and forth. The Trust Board were particularly bemused when they were described as ‘extremists’ by one United director. Unsurprisingly perhaps, neither meeting brought a breakthrough as the legal dispute carried on.
A stormy AGM in August 2005 saw Alan Steel voted off the board by opponents of the legal action, although, as the Trust revealed earlier in the summer, there had been a sudden ‘joining’ by new members, few of whom remained for more than 12 months. The owner, for his part, claimed he would no longer negotiate with the then Trust board in place. Nevertheless, the legal process was set to run its course, as an injunction had already been applied for and granted, and an interim hearing was held in the High Court in London in November to rule on it.
This hearing ruled conclusively that the Trust’s injunction, acquired earlier in the year, could continue. The injunction required Story to comply with the 2003 agreement while the legal process was still in place. He was further restricted by being unable to sell his shares in Holdings, although he denied having any plans to do so. Furthermore no leave to appeal was granted, an unusually strict ruling, giving the Trust a significant legal victory. The local paper described the outcome, rather mystifyingly, as ‘a draw’. It was clear the media would not be rushing to back the Trust.
Come 2006 and as is often the case with long drawn out disputes, there was a slow thawing of relations. The Trust, thanks to the Mileson donation, was able to complete purchase of the first 20% tranche, providing a timely financial boost to the Club. Story agreed tentatively to further negotiations, and a mediation process, to be overseen by the Court was put in place. An all-day meeting in London in May 2006 brought about a breakthrough. The two sides agreed after further discussions in Carlisle, to stay the entire legal action. The Trust agreed, perhaps reluctantly, to acquire a further 5.4% stake to give a 25.4% share for a total outlay of just under £800,000. A member vote was arranged for June 2006 which saw an overwhelming majority in favour of accepting the deal and approving the updated agreement. After such a costly legal argument any appetite for continuing it was vastly reduced. The outcome was that the United Trust became a significant shareholder, controlling 25.4% of Holdings, and able to block special resolutions alongside other powers granted to a 25.1% shareholder. Alongside this came the right to veto major new share issues. The Trust were grateful to a number of individuals who donated to the legal fund and to Norman Steel whose loan enabled the last batch of shares to be acquired by the deadline.
The big winners during this time were the team and manager, Paul Simpson. In 2004-05 they bounced back into the Football League at the first attempt, winning the Conference play-off final against Stevenage Borough. They won the League 2 title in 2005-06, reaching the third tier of English football for the first time in eight years.
So an uninformed observer might conclude that the Trust was about to enter into more tranquil waters. Not a bit of it. This, after all, was Carlisle United FC, Cumbria’s longest running soap opera. The years of disharmony and dispute were not over yet.
At the end of 2006, the United Trust (the previous name for CUOSC) had settled legally with owner Fred Story and had acquired the final batch of shares to become a 25.4% shareholder in the Club’s ownership vehicle, CUFC Holdings. Norman Steel, brother of Alan, had replaced Kate Rowley as chair of the Trust earlier in the year and became the representative on the Club’s Board. But with one battle over, another was just beginning.
As part of negotiations to buy the Club from previous owner John Courtenay, Story had apparently made a verbal promise to give away 110 acres of flood plain land, on the outskirts of Carlisle, to the Irishman. This land was owned by the club after being acquired during the Michael Knighton era in the 1990s. His plans for developing it included a hotel, sports pitches and an ornamental lake – plans that had been originally backed by the city council and sent to every household in the area.
The Trust objected on the grounds that the club couldn’t give away any of its assets to assist a share purchase. The position the club adopted was to state the land had little value and it would be a fitting ‘gift’ to Courtenay after all he’d done for the Club. The wrangling dragged on through 2007 and into 2008. Story called an EGM that, despite a legal challenge by the Trust, approved plans to ‘gift’ this land to Courtenay. By early 2008 however, there was a change of stance and it was agreed the land should be sold at market value. There appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel but further legal wrangling followed, primarily over costs. The Trust was now being represented by a barrister on a ‘no win, no fee’ basis. By 2010 a judge ruled that the Trust should have the majority of its costs repaid by Story who was also required to repay the Club after charging his legal fees to them.
By now there had been another change of ownership at Brunton Park. In July 2008 Story sold his shares for £100 to four existing directors David Allen, Andrew Jenkins, Steven Pattison and John Nixon. The Trust thus became the biggest single shareholder in the Club. This situation remained for over a year until November 2009 when Allen quit amid acrimony, issuing a statement attacking his three erstwhile colleagues. His shares were transferred to Jenkins, whose association with United dates back to 1961, making him the largest shareholder again, as he had been prior to the Knighton takeover. Jenkins became the Club’s main financial backer until recently.
The whole parcel of land was sold at auction at the end of 2010 for a sum of £146,000 to a local farmer. However the overage clause that both Trust and Club had agreed should apply to it, was missing. Such a clause would entitle the club to a share of any future profit on the land. Vendors Knight Frank waived their fees. With the legal bills charged by the previous owner being repaid in full, there was no cost to the Club in the final analysis and the land provided a financial boost that the Club clearly needed, after running up a £1.2m loss in the previous financial year.
The stance on the land had thus flipped 180 degrees. From being described as of little value, it now assumed an important role in funding the Club’s ongoing losses. The long and protracted episode thus over, relations slowly improved on all fronts. Membership had slowly dwindled during the years of discord but remained above the 200 mark at their lowest point.
By 2013 the Trust were ready to make a fresh bid for expansion and began to increase membership numbers again. Disgruntlement with the Club’s majority owners meant there were calls for fresh investment and new figures at the top. On the pitch performances dipped alarmingly and attendances dropped. United were relegated from League 1 in the 2013-14 season. The Trust suggested a share issue may be the way to bring new money in. Initial scepticism from the Brunton Park regime began to loosen when local businessman and long-time supporter Andrew Lapping stepped forward in the winter of 2014-15. Lapping, who had been financial director at Scottish club Motherwell for the best part of a decade, proposed a major overhaul of the Club’s internal structures, with two boards comprising an operations board and a strategic board coming into being along with £1.2m of new share funds that would be part of a bid to run the Club on stricter financial lines, seeking to break even on a regular basis rather than run up regular losses of £500k or more. A consortium of mostly local business people were put together to fund the deal behind Lapping as ‘figurehead’. As part of the deal, the Trust would have to agree to dilution, with a guaranteed minimum shareholding of 10%.
The proposals were floated publicly, and earned the backing of the Trust’s members. Over 90% voted in favour at a Special General Meeting held in March 2015. Everything appeared to be on course for a timely and long overdue regeneration of the club and a new way of working. But things began to fall apart in May when the Club announced that they were freezing the deal as they were now in talks with a new investor described by one of the Club’s presidents Andy Bell as being a ‘billionaire’. The Club later stated the man, who came from overseas, had access to millions and quite probably billions, giving rise to hopes that a major financial injection could be imminent. Alas, these hopes soon crumbled. The ‘billionaire’ failed to show up and meetings were shelved as attempts to contact him failed. In the meantime, the Lapping bid ended amid more acrimony as the three main shareholders accused him of exaggerating the level of investments promised. The optimism of spring gave way to a long summer of further discord and disharmony. The Trust, despite being second largest shareholder, were still in the dark over the identity of the would-be mystery investor.
In 2015, The United Trust changed its name to CUOSC – standing for Carlisle United Official Supporters’ Club. The organisation remained legally a Trust, and retained its 25.4% stake in CUFC Holdings.
As part of this change, the organisation also underwent internal reform, with tighter roles and responsibilities assigned to its board members and a five-year plan adopted to guide its future direction.
In 2016 after a ten-year stint as board representative Norman Steel stood down. His early years had been marked by legal battles and disagreements over CUOSC’s level of involvement and access to meetings. With dogged determination Norman stuck to his guns and won important concessions in a seemingly never-ending fight. But a new era meant a new approach. Jim Mitchell replaced him on the Club’s 1921 operations board. At this time the Club introduced a salaried Chief Executive in Nigel Clibbens, who had previously filled this role at Huddersfield Town.
Change at the Club and inside CUOSC helped bring about a further thawing of relations. However, the mystery surrounding the identity of the overseas ‘billionaire’ remained. A further bid to introduce local investment, headed by CUOSC and businessman Robin Brown, had been rejected in the early part of the year. Against this backdrop, Jim finally got access to the identity of the would-be investor and a meeting with Club representatives and the individual, who was eventually identified to the world as Syrian Yahya Kirdi, finally took place.
Unfortunately progress was still slow. It had taken 16 months to get Kirdi to the negotiating table. A final resolution to the matter did not occur until February 2017. After another meeting, Kirdi’s final offer was unanimously rejected. Thus a long and drawn out chapter in the Club’s history was eventually brought to an end. Kirdi could not be named immediately due to various non-disclosure agreements the Club and CUOSC had entered into. However his name leaked out to the press and the Club formally identified him in March 2018. Kirdi later revealed he was far from being a ‘billionaire’. CUOSC had already laid out our many reasons for rejecting his proposals.
The end of the Kirdi saga was followed rapidly by the announcement that Edinburgh Woollen Mill (EWM) a long-time Club sponsor, was now the main financial backer, providing a secured lending facility.
At this time Billy Atkinson was added as CUOSC’s second board representative, to sit on the CUFC Holdings Board. Lapping’s reorganisation had been adopted belatedly by the Club so two Boards were running its day-to-day affairs and long-term strategic direction. Far more executive meetings were being held than in the recent past. Access to information was more extensive than ever before. Jim and Billy, who also understudy each other, are more involved today than many in CUOSC had ever hoped. This closer relationship has come at a cost – there are those who claim CUOSC is now ‘too close’ to the Club, but this is a price most Trusts have to pay for that level of involvement. As a major shareholder, CUOSC had fought long and hard for a greater, more meaningful role.
Membership numbers since 2013 had more than doubled. Over 500 members were on CUOSC’s database last season although that number has now dropped to 450. CUOSC also have a smaller number of ‘e-members’ who pay no membership fee, but get the weekly email briefing sent out to all full members, and can attend meetings. CUOSC also has a weekly column in the local newspaper, the News & Star, which allows non-members to keep in touch with our activities. Use of social media has expanded, and over 1,500 fans now follow us on Twitter, with over 850 in our Facebook group. Before every Saturday home game, CUOSC puts on a supporters’ surgery in the Study Centre next to the Club shop. This allows supporters to renew, join or just chat about all things CUFC. CUOSC have been associate match sponsors several times in the past two seasons and match ball sponsors. In 2017-18, we sponsored the under-15 academy team. CUOSC was instrumental in establishing the Carlisle United Supporters’ Groups (CUSG) in 2015, which brings together different supporter organisations in an association and has regular meetings with Club officials, as well as acting as a fundraising platform for projects that enhance the Club and its ground. Plans for the future include CUOSC jointly funding a new Fans’ Zone outside the main West Stand.
In 2018 CUOSC were involved closely in the selection of a new team manager following the departure of Keith Curle. Although previously involved in the appointment of managers, the level of access and influence has been ramped up in the past two years. The role of Nigel Clibbens has been important in this regard. The Club faces an uncertain future due to financial pressures, and many supporters are again crying out for change at the top. CUOSC today are better placed than ever to have a powerful say in how that change will come about.