Saturday, 3pm. A few cars beetle up and down Warwick Road. There is the sound of a plane in the sky. A fresh breeze sends a crisp packet dancing across the Main Stand car park. Otherwise: silence.
This is what it must feel like when clubs perish. All the buildings and usual external sights remain, but there is no longer the life force of a normal matchday. None of the buzz and bustle.
Things are on hold, rather than permanently shut down, but for how long, nobody knows. Brunton Park ought to have been teeming with fans, many of them young, for a game between Carlisle United and Leyton Orient. A bright and colourful ticket promotion would have come to a positive head, and Chris Beech’s players would have run out to a bigger than normal crowd.
A viral pandemic, an invisible threat, put paid to that and a great deal else. In football we are used to postponements, to Saturdays being rendered suddenly sterile, but not like this.
Normally, when games go, a sense of activity still persists. Pockets of club staff go about their business, residents and pedestrians do their normal thing. There was very little of that this weekend.
What activity there was, was minimal. The Blues Store was open, from 10am to 3pm. Around the back of the Waterworks End, near the Neil Sports Centre, a car materialised and John Halpin threw out a cheerful greeting.
He stopped to chat briefly. We talked – from a safe “social distance” – about the effect of the coronavirus on his community sports trust at United, how they are going to try and help the schools and vulnerable children they normally cater for. “We just have to do what we can,” he said.
A couple of people, one wearing a United away shirt, put a remote control car through its paces in front of Foxy’s Restaurant. And that was pretty much it: the sum total of the human goings-on at Carlisle’s stadium on Saturday, March 21, 2020.
It made you feel – no, hope – that when this crisis is over, when people can eventually return to their old ways, places like Brunton Park will host some seriously invigorating occasions. Football, the national game, ought to be a source of great release when that day comes. Until then, the streets, walkways, terraces and stands will echo only to the past.
The previous day’s announcement that pubs and restaurants must close added to Saturday’s sense of suspension. After turning off Junction 43 of the M6, the drive from the motorway roundabout and down Warwick Road was unusually swift. On a bench outside Toby Carvery, a few red balloons batted against one another. In the Lakeland Gate car park, I joined just one other vehicle.
BBC Radio Cumbria were preparing to broadcast United’s League One play-off semi-final first leg against Leeds from 12 years ago. Before bringing Derek Lacey’s warmth back into our lives, their sports show cut to a Government announcement. Instead of team news, we heard ministers answering questions on food supplies and panic buying.
Walking up Warwick Road has, of course, pulled at the emotions before; nobody who has strolled along that street after it was flooded will forget the things they saw. This time the pavements were eerie for their sheer emptiness.
People were, it appeared, taking seriously the request to stay at home. The Beehive, normally abuzz with supporters on a Saturday afternoon, had its doors shut. “Great sport on 9 screens,” the sign read. Not today. Not for a while.
A yellow piece of paper was taped to the front of a house across the road. “In self-isolation, please ring bell and leave parcels on doorstep, thank you.” Further along, Carlisle Rugby Club was also quiet, save for signs on bolted doors: “Closed until further notice. Thank-you for your custom. We look forward to seeing you in the future.”
“In the future” – the vagueness of the phrase captured the unknown present. The lane connecting the rugby club to its football counterpart felt no footfall other than mine, while the main surroundings of Brunton Park looked vast and vacant.
The fixtures board, on the wall near Hugh McIlmoyle’s statue, still showed Carlisle’s next four home opponents – Leyton Orient, Port Vale, Scunthorpe United, Stevenage – but with the dates removed. A few yards away, Claire’s Bakery – another honeypot for matchday fans – had closed a few minutes ago, its temporary, shortened opening hours pinned to the inside of its door.
The glass front of the ground’s old main entrance displayed reminders to use hand sanitisers: a remnant of the game against Newport on Tuesday, March 10, the last time fans came here. Behind the Waterworks End, I took a peek through a gap in the locked gate. The pitch looked good; David Mitchell’s work clearly goes on. As does plenty of other toil at United, through the week, some of it off-site, some on, as staff and directors try their best to adjust to this bewildering situation, to adapt normal business operations, to keep people informed and entertained.
The club’s media team are at the forefront of the latter, and at 3pm, they uploaded one of their #GoodVibrations videos to United’s social media accounts: a brilliant “carpool karaoke” featuring players and staff. Instead of putting it up during the week, to build momentum towards a celebration Saturday, it had become the latest diversion offered in the absence of football.
Beside the Blues Store, one of the club’s vice-presidents, Mark Harper, pulled in from the road, in his van, to say hello. What would I be filling the paper with, he wondered; how would his own business cope, I asked.
These are our conversations during this deferred reality. There are, of course, far greater problems facing the land than when people can start kicking a ball inside a stadium again. A barren Brunton Park, and its immediate surrounds, was simply a soundless reminder of the valuable, historic and often underestimated community pastimes which must be sacrificed until this virus, and its grim effects, can be defeated.
At half past three I went back to my car and turned the radio on. It was 2008, and Carlisle had just scored at Elland Road.