Michael Knighton, who took over United in the summer of 1992, first announced his intention to sell the club in the spring of 1999, as the Cumbrians were battling against relegation to the Conference for the first time. By the time he finally disposed of his 135,036 shares in United, the club had survived THREE further relegation struggles, each one slightly less draining than the one before.
So, how did this amazing "Will he, Won't he?" saga pan out? The takeover, or lack of one, had occupied acres of newsprint, hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal and accountancy fees and tens of thousands of frustrated Blues supporters who were pinning their hopes on a new owner to pull themselves out of the biggest hole the club had ever found itself in.
MAY 13 1999 : The News & Star flashes MILLIONAIRE WANTS TO BUY UNITED on its front page with a picture of a youthful looking Brooks Mileson. "A millionaire businessman is seeking to buy out Carlisle United chairman Michael Knighton and take control of the struggling football club, the News & Star can exclusively reveal today. Insurance tycoon Brooks Mileson, who lives near Carlisle, will contact Knighton tomorrow for preliminary talks," they say, breathlessly.
Mileson couldn't have guessed just how preliminary these talks would be. Although the compiler of The Sunday Times rich list, Philip Beresford, put Mileson's wealth at between £10-20 million, the pony-tailed insurance tycoon could not get a deal out of Mr Knighton. He wasn't the only one. Knighton claimed in late June that "other bids were coming in". These "bidders" were later revealed by Knighton in a radio interview to be Spaight & Associates of Florida, USA and Mamcarr Investments of Gibraltar. Mr Spaight and co disappeared from trace but more of Mamcarr later.
DECEMBER 1999 : Somewhat more secretly, Mileson resumes talks with Knighton. Clearly Knighton's valuation of the business and Mileson's are poles apart. Some progress is apparently made second time around but both men agree to go away and think things over before returning to the negotiating table. It's a game of chess, and the opening moves have barely been completed. However no fan realised this at the time. It was still thought Knighton was on his way out.
MARCH 18 2000 : Knighton raises the stakes a little by revealing he had written to Cumbrian Newspapers and the Carlisle City Council, offering to lease them the club for as little as £1 per year. It's an intriguing thought and apparently the Council thought about it a bit before chucking the letter in the bin. The News & Star lap up the chance for more cheap headlines. Knighton is still involved at United at this stage, and still calling the shots. However he has recently resigned from the board of CUFC Holdings. It is generally thought this is the first stage of Knighton relinquishing the club. However a bloke at the DTi knows rather better...
MAY 2000 : Knighton carries out his promise to resign from the board of CUFC (1921) Ltd. He raises the prospect of leasing his shares to a mysterious "independent trust" whom he refuses to identify. He also continues talks with a supporters' group headed by Brian Hall, the chairman of the recently-formed CISA (Cumbrians' Independent Supporters' Association). Rumours abound that the "trust" is actually the Knighton family.
SEPTEMBER 2000 : Knighton admits to having talks with the present board of United to sell them his stake. Albert Doweck is not keen to reveal too much but negotiations reach an advanced stage and things are looking brighter. In the same month, it is revealed that Knighton and his wife Rosemary have been banned from acting as directors of any UK company by the DTi. The end is nigh, surely?
NOVEMBER 10 2000 : The directors led by Doweck, impatient that Knighton is keeping them waiting, put in a final, take-it-or-leave-it offer. The deadline passes. Knighton phones the press to tell them he has turned it down. There are strong words on all sides. Knighton says he will be conluding a deal with a "mystery third party" within three weeks. As a rumour spreader, it's an instant winner. Speculation links McCrone Fisheries with the mystery third party. Rosemary Knighton's maiden name is McCrone, it is claimed. Nobody is sure.
JANUARY 3 2001 : A press conference held at Brunton Park and fronted by the mysterious Mr Brown and the slightly-better-known David Low, of Clydebank and Celtic connections, announces the takeover. Mamcarr are to buy the lion's share of Knighton's stake with Brown taking a significant minority chunk. "It is a sleeping giant", claims Brown, reading from what seems to be a prepared script, and referring to CUFC. What neither Mr Brown or Mr Low tell anyone is that the club are about to borrow £1 million the next day. Curiouser and curiouser...
Then someone on an internet message board (ok it was the editor of this piece) notices that the letters MAMCARR are exactly the same as the first letters of all Knighton's immediate family - M(ichael) A(nne) M(ark) C(hevonne) A(nna) R(osemary) and R(ory). A bizarre coincidence - or something more sinister? Naturally fans - and newspapers - believe the latter option.
Within a week Brown has been exposed as an unemployed former curryhouse barman and all hell breaks loose. Knighton is a laughing stock, not for the first time in his life. The nationals have a field day. It's a total farce.
MARCH 2001 : The first rumblings of discontent about the Mamcarr 'takeover'. The Football League say no-one at the club can confirm if the deal has actually been completed. David Low claims to have spoken to the mysterious men of Mamcarr over a crackly phone line, but people are beginning to suspect the whole thing is a hoax, or a Knighton scam. Meanwhile the press have discovered the existence of the £1 million loan - or is it a mortgage, or is it, as Mr Low insists, merely a "borrowing facility"? Either way it seems a strange thing to do the day after a "takeover" by a company supposedly loaded down with capital.
MAY 2001 : The Mamcarr deal has collapsed and Knighton begins talking to his old chum Brooks again. It's just like old times as the pair sit down in a smoke-filled room and discuss the size of Knighton's investments. Once again, they agree to disagree. However Knighton by now is also conducting negotiations with about three different parties, including Doweck again and his new partner, builder Fred Story. The bids all flounder, leaving fans upset and ready to rebel.
OCTOBER 2001 : With Mileson out of the picture, seemingly for good, Roddy Collins' brother Steve is linked to a takeover. Talks are planned, we are told, but allegedly Knighton never turns up on the appointed day. Knighton claims he has concluded a deal with people of "integrity" but refuses to name them. Another "mystery third party"? They are never revealed and it begins to look as though he's staying put forever.
JANUARY 11 2002 : The day before a home match with Leyton Orient and another protest march by supporters, it is revealed that Collins' distant cousin John Courtenay is in talks with Knighton. Fans are sceptical. "Who is John Courtenay?" they ask, not unreasonably. It turns out Courtenay is a wealthy businessman with an impressive track record. Progress is remarkably swift. Within a week, a framework deal is agreed. Is this finally the end?
As the weeks drag on, several deadlines slip by. A press conference is announced, then cancelled, without reason. Courtenay grows increasingly agitated. He has spent several thousand pounds on legal fees. Knighton still claims other bids are on the table. Collins slips out a few choice words. He is sacked. The season ends in acrimony. Fans march and boycott games. Knighton stands firm. The club is slipping into serious financial difficulty.
APRIL 2002 : The close season has barely started when the News & Star lead with another exclusive - Knighton threatens to close down United! Shurely shome mishtake? No it's genuine. In telephone calls to Lord Clark and Mike Corry of the supporters trust CCUIST, Knighton has threatened to take Carlisle out of the league and close the business altogether. One small problem with that - he has over £2m of debts on his hands to clear first.
MAY 2002 : In a radio phone-in, Courtenay promises to make his "last" offer for United to Knighton. The on-air exchanges are the roughest yet. Courtenay accuses Knighton of lying. Knighton tries to brush off questions with his legendary eloquence, but the man seems to have passed into the realms of fantasy. The reality is he knows something the rest of us don't - yet. The taxman has bitten.
MAY 24 2002 : It is revealed that the Inland Revenue has issued a winding-up petition on CUFC. It looks like the beginning of the end for Knighton. The club owes £416,000 in unpaid PAYE income tax. A few days later it is announced that the club has applied to go into voluntary administration. Two men from accountants BKR Haines Watts move in to run United's affairs.
JULY 12 2002 : In another bizarre twist, Knighton's recently engaged "agent" George Reynolds, the former safe blower and now the controversial chairman of Darlington FC, offers to lease the club to CCUIST for £100,000 a year. This offer is apparently also made to Courtenay and Mileson. Needless to say, it is turned down flat.
JULY 17 2002 : Administrators unveil their "master plan" for saving the club without selling it. Fans say they will boycott home games - only a few hundred are expected to turn up for the opening matches. The rescue proposals require 3,000 supporters per match to work. Something has got to give. Courtenay and Mileson have teamed up and are preparing to make a joint offer to the administrators. Knighton claims to be "99 per cent" certain of selling to yet another mystery buyer - who isn't Courtenay or Mileson.
JULY 26 2002 : A few days after Courtenay tells fans that he is very hopeful of something positive happening, the unthinkable happens. Out of the blue, it is announced that KNIGHTON HAS SOLD THE CLUB! All of a sudden Courtenay has pulled off the impossible and takes over irrevocably as majority owner. The skies are blue, the sun shines and the future looks brighter than ever. Roddy Collins returns - the supporters are to get a seat on the board and the old board of Mark Knighton and Andrea Whittaker are to resign immediately. The only problem is a creditors meeting but that will be a cakewalk - won't it?
Pictures from News & Star