The day Knighton got Carlisle in the space race

Working on the sports desk for a regional title, as ANTON RIPPON well knows, can offer up some out-of-this-world material

I really did take to Jon Coleman when he went up to accept – for the fourth time – the SJA’s Regional Sports Writer award at the Grand Connaught Rooms last Monday.

He's not the Messiah, he's a very...: Michael Knighton at Carlisle
He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very…: Michael Knighton at Carlisle

It’s a long way from Cumbria to Covent Garden, and the self-effacing Coleman made no secret of the fact that he is quite happy to continue covering the affairs of Carlisle United rather than seeking fame – if not fortune – in London.

Apart from anything else, he said, “the beer’s cheaper in Carlisle”. He could have added that there are special delights in covering a local club, although one also fraught with the difficulty of remaining objective while needing not to upset vital contacts.

It got me thinking about the way his newspaper once dealt with a former owner of the local club in a way that was perhaps reminiscent of the time when, asked by the Speaker of the House of Commons to withdraw a remark that “half the Cabinet are asses”, Benjamin Disraeli was happy to put the matter straight and agree that “half the Cabinet are not asses”.

I’ll explain. You would have thought that a man who once tried – and failed – to buy Manchester United would himself have been wary of a “Messiah” coming to the rescue of a football club. But when Michael Knighton, then chairman of Carlisle United, was approached by Stephen Brown, he was impressed. Brown arrived claiming to have made £6.3 million from the sale of a hotel complex in Spain and was now desperate to use some of that cash to help save Carlisle.

It was in 1989 that Knighton, who made his money in the property market while still working as a schoolteacher, made a £20 million bid for Manchester United. To publicise his takeover attempt he went on to the Old Trafford pitch before the opening game of the season against Arsenal and, dressed in full United kit, juggled the ball in front of 47,000 supporters. But it turned out that there was rather less to Knighton then met the eye, and his backers slowly melted away.

He could juggle the ball, but could he juggle figures? You'd never catch the Glazers pulling a stunt like this
He could juggle the ball, but could he juggle figures? You’d never catch the Glazers pulling a stunt like this

In retrospect it could have been the football Sale of the Century: in 2005 Manchester United was sold for £790 million. But in the meantime, Knighton had taken over another United. Taking control at Brunton Park in 1992, he declared that Carlisle would be a Premier League club within 10 years. But, although they won the Third Division in 1995 and the Auto Windscreens Shield in 1997, they later  hit hard times and looked likely to drop out of the Football League.

Enter Stephen Brown, the public face of a consortium apparently ready take over the troubled Cumbrian club. A former Partick Thistle season ticket-holder, 47-year-old Brown intended to join United’s new board as commercial director for a two-month trial before paying Knighton for his share of the club.

Doubts soon began to surface. It emerged that Brown had failed in a bid to buy Partick in 1998, and in attempts to invest in Peebles and Selkirk rugby clubs, despite claiming to have won millions of pounds on the Lottery.

“He came to us saying he wanted to invest great sums of money but, when we started discussing it in detail, he said he wasn’t putting forward the money but was proposing a sponsorship scheme backed by friends,” former president of Selkirk, Norman Douglas, told The Guardian.

The newspaper reported that Brown appeared to live in an old people’s home in Peebles, where his partner was a janitor; that he had been working as a barman in an Indian restaurant; that he had been barred from a Peebles hotel for causing “serious trouble”; and that, far from driving a smart BMW, he owned only a battered Vauxhall Cavalier.

At Carlisle, after Brown had failed to make a payment of £250,000 for a 25 per cent stake in the club’s parent company, CUFC Holdings Ltd, Knighton said: “This man has caused horrendous embarrassment to me and the club. I have never been hoodwinked in my life. I usually pride myself on my ability to see straight through people.”

However, in September 2000 Knighton himself was disqualified from being a company director for five-and-a-half years following an investigation into his own business affairs. The disqualification related to Knighton’s running of a private school that he owned via the same holding company, Knighton Holdings, through which he also owned Carlisle United. In 2002, he sold Carlisle United to Irish businessman John Courtenay.

Knighton was never popular with Carlisle supporters, especially after appointing himself as manager in 1998 and winning only 19 of the 68 games in which he was in charge.

In 1996 he found himself publicly mocked after claiming that he and his wife, Rosemary, had seen a UFO. The local newspaper, the Evening News and Star, broke the story with the headline:

“Knighton: Aliens Spoke To Me”.

As they set off from their Yorkshire home one afternoon in 1976, he and his wife had watched an apparently alien craft perform a range of “impossible” aero-gymnastics. As the glowing UFO disappeared, he believed he had received a telepathic message urging him: “Don’t be afraid, Michael.”

After the story was published, he said: “I made it perfectly clear to the reporter that it was not for publication. The damage has been done now and so I’ve decided to resign at the end of the season. I have a nine-year-old son and it’s not fair for him to be ridiculed.”

And this is where Evening News and Star excelled itself. It followed up with a front-page article in which its editor, Keith Sutton, tendered an “‘unreserved” apology.

He said: “Just because Michael Knighton has seen a UFO doesn’t disqualify him from being a football club chairman.”

Classy that …


Thu Apr 3: Media lunch with boxer George Groves, The Driver, Kings Cross. Booking details here here
Thu Apr 10: SJA annual meeting, Old Cock Tavern, Fleet Street
Mon Apr 14: SJA Spring Golf Day: Croham Hurst GC, Surrey. Booking details to be announced