For all the devastation that was caused to the city of Carlisle by December’s floods, the one thing that could not be swept away was the bond between proud Cumbrians and their football team.Possessions, furniture, carpets and cars, even the Brunton Park pitch, have all gone, but the spirit of Carlisle remains intact.
Almost eight weeks on along Warwick Road, the street on which Carlisle United’s ground sits, a trail of skips full of broken cupboards, wardrobes and chairs as well as sodden floor coverings is all too visible.
But yet there they stand as a reminder of the day when the Carlisle players came to help in any way they could.
To a man, the first team squad as well as youth team players knocked on doors and helped local residents. They emptied houses soiled by the silt-laden flood waters and distributed blankets and food parcels. Most of all, they put smiles on faces.
The man who called his teammates to action was Carlisle captain Danny Grainger, a Cumbrian himself, and a worthy recipient of the Sky Bet Football League Unsung Hero award for December.
On the morning of Saturday, 5th December, Grainger had joined his teammates on the coach to Welling for an FA Cup second round tie the following day. Within an hour of leaving home, his wife phoned him to say that flood water caused by Storm Desmond was beginning to flow through their village.
News, in the form of texts and videos, kept reaching the Carlisle squad as they travelled south. By now, Brunton Park was under water. Everything under the height of the crossbar was submerged. Water lapped around the feet of the statue of club legend Hughie McIlmoyle and local residents were retreating upstairs, marooned in their homes.
“Mark Gillespie, our goalkeeper who was ill and hadn’t travelled, was in the club house next to the stadium at the time,” said Grainger. “He was sending us pictures. It was crazy and we just couldn’t get over it. A lot of my friends who were affected by the floods were sending me videos during Saturday night of the damage and the flood water coming into the house, how high up it was getting.
“You do feel a bit guilty that you’re not there. The people at Welling were fantastic to us. In the hotel and everywhere, they were saying they were really sorry about what had happened. We were thinking: ‘Yes, but it hasn’t affected us directly yet.’
“It was hard to switch off from watching the pictures. It was one of the first games where I have felt emotionally so drained. I had a chat with Michael Raynes before the game. He’s also from the area. I said: ‘I feel quite emotional today.’ He said: ‘You will do.’
Grainger and his team beat Welling 5-0, but their minds were 300 miles away, back home. On the team bus, Grainger drew the players together. To a man, they offered to help.
“I was sitting with Raynesy again and we were having a chat amongst ourselves about how we could help the people and what we could do for the community. Because of the amount of miles that they travel to come and help us, we needed to be able to put something back towards them.
“We are a very community-based squad and club anyway, but we needed to do something more. We put it out on Twitter and Facebook that if people needed any help, just get in touch with us and we’ll come round. It was just something that we had to do.
“The flood water was still receding on the Monday so we couldn’t do anything that day, but on the Tuesday we went to the stadium after training.
“Four houses and a community centre had got in touch to say that they needed help, but by the end of the afternoon, we were walking down Warwick Road and knocking on every door asking if the people wanted us to do anything. Anything at all.
“We went into one house. There were 15 of us. An older lady lived there in a downstairs flat. We walked into this normal living room and said to her: ‘What do you want left?’ She said: ‘Nothing. I want everything out,’ so we literally threw it all out. There was a three-piece fabric sofa that had been sitting in water for the best part of two days. It was like a ton weight. There were carpets, cabinets, bedside tables, the kitchen lino. There was no water left in the house but walking on the carpet was like walking in a puddle. And the smell from the slodge that the floods had left behind was horrible.
“It took the 15 of us 20 minutes to empty this house, literally ripping everything out and chucking it out into the street into a pile. It wasn’t a case of rolling the carpet up and everybody lifting it up, we had a Stanley knife and had to cut it into foot squares of carpet and underlay because it was that heavy.
“It took us 20 minutes but it would have taken that lady the best part of a week to do it on her own. Actually, she wouldn’t have been able to manage it on her own.
“In another house we lifted out a fridge. There were five of us lifting this fridge around corners. It was just a bit surreal.
“We went into another house where the people were season ticket holders. All they were bothered about was Mark Gillespie injuring his back. They said: ‘Don’t injure your back, don’t drop anything on your hands. We’ll help you. Don’t worry about us.’
“What was really strange was that everyone was so positive. I don’t know if people were putting on a front for us, but their world of goods were getting chucked out on the street and we were thinking: ‘How can you be so upbeat and positive about it?’
“As a group of players we couldn’t get over that, the fact that families were just so upbeat and saying: ‘Thanks very much, lads. That’s great. Good luck on Saturday.’
“Don’t get me wrong, people are devastated and heartbroken in Carlisle, but they were just getting on with life.
“A couple of the lads went out delivering blankets and food, gift packages, picking them up from the community centre and delivering them to people who had been affected by the floods. We did literally anything that anybody wanted.
“It really was just amazing how much the community pulled together and not just the players. Everybody was helping each other. You could see people running across the road to help someone, then running back to their own house, then someone else was coming into their house to help them.
“I lost count of how many houses we helped at in the end. We would have helped out other days as well but a lot of the people said they weren’t allowed to touch anything for a week or two weeks because the insurance company was coming.
“By the next week, we had midweek games coming up, but a lot of the lads said that if anyone wanted any more doing, all they needed to do was ask.”
Grainger first played for Carlisle as a schoolboy between the ages of 12 and 14 before he was released. Now 29, he has just signed a new four-year contract with the club.
He is flattered by the Unsung Hero award, but adamant that he is accepting it on behalf of the whole squad.
“I have done no different than anyone else in the dressing room. It was something we had to do as a team.
“As team captain I put it out there to say: ‘What are we going to do?’ but not one player in that dressing room turned round and said; ‘No, I don’t want to do it.’ Not one. That shows a great team spirit. There are lads in there who have probably never put a pair of wellies on in their life. But not one said they didn’t want to get mucky or their clothes dirty. Everyone said: ‘Yes. Brilliant, let’s do it.’
“This award is literally for everybody in the community, not just the players, the squad and people at the club, it’s for everybody that’s been affected by the floods.
“And it’s national recognition for a small place like Carlisle. It’s been given to myself but it’s a fantastic way of putting Carlisle out there and the fact that everyone has pulled together at a devastating time.
“We said from Day One that this was never about recognition or praise for the footballers or anything like that. This was all about helping the community.
“We will remember this as a group. Of course we will. This is special. It’s a special group of lads and whether we go on and get promoted this season or not, we’ll look back on this in 10, 15 years’ time.”
Next Saturday, Carlisle hope that a re-laid Brunton Park pitch, refurbished changing rooms and club offices which are being worked on around the clock will be able to host York City in a League Two fixture that will represent so much more than the three points on offer.
Beyond that is the carrot of an FA Cup fourth round tie at home to Everton if they can overcome Yeovil in a replay.
Grainger is adamant that the moment has to be seized.
“When we get back to Brunton Park, I have no doubt that the fans are going to turn out in their thousands to come and support us.
“We need to make sure our league form is right, but we’ve got a chance of getting Everton at home to give the fans a nice day out by having a Premier League team at home. We need to try and put smiles on people’s faces as much as we can.”