- County Town: Carlisle
- Other Large Settlements: Barrow-in-Furness, Kendal, Maryport, Penrith, Whitehaven, Workington
- Population: 500,000 (2019 estimate)
- Languages Spoken: English, Cumbrian Dialect
The county of Cumbria is England’s most northwestern county, the third largest ceremonial county, and is situated on the border with Scotland. It is bordered to the northeast by Northumberland, the east by County Durham, the southeast by North Yorkshire, and the south by Lancashire, with the Scottish counties of Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders to its north. Located all along its western edge is the Irish Sea with the Isle of Man a short distance across the water. The county is one of the most sparsely-populated counties in England and is predominantly rural and mountainous but contains the Lake District National Park, one of the most visited national parks in the United Kingdom, as well as possessing England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike at 978m/3209 feet. In addition, the historical and ancient Hadrian’s Wall passes through northern Cumbria.
Historically, the area was part of the Brythonic “Hen Ogledd” kingdoms of Rheged and Strathclyde during the ‘Dark Ages’ with Britons/Welsh living and controlling the area. The county had its own Brythonic language of Cumbric, which was closely related to Old Welsh but became extinct in the 12th century. Whilst the name of the county originates from the same root source as the Welsh word for Wales, “Cymru” (pronounced “Cum-ri“), which means “fellow countrymen” emphasising the area’s Celtic roots. However, the county itself is relatively modern despite its Celtic Brythonic roots. It was formed in 1974 as part of the Local Government Act 1972 which combined the historic counties of the northern Cumberland and southeastern Westmorland, together with the Lancashire exclave of the Furness peninsula (known as ‘Lancashire North of the Sands‘), and the Sedbergh Rural District from the West Riding of Yorkshire, to form the new county. Alas, the county’s existence is coming to an end with the administrative county of Cumbria being abolished in April 2023 and replaced with two new unitary authorities: Westmorland and Furness which will encompass the southeastern part of Cumbria, and Cumberland which will cover the northern and coastal region of Cumbria. History is repeating itself in the border county it would seem!
In terms of football, Cumbria is home to two current English Football League (EFL) clubs with both Carlisle United and Barrow AFC competing in the fourth-tier EFL League Two division. Carlisle United is the most successful of the two sides, having played most of its history in the Football League and even managed to compete in the English top flight for a single season in the 1974-75 season. Barrow played in the Football League between 1921 and 1972 before being voted out of the league in the re-election process after finishing bottom of the Fourth Division. They wouldn’t return to the Football League until 2020 when they gained promotion as the National League champions becoming the first club to return to the Football League after having previously lost their league place via the re-election process. Additionally, there has been a third Cumbrian club to have played in the Football League, with Workington AFC playing in the lower rungs of the Football League between 1951 and 1977 before being voted out of the league via the re-election process and replaced by Wimbledon. They currently play in the eighth-tier Northern Premier League Division One West league.
As Cumbria is a large border county, its clubs play in various regional leagues throughout the English football pyramid. The vast majority of them play within the North West English regional structure, either competing within the North West Counties League, or the feeder West Lancashire Football League. However, there are a few northern Cumbrian clubs who compete in the North East English regional structure with Carlisle City and Penrith AFC playing in the Northern Football League, and Windscale FC playing in the Wearside Football League. Because of Cumbria’s recent formation (and subsequent upcoming demise), it does not have its own county football association as other counties have. Thus, its football clubs are controlled by three different county FAs which roughly follow the historical county boundaries prior to Cumbria’s formation. Therefore, you will find the Furness Premier League which is organised by the Lancashire FA, the Westmorland Football League controlled by the Westmorland FA, and the Cumberland County League run by the Cumberland FA.
- Cumberland FA Website: https://www.cumberlandfa.com/
- Westmorland FA Website: https://www.westmorlandfa.com/
- Lancashire FA Website: https://www.lancashirefa.com/
To talk about football in one of England’s most isolated and rural counties, we spoke to a couple of Cumbrian football fanatics. Firstly, Colin, who is the secretary of Cumbrian side Milnthorpe Corinthians, who play in the West Lancashire League Premier Division, and was a former football referee. Secondly, there is Kyle Dixon from the excellent Non League Cumbria, a Twitter account that reports and highlights all the latest news and results from non-league and grassroots football played in Cumbria. To find their social media accounts, follow the links below:
Key: C = Colin; NLC = Non League Cumbria
Q. What is the current state of football in the rural county? Does being located in England’s far northwestern frontier act as a help or a hindrance to the development of football in Cumbria?
C: Being out of the way geographically does hinder the county and the standards of football, but also the geography of the county doesn’t help either. The county is split into three areas which are each governed by three separate regional football associations; the Cumberland FA covering the north and west of the county, the Westmorland FA organising the east and south, and the Lancashire FA which covers the Furness peninsula which was a historical detached exclave of Lancashire (before becoming part of Cumbria in 1974). One of the county’s semi-pro teams, Workington AFC, is 45 minutes (on a good day) away from the M6, which in turn is over an hour away from the southern border of Cumbria, so the transportation links within the county are not great.
The Westmorland League, which I was mostly associated with, covers teams from south Kendal to Carlisle, which is again over an hour’s journey between the two locations due to the lack of clubs in both areas. Sadly, this is an unnecessary evil.
- Westmorland League Website: https://fulltime.thefa.com/index.html?league=3882517
NLC: I think the current state of football in Cumbria is good, there is room for improvement but in general, it’s good. A lot of clubs have upgraded and invested in providing great facilities for the community in the past 10 years. Being so far north might affect clubs getting funding & grants sometimes, but I don’t see it as a big hindrance to the development of non-league football in Cumbria.
Q. What competitions are available for Cumbrian clubs to compete in within the county?
NLC: The leagues that Cumbrian non-league clubs compete in are the Northern Premier League, Northern League, North West Counties League, Wearside League, West Lancashire League, Furness Premier League, Cumberland County League, and Westmorland League. These leagues also run multi-cup competitions. Workington AFC, Kendal Town, Penrith AFC, and Carlisle City compete in the FA Cup, and these four clubs, plus Cleator Moor Celtic and Holker Old Boys, compete in the FA Vase.
C: There are three league structures in the three different FA areas that I mentioned previously, but these are at the lower levels of grassroots football with all the local teams set in local towns and villages. Each county FA has its own county cups, both Senior and Junior FA cups, with the Barrow-based teams playing in the better standard of the Lancashire FA competitions.
Q. Which Cumbrian team would you say is the most successful?
C: We only have one professional team in Carlisle United who are playing in the EFL League Two, whilst there are a couple of step 5 and 6 (in the National League system) teams in Workington (playing in the Northern Premier League Division One West) and Kendal Town (playing in the North West Counties League Premier Division), plus a handful of other clubs at step 7 and below in the ‘non-league’ system. So Carlisle United is clearly the biggest team we have in Cumbria. There is also Barrow AFC, who also plays in the EFL League Two, however, I feel they fall too much under the Lancashire FA and arent widely thought to be in ‘Cumbria’.
Q. In terms of groundhopping, which grounds within the county would you suggest people should go and visit?
NLC: Cumbria has some great non-league grounds. I would recommend Borough Park (Workington AFC), Gillford Park (Carlisle City), Frenchfields (Penrith AFC), and Rakemoor Lane (Holker Old Boys) just to name a few. Having the Lake District in Cumbria provides some fantastic, scenic grounds.
C: There are many scenic pitches in Cumbria if you’re willing to travel around the county. Ullswater are set at the bottom of the Kirkstone pass in the heart of the Lake District, whilst Keswick, Brough, and Coniston are all set in fantastic locations also. Workington is always welcoming and they achieve good attendances for their level in the football pyramid. I should also include my own club Milnthorpe Corinthians, as I’ve only been secretary for these past couple of seasons but we have a great setup, a good squad, and offer a very warm welcome to opposition fans and groundhoppers!
Q. Who is the best-ever player to come from Cumbria, and who is currently the best player either from or playing in the county?
C: We haven’t produced many professional footballers over the years, and currently, the only players who are playing at any decent level are Dean Henderson (25-year-old Whitehaven-born goalkeeper currently on loan at Nottingham Forest) and Georgia Stanway (23-year-old Barrow-in-Furness-born attacking midfielder/forward who was part of the victorious English Euro 2022 squad and plays for FC Bayern München).
NLC: A difficult question to answer as several players have come through the grassroots/non-league system and have gone on to play professionally.
Q. What are the best/worst things about being a fan of Cumbrian football?
NLC: The best things are the beautiful scenery around some of our grounds and the fantastic volunteers who keep everything going. The worse thing is the winter weather.
C: The best things are that within your league everyone knows everyone, the rivalries are there but they’re friendly, and the locations of some of the grounds are stunning. The worst parts are the traveling times (for grassroots teams), the lack of funding, and the decline of teams. These are national issues but where there are fewer teams these issues can hit harder.
Q. Finally, what are your hopes for the future of Cumbrian football?
C: My personal hope for football in the county is for the three FAs covering the county to come together and create a single Cumbria FA. I feel that the county could accommodate this and help pull the different areas together. Westmorland is the smallest FA in England, and having come through the refereeing ranks, the lack of support for the Westmorland FA was obvious, therefore more help and support are needed for football to develop in the county.
NLC: My hope for the future is that more Cumbrian clubs go on and play at the highest level they can.
A massive thank you to Colin, and Kyle from Non League Cumbria, for answering our questions on football in Cumbria. Remember you can find their social media accounts in the links at the top of the blogpage.
If you have any comments, suggestions, reactions, or even your own answers to the above questions, please write them in the comments box below. Likewise, you can either email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message at @The94thMin on Twitter.