Paul Simpson is out to repeat history for Carlisle at Wembley

WONDERS OF THE PYRAMID: Paul Simpson’s triumphant Carlisle return is what’s great about English football – having won promotion to League One in 2006, the Blues’ hometown hero is out to repeat history against Stockport at Wembley

  • Mail Sport’s Lewis Steele shines a light on the Football League and beyond
  • Carlisle’s play-off final with Stockport is what makes English football great
  • Meanwhile, two fans returned a tailor-made mask to rightful owner Lee Gregory 

Just like the Royal Navy television advert, Paul Simpson was born in Carlisle. He might claim he was made in gritty spells in non-League or winning an Under 20s World Cup with England but his true legacy is at his hometown club.

Brunton Park is a picturesque setting, with silhouettes of rolling hills all around the skyline, and huge flags at each end. One reads ‘be just and fear not’ and another says ‘Simmo is our king’ alongside a cartoon of Simpson balancing a trophy on his head.

It’s a piece of minimalist art based on a real photo of Simpson, then in his late 30s, guiding Carlisle to League One in 2006 as a player-manager. He took over the club in its darkest day of the modern era, in the Conference, and led them to back-to-back promotions.

Eighteen years have passed since then but Simpson is back in Cumbria. He took over with the club 23rd and dangerously flirting with relegation from the Football League. But thanks to Simpson’s managerial skills, they will play at Wembley on Sunday for a place in League One.

‘When I came back, the club was really disjointed – lots of different factions not working together – so my big challenge was to bring the supporters back together,’ he tells Mail Sport.

Carlisle-born Paul Simpson is back at his hometown club and is on the cusp of promotion

Simpson is adored in Carlisle and is affectionately known as ‘the king’ for his previous tenure

Simpson took Carlisle from the Conference to League One as a player-manager in back-to-back promotions back in the mid-2000s

‘What I’m most pleased with is not the fact we’ve got to Wembley, it’s the response from the local community. Uniting Carlisle and the fans is enormous, my biggest achievement here.’

The League Two final might not have the romance of Luton’s clash with Coventry, or the big-club factor of Sheffield Wednesday in League One, but Carlisle versus Stockport is an ode to everything great about our sacred football pyramid. Both managers have walked the not-so-trodden path of working their way from semi-professional clubs to the big time.

Both managers, Simpson and Dave Challinor, have spent time in the nether regions of English football, such as Northwich Victoria and Colwyn Bay.

Both had respectable playing careers but had to fight for everything good in their managerial life, seldom being handed anything on a plate.

Challinor, for example, won promotion at Colwyn Bay before guiding AFC Fylde from the eighth to fifth tier of our pyramid, plus an FA Trophy. After that, he led Hartlepool then Stockport to the Football League. Find a manager in England with a better c.v. in relative terms.

Simpson took a slightly different route and also managed Stockport, but mainly gritted his teeth in assistant roles – under Steve McClaren at Derby and Newcastle – then won the U20 World Cup in South Korea in an England squad starring Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Fikayo Tomori.

Simpson also guided England to Under 20s World Cup glory in South Korea in 2017

The 56-year-old gritted his teeth in No 2 roles – under Steve McClaren at Derby and Newcastle

‘My years away from Carlisle have educated me and I learned a hell of a lot under Steve McClaren. He is not the media perception he is a fantastic coach and great person.

‘From my life in football, I have learned you have to take the rough with the smooth and I’ve become battle hardened from being sacked. The same person who is called rubbish and gets sacked is the same person who is called great with success.

‘At England I was fortunate that I was only in camp for about 54 days of the year so I had a lot of time to review, prepare and reeducate myself. I learned how coaches can use coding to watch matches.’

So on to Wembley. Simpson has had texts from Gareth Southgate and Steve Holland this week – he knows them from his time at England – while many others from in the game have been in touch. One person close to him has been keeping his distance, though.

Simpson’s son, Jake, is a performance coach at opponents Stockport. ‘We’ve had some family conversations… I’ve got to say we haven’t discussed football for the last four or five weeks,’ adds Simpson.

Simpson will go toe-to-toe with promotion specialist Dave Challinor at Stockport on Sunday

‘Jake only lives down the road – we all had a Chinese together last Saturday and we will do so again after the weekend. I just hope I’m sitting there enjoying myself more than him!’

You can see why the locals refer to Simpson as a king, while promotion specialist Challinor is equally idolised in Stockport.

It might not be the money-spinner of the Championship showpiece but, given both managers’ back stories of fighting to this level, the League Two play-off final engulfs everything great about English football.

Owls hero Gregory reunited with tailor-made mask

Many associated with Sheffield Wednesday will go down in folklore should they win promotion after their historic win from 4-0 down last week, from inspirational manager Darren Moore to one-club man Liam Palmer, the academy graduate with 396 Owls appearances.

His 98th-minute equaliser forced extra-time against Peterborough as Wednesday overturned a seismic deficit to complete surely the best comeback in English domestic history.

One unsung hero, though, is Louie Hodkin and his father. The pair answered Wednesday’s plea for help after striker Lee Gregory misplaced a protective mask that allowed him to play with a facial injury, perhaps losing it in the wild celebrations at Hillsborough.

Sheffield Wednesday hero Lee Gregory lost his mask in their emphatic win over Peterborough

The Owls sent out a plea for the mask to be found, with two fans able to return it to Gregory

As the mask is specially fitted to order, the turnaround was too quick for the Owls to get Gregory, who scored in the semi-final, a new piece of kit in time for Wembley.

Hodkin came to the rescue, though, saying his dad had pocketed the mask during wild full-time scenes.

One imagines Hodkin Sr donning Gregory’s face mask while sipping a celebratory pint on one of Sheffield’s watering holes.

Gregory was reunited with the mask and sent the Hodkins family a signed Wednesday shirt as a thanks.

Martin needs time to get Saints marching again

‘If you haven’t got money, you need time – and time is the most valuable commodity in football’. That’s one of the maxims of incoming Southampton boss Russell Martin, who will complete a move from Swansea in the coming days.

It’s interesting when noting the turbulent summer Saints are braced for ahead of their first season in the Football League for 12 years. Several key players will depart, while CEO Martin Semmens headed for the exit door on Monday.

As it feels like we say about every young coach in the game, Martin idolises Pep Guardiola and has spent time studying the positional play of his Manchester City and Barcelona teams.

Incoming Southampton boss Russell Martin will need time to get the club back on track

His MK Dons and Swansea sides have played with the approach of ‘total football’. The Welsh club averaged 63 per cent of the ball last term and dropped just four points in their last nine games.

At 37, he is one of the brightest young minds in English football and is a good appointment for Saints, though his high-possession style will not be mastered overnight. Like it did with his idol Guardiola at City, though, Martin will need that valuable commodity of time.

Luton and Coventry have unfinished business

A nice factoid sent in by Luton fan and former Mail Sport veteran Mike Smith. 

Saturday won’t be the first time Luton and Coventry have battled for a place in the Premier League. On the final day of the 1991-92 season, Luton needed to better Coventry’s result to stay in the top flight ahead of its rebranding that summer. 

Coventry stayed up despite losing, the Hatters were relegated and missed out on Premier League cash by the barest of margins.

Luton take on Coventry (pictured) for a place in the Premier League at Wembley on May 27

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