Never meet your heroes, the saying goes, and maybe, after all, it's right. But not for the obvious reason.

It is not that they disappoint you; it is how normal they often are. Deceptively so.

The closer you get, the less like giants they feel. A few years ago, I sat in Hugh McIlmoyle's front room and listened as Carlisle United's greatest player talked about his battle with depression.

In those two hours he was not a cartoon hero, an idol cast in bronze, a No9 with a statue whose brilliance tears through the record books. He was a man, relating his life.

Hundreds, thousands in fact, may have encountered Hugh at Brunton Park over the years. They, too, will know him as the most gentle and decent of souls.

In casual conversation, he does not appear a giant. Yet a giant he is, and always was. We should never forget it.

Mike McCartney, the former United defender and a former team-mate of Hugh, will be commemorated at this afternoon's game. A minute's applause will recognise one of the club's most enduring careers.

Mike, who died last week aged 63 was, many of his old team-mates have said, a private person who did not seek the limelight.

Like Hugh - like so many of the other legends who have walked and still walk among us - he did not live in search of constant acclaim. He took a pint, he played five-a-side until weeks before his passing, he spent his days without demanding adulation.

Yet beneath that normality, great things risk being hidden. Not just that: lives and deeds that, in football's silly way, are special to many of us.

Only nine people have played more often for Carlisle United than McCartney. In other words, only nine men have helped stitch together more weekends for the sort of folk heading down Warwick Road today.

That is a profound thought in its own way, and if it is tempting to ask whether we should thank our heroes much sooner, before they have gone, why should the answer not be yes?

Opportunities surround us. The late writer Mick Mitchell used to say of Carlisle supporters: "There are not many of us, but we are everywhere." The same could be said of those who wore the blue shirt on our behalf.

Take a stroll through Carlisle of an evening, and there is Les O'Neill, the heartbeat of a First Division midfield. Move on, and there is George McVitie, one of the finest wingers the club has ever possessed.

Venture a few miles north, and there is Peter Murphy, the club's record outfield appearance holder. If you're lucky, you can pick up the phone and ask John Gorman to speak about the Blues, and listen to a left-back of the highest class pour out his thoughts.

Seek out United's community work and witness John Halpin's jinking wing play replaced by different but no less special qualities. Enjoy a game of six-a-side in the city, and chances are it may have been arranged by Billy Rafferty: now 67 but, in the late 1970s, a rapier finisher.

Choose your own, but don't forget, even when life's routines lead us that way. This week I was pointed towards a photograph of the 1956/7 Carlisle United team on a Facebook group, posted by the son of one of the players, Paddy Waters.

It was such a precious time capsule that one had to pause and remind yourself that at least a couple of the heroes are still here, right on the doorstep: Ginger Thompson, still playing walking football at 85 ("apparently it's hard to get the ball off him," his daughter Elaine says), and Ivor Broadis, 95 years young.

England's oldest surviving international player, no less, and right here, in our community. You would not have known Ivor was a tower of our game when he was doing his usual, undemonstrative thing in the press box all those later years.

But it was a privilege to sit on the same wooden seating as him: a feeling that grows as time passes.

The more we can say this about our greats, surely the better. One of the most welcome developments around Carlisle United in recent times has been the birth of the Legends Nights held at the city's Old Fire Station.

There have been two so far, another is scheduled for March. They are valuable because they allow, in a small way, our favourites to be back where they used to be, sort of: up on a stage, the spotlight shining down, celebrated again by all of us.

You hope they realise how sincere that celebration is, just as you hope those special men who have passed, like Allan Ross, Chris Balderstone and Bill Green, knew how much they were appreciated. You hope those who went tragically sooner, like Hugh Neil, realised their standing. You hope, desperately, that there is something still in Stan Bowles' mind, even as it fails, that can remind him a little of what he meant to people.

The mavericks and the stalwarts, the goalscorers and the yeomen, the ordinary and the even more ordinary, those who did what they did and never coveted gratitude: give it to them anyway.

For without them, imagine what our supporting days would have been like? Imagine a Carlisle United life, a Blues childhood and more, had they not been there?

McCartney was one of a select group to have played for Carlisle in the top three divisions. That is a story of real substance. Only two men represented the club in all four, meanwhile, and after Ross' passing in 1999, just one survives.

He has been under the weather these past couple of weeks (who hasn't?) and hearing him coughing down the phone is not, perhaps, the most legendary of sounds.

Nor was it, you suspect, when Frank Sinatra was suffering from a cold in 1965, yet that was the trigger for an article by the Esquire writer Gay Talese that is often cited as the beginning of modern journalism.

Why? It presented the singer as human, as vulnerable, a man in the raw. One felt like you knew him a little more. An icon with blemishes. But an icon all the same.

And so, to Hughie Mac, our own Sinatra: get well, and thank you. To anyone, in fact, who has worn the blue, lit up our cold weekends and asked for little back: thank you all so much, for more than you know.