“I decorated my house from top to bottom,” says Keith Curle, recalling the few months’ interim between Carlisle and Northampton, his former and current clubs who meet tomorrow. Curle parted ways with the Blues in May after nearly four years, and was appointed at the Sixfields Stadium in October, making tomorrow a first reunion.

Curle was an agent of change at Brunton Park and is trying to be so again with the Cobblers, and this aspect of his reputation is promoted when he talks about his life between jobs. “When you’re the manager of Carlisle, and living in Sheffield, there’s an element of neglect [at home],” he says. “When I’d finished my house, I redecorated my missus’ house. My daughter then needed a garage turning into a beauty room, so I did that.

“I’m a handyman. It’s what I do in my spare time. I might not be as quick as other people but the end result is very good.”

When not armed with a paintbrush or, at other times, his golf clubs, Curle says he was invited to watch some Premier League clubs train. “Even there, I saw certain things I would have changed. That’s the type of person I am. I walk into a restaurant, or a hotel foyer, and there are things I’d change. I don’t mind change, because of the effect it can have on your environment.”

Curle certainly brought difference to Carlisle from 2014-18, saving the club from relegation before shaping them into a play-off side, with a style some fans adored and others questioned. His final season brought a 10th-placed finish and then a rather strained parting of the ways.

It is impossible not to ask Curle about that uneasy ending. The 55-year-old says he does not want to make any attack upon his former club but still gives reasons why he was no longer satisfied with life at Brunton Park.

“Without being controversial, the working relationship I had at the football club had changed,” he says. “As in the decision-makers – the chairman [Andrew Jenkins] and John [Nixon, co-owner] – were no longer making decisions.

“Previously, I knew if I needed answers, I went to them. That decision-making process [then] changed and I knew in my heart it wasn’t going to be the football club that I wanted to work at.”

The influence on United’s direction by backers Edinburgh Woollen Mill has become more apparent this season. Their loans to the club, though, began in March 2017 and Curle says their involvement added a new layer to Blues affairs. “They [Jenkins and Nixon] didn’t have the final say on finances,” he said. “With Edinburgh Woollen Mill having a financial interest in the football club, with that they had a say on what money was spent and how.

“I fully understand and respect that. But coming to the end of my tenure there was a realisation there was another cog in the wheel and it was very difficult to get an answer.”

Prior to that, Curle said he had enjoyed a more direct and open understanding with Jenkins and Nixon, even when they had to turn down some requests. When it is raised that Nixon had, at a fans’ forum last year, described Curle as “one of the more difficult” people he had managed, Curle says he found this remark “not surprising”.

He adds: “John’s been in senior management. He’s made a very good career of it and knows the challenges that are faced. As a manager you have to be brave enough to ask questions and put demands on people above you. Sometimes that means asking difficult questions at difficult times.

“Some of the conversations I had with John were excellent. Sometimes he had to say no, even though he knew in an ideal situation he would have liked to say yes. Sometimes that’s down to good housekeeping.

“Everybody knows I’m not a yes man. Likewise, I can accept no. But sometimes you have to put people on their toes and make sure they’re accountable for the decisions they make.”

Curle stresses that he feels Jenkins, Nixon and the board backed him “as much as they could”. This leads to another debate on his tenure, given the talk this season about the “legacy” of his spending, with generous bonuses awarded as part of contracts to players in 2016-17: a financial direction Carlisle are now at pains to reverse.

He is ready for this line of enquiry. The contract policy, he says, was his way of attracting players who would not normally have come. “Have a look at Jabo Ibehre – getting him from London to Carlisle on considerably less [basic wage] than he was being offered elsewhere, but giving him a incentive that if he scored goals, we won games, we kept clean sheets, that is where he earned his money.

“Players had key performance indicators whereby if they achieved those, they earned money. Getting players on incentive-based contracts [helped us] get to the play-offs. The argument might have been that the club didn’t make money, but the club getting to the play-offs from being in a relegation fight didn’t lose money either.

“It was about establishing an attraction to get people there," he adds. "Previously, [the club] would have a couple of marquee signings who would get paid above the average and it didn’t matter if they did well or not. I went down a different vein.”

Some feel Curle was too restless about his financial demands, even though he did not torture directors into signing those cheques. “It’s easy to pick at somebody’s faults when they’re gone,” he adds. “If John and Andrew ever had any issues, we had enough time together, and they were brave enough to voice their opinion.”

Does he regret any other aspect of his time with the Blues, given the period when, in early 2017, he publicly said that some people inside the club would be “enjoying” a run of bad results, because of their feelings towards him? “I’m not here to throw hand grenades,” he says. “Every manager that has a different personality and way of working will get on with some people and not with others. I was never disrespectful with anybody.”

When Curle went to the Sixfields Stadium in the autumn, joined by his former Blues No2 Colin West, it was not long before he also hired another ex-Brunton Park colleague in Dan Watson, who joined the day he resigned his goalkeeping coach position at Carlisle. This left a sour taste among some at United, whose director of football David Holdsworth said Watson had assured the club he did not have another club lined up.

Curle admits the two had kept in touch after his own Blues exit, but insists it was not a fait accompli. Saying that “certain elements” of Watson’s contract had changed, he goes on to praise the coach’s attributes from his time at Carlisle. “I got the phonecall the day his resignation had been accepted, and I had no hesitation in making a change in my staffing levels," he says.

“Was there encouragement from me to leave his job? No. Did I make a position available to bring Dan in? No. It was just circumstances. When Dan became available I saw an opportunity for me to improve the football club.”

It is understandable that Curle declines to show his hand when asked whether certain other United people, such as his former signings, could be in his sights this month. Available for moves are Mike Jones and Richie Bennett, while Ashley Nadesan is a loan player initially signed by Curle who is attracting League Two attention after another positive stint under John Sheridan.

Then there is Jamie Devitt, United’s prized asset, unavailable this month unless an “almighty” offer comes in, according to Holdsworth.

Might there be Cobblers interest in any of the above? “You wouldn’t expect me to tell you, so I won’t,” Curle says.

“Good players are good players. I like and admire the way Mike Jones plays, and Richie Bennett is a player that needed development. Another season with me, when I was there, would have seen him getting into double figures and probably achieving 15-20 [goals].”

It will be a familiar United side that faces Curle’s new team tomorrow. “Last week there was eight players still in the starting XI that we took to the football club,” he says. “You think, yeah, we left a very good foundation, which is always important.”

Curle is proud of the work he did from the outset of his United time. “The football club was in trouble when we went there,” he said. “We were four points adrift and there were better squads and players than ours. The teams that want down, Tranmere and Cheltenham, were something like seventh and 15th at the time.

"It was a massive team effort to stay up that year – not just the football department, but the whole football club coming together and realising what was needed. I’m proud of being part of the framework that managed that. I think if the football club had gone down it would have been a disaster.”

After survival, there was a better but even more eventful season which saw high-profile cup encounters with Liverpool and Everton, plus the deep damage and upheaval of the Storm Desmond floods. A serious promotion push followed, sabotaged by injuries and the loss of Charlie Wyke, before last season's frustrating, mid-table route which Curle, at the time, protested was still overachievement.

A constant through these and later times was Danny Grainger, the one player Curle inherited who survived to the end of his tenure – and is still there, the division’s newly-minted player of the month. “When I went in there, there wasn’t a lot of support for Danny Grainger," Curle says. "It was a brave decision to make Danny captain. Two years later he absolutely swept the board with the player of the year awards. Sometimes change is good internally as well.”

Curle says there is not quite the same need for root-level transformation at Northampton as he engineered at United from 2014. Yet there are still some similarities in the way a side with bigger hopes got relegated back to League Two then found themselves at its lower end, in sore need of a filip. He has won five, drawn seven and lost three in the league to have the Cobblers 17th. They are unbeaten at home under Curle in league games, yet have won just once in their last 12 in all competitions.

“It needed an immediate impact, then a steady building process,” he says. “In terms of league position, going into a fragile changing room, you have to pick up personalities. You go from League One and the next thing find yourself bottom of League Two – there’s got to be something wrong. Managing staff, managing expectations...it all needs to be done.

“When I first went into Carlisle they’d won one game in 21 or 22 and were on the back of a relegation. This club was the same: there wasn’t a winning mentality. I hadn’t worked with any of the players at Northampton [before] but on paper they had a very good squad. Players have expectations as well and sometimes they need a change of direction, mentality and focus.”

He knows he faces a United side on a formidable run of six straight wins. “Make no mistake about it, the players there are good players,” he says. “They are [soon] out of contract, and know the contract that I gave them will not be replaced. So they know they need to put in a level of performances to make them attractive options for other managers and football clubs.

“There’s an element of their players playing for themselves, which is something I’ve always tried to demand. A footballer is self-employed. There’s no surprise to myself that you’ve got very good players performing at a level to maintain a lifestyle of improvement.”

Does he feel fifth-placed United, despite the loss of Sheridan and some enforced squad changes with loanees this month, could sustain their challenge? “It’s League Two. If you’ve got good League Two players, anything could happen. If you look at Northampton, the year they got promoted (2015/16) was the year they had turmoil at the football club, with players not being paid.

"That adversity brought the team together. It gave them a focus and they ended up being taken over and getting promoted. Carlisle have got good players. I don’t have any embarrassment about saying that because the majority of them, I took there.”

Would he take any pleasure in ending their run tomorrow? “No, not at all. This isn’t me against any individual at the football club. I’ve got a lot of time and respect for the chairman. I was disappointed how certain things ended with my tenure, but I understand it. There’ll be people that won’t want to come face-to-face with me, because of my personality and their personality, and I understand that.

“I don’t shy away. There are people I’ll be glad to see, and be respectful to, and [some] it doesn’t matter if I see them or not.”

There were, it cannot be forgotten, many United supporters who took to him in an ardent way. The “mysterious Curle” cult spawned songs, banners and tattoos, and at his final away game last season he was embraced and even kissed by some. It is unlikely those feelings will turn hostile tomorrow even though he is now the enemy.

“I had a fantastic relationship with them,” he says. “Any manager that wants to build success, you have to have a connect with your supporters. I think they realised they had somebody who was trying to improve their football club and was prepared to challenge the powers-that-be. You need that common goal to improve – from the terraces, the dugout and the changing room.

“There were certain things I would have said that would have ****** people off. One of the first things some people in Carlisle said about my interviews was that I spoke too quickly, so I tried to adjust. I even tried throwing in a bit of ‘eh’…”

Voicing this Cumbrian inflection in his West Country accent leads Curle to end on a warm note. “I enjoyed it there. When you’re in Carlisle, there’s nowhere better to be. Never had a traffic jam, no queues anywhere. The frustration was getting there and getting back at times, but it’s a sacrifice you make for the job.”