For every recruitment success story there is always one that got away and, while repeating these tales can sometimes serve little purpose other than to irritate supporters, there are occasions when they can shed useful light.

In certain cases, the near-misses demonstrate that a club is looking in the right places. Where youth football at Carlisle United is concerned the last sustained wave of incoming talent came under Eric Kinder’s tenure and this is reflected in the status now of players like Gary Madine, Andy Cook, Brad Potts and Tom Aldred.

Kinder was always prepared to look beyond Cumbria and there was another prospect who, in 2007, had all but agreed to join after being released by Leeds. Meetings were held in Carlisle, a scholarship deal was tabled at a meal with the player's family in Toby Carvery, and the signatures were to be applied to a contract a couple of days later.

Those 48 hours – as can happen with transfers – proved crucial. In that time Hull City made their move and in the end it was with the Tigers, not Carlisle, that Tom Cairney made his first strides, later blossoming further with Blackburn and, now, as a Premier League midfielder with Fulham.

A lesson learned, you can be sure, in terms of getting ink on paper at the first opportunity. Happily, Carlisle were not gazumped with many of those others and when one considers that Madine is a high-end Championship striker, Potts is also operating well in that division, Cook has 16 goals in League One and both Aldred and Mark Gillespie are regulars in Scotland’s top division, there were clear grounds for Kinder deliberately mining his outside contacts in order to enhance United’s production line.

It may not have delivered quite the magical talent of the 1990s Brunton Babes – who, the more you think of it, occupy an extraordinary place in Carlisle’s history given the top-flight ability and value achieved by such as Matt Jansen and Rory Delap – but it was surely the best attempt since, and as much as anything it showed the merit of having both a plan and the will to see it through.

No approach guarantees results, and United are taking an obviously fresh route now; one that puts an accent on young Cumbrian players again rather than those from further afield. Whether this proves successful or not it appears just as important that they have a strategy in the first place.

It may be harder than ever in the era of the Elite Player Performance Plan and big-club hoarding, but the message Carlisle are sending out is, on the face of it, good. Early into his time at United the director of football David Holdsworth spoke of a “pipeline” of academy talent, and since then the Blues have given professional terms to Liam McCarron, 17, and now Jarrad Branthwaite, a 16-year-old defender.

One trusts that those deals reflect a full commitment to the talent as well as a wholesome message to other Cumbrian boys. You sense Carlisle want the broader significance of McCarron and Branthwaite's graduation to be spread through this county and that the business end of Brunton Park’s youth regime can indeed be seen as a “pathway”, rather than a cul-de-sac.

For this to be the case all the dots must be joined. This column has referred before to 2013’s “one to nine in 10” policy of having a majority of home-grown players in the first-team squad a decade down the line. It was a slogan without substance, a headline target too easily at the mercy of staff changes, and only now, six years on, do you feel any sense of top-down direction.

That slogan is never mentioned these days; nor is the “development” contract experiment of 2017, when four youth players were given a supposed leg up yet had no organised reserve side in which to play, no development squad to join and no clear way of progressing to a first-team whose manager, Keith Curle, wanted players more rounded and ready.

None of those four remain at the club, which says little for whatever “development” plan existed. With respect to all concerned, it proved a well-intentioned waste of time and resources.

Since then, other young pros have been released mid-season and this also highlights that, in age-group football, it is about the execution as much as the idea. McCarron may have galloped into first-team contention early but with others of promise, how United manage the transition from here will be all-important.

It is apparent that Steven Pressley, the manager, is extremely open-minded about youth players. Many were assessed against a robust Sunderland team in Tuesday’s reserve friendly, Pressley having shown an eagerness to involve them in senior training, and it looks clear that, whether the Scot is retained this summer or Carlisle find themselves appointing another new boss, this aspect of the club will stay firmly in mind.

At a time when others have closed academies and prefer only to catch top-division discards, this image will sit well. A dedication to proper youth development connects a club to its community.

What it cannot be, though, is a simple path. Next year’s first-year under-18 intake, featuring eight players previously linked to United’s academy, has been presented as a “successful year” and no doubt this does reflect well on the boys and coaches involved.

It is only successful in the fullest sense, though, if it delivers lasting quality. Instinctively you feel Carlisle are doing something positive with how their youth side is being promoted and it is right to give it time and patience.

A commitment from all parties not just to the idea but the detail, and it has a chance.


The talk is of focusing on the next 12 games, on promotion, and we definitely haven’t discussed next season’s budget, but do not think that those behind the scenes at United are not already planning.

It may be a delicate balance, given Carlisle cannot yet be certain which division they will be playing in, but some things may be easier to anticipate.

The main one is that a host of players will be reaching the end of deals awarded in Keith Curle’s tenure, with bonus structures the Blues are desperate to change.

There is, once more, the prospect of upheaval. “If the manager wants, he can have a brand new squad next season,” said Gary Liddle, one of many in the final months of his contract.

If this season has taught us anything it is that dramatic change does not have to be feared. Carlisle’s exit door appeared constantly open for a period last summer, the tumbleweed days long-lasting.

The results, though, have not been half as bad as many expected, given United are four places and five points higher than the corresponding stage in 2017/18 and, while recent form has faltered, they are still much more involved in the race this time.

All the same, it should also be acknowledged that plenty of the ballast for this (so far) improved campaign has been provided by men like Liddle and others left by Curle: Tom Parkes, Kelvin Etuhu, Jamie Devitt, Hallam Hope.

Engaging in wholesale reconstruction every season comes with obvious risk and, when speaking last weekend to a pro like Liddle, who has averaged 47 appearances a season over a 600-game career, it was easy to make the case for at least some continuity.

In the eagerness for more budget leeway, one hopes United can still retain some of those who are proven and, plainly, still able.