Danny Grainger has won a few battles in his time at Carlisle United and the day he spoke about retiring was another. It required some effort for the 32-year-old not to cry as he considered the end of a 17-year career.

Grainger just about kept the tears at bay but some sentences were short, his voice fainter than usual. It was no ordinary interview for these are not ordinary circumstances for the Cumbrian: confident in the timing of his decision, but realising it is the end all the same.

Grainger appeared most emotional when talking about his family and also the fact he is going out the way he wished: with Carlisle, the club that rejected him at 13 but then signed him aged 27.

He has since captained the club and over 197 appearances there have been some rich and eventful times: heroic moments, a few struggles, but always the sense that Grainger has been there. He enjoyed significant success in Scotland but his time at Brunton Park has given him a depth of feeling unavailable elsewhere.

A supporter of the Blues since childhood, pulling on the blue shirt always mattered. “It’s something you laugh and dream about,” Grainger said. “My mates that I chat with a lot, they always say, ‘You’ve wanted to do it, and you’ve done it. Just enjoy it’. It has been a real ride.

“I’d have loved just one appearance for Carlisle and one professional game. You’re living a young boy’s dream.”

Grainger weathered some early criticism in his time as a United player as the club fought relegation, but it is significant that he is the only survivor in the squad from the Graham Kavanagh era. It reflects a strength of character that he was entrusted even as Kavanagh’s successor Keith Curle was subjecting the rest of United to considerable change.

This established him as a figurehead throughout Curle’s reign and, though this season under John Sheridan and Steven Pressley has been sabotaged by the injuries that have led him to call it a day, Grainger will leave with his standing among supporters generally high.

“Your relationship with fans is very up and down, but that’s football," he said. "You can go from scoring the winner in the 90th minute to giving a short backpass [and costing your team] within two weeks. That’s part and parcel of the game.

“I’ll always go onto any pitch, especially that one [Brunton Park], and work hard, try and run further than anyone, and do more than anyone can. I think I’ve probably won more over with that side of it.

“When people read about my decision [today], some people will say he’s a good servant, but it’s time to walk away. Others will say he shouldn’t be leaving. It is what it is. You’re never gonna please every single fan that walks through the gate, but they all know I’ve knocked my pan in for the club and that’s the main thing for me.”

Grainger’s time as a United defender is also memorable for his efforts at the other end of the pitch. His 34 goals include 18 penalties and the captain was reminded by the club’s media officer Andy Hall on Wednesday that this was the joint second highest spot-kick tally in United’s history: level with Chris Balderstone, three behind Mike McCartney.

He is also down in history as the scorer of Carlisle’s 5,000th league goal: a header at Chesterfield last season. Some of his other strikes have been either spectacular (stunners against Portsmouth and Newport, for instance) or highly significant (two nerveless penalties at Exeter on 2016/17’s final day which helped United into the play-offs).

One penalty he did not convert was in a League Cup shoot-out at Anfield in September 2015 but that was still one of Grainger’s proudest nights, as he led Carlisle out at one of the game’s great stadiums and they produced a brave team performance to take Liverpool to the very wire.

When retirement sinks in these are among many memories Grainger will treasure. So is the way he built his career from the pain of teenage rejection. “I say now to my academy lads about these setbacks,” he said. “They are negatives but you have to try and take them as positives, as fuel.

“I had a real desire to prove people wrong. I got a lucky break when I got my Gretna move – it was the right time and everything just fell in place. I had people like Gav Skelton and Richie Prokas, who I’ve looked up to for a long time who I could go and speak to. They were so open, and able to help you, that it was easier to become a better player. I always said that’s what I want to model myself on.

“When I left [the United centre of excellence] it was a setback, very upsetting as a 13-year-old to be told you’re not good enough. People in that situation sometimes say, ‘That’s enough now, I’m not good enough’. I didn’t take it. I wanted to prove them wrong, and quite happily I did.”

Grainger spent five years with Gretna, sharing in their remarkable rise up the Scottish league, and until 2014 had spent all his career north of the border. “I really enjoyed it, all the massive grounds, big clubs, derbies, everything,” he said. "I loved my time at St Johnstone, I loved my time at Dundee United. It was a learning curve for me. I went to Dunfermline for the last part of my career there and loved it too. It was two divisions below the SPL but with a manager [Jim Jefferies] I really got on with and I still do.

“Probably until I came back here [to England], I didn’t really take a lot of it on board. You just enjoyed the moment when you were there. But you look back and think where you’ve been, where you’ve played, grounds, clubs you’ve played against, the stature, the competitions. Being able to go to Anfield on a European night [with Hearts] was unbelievable. White Hart Lane. I probably didn’t appreciate them enough when they were there, but the memories I’ll hold forever.”

Grainger’s time at Tynecastle brought Scottish Cup Final glory. He scored from the spot in a 5-1 annihilation of city rivals Hibs 2012 at Hampden. “It was a place [Hearts] where I made a lot of good friends,” he said. “We went through a hard time, not getting paid, on the verge of administration, and seeing people losing jobs. It was the club that probably I grew closest to when I was up there, and I still go back up when I can, and take [my son] Oliver to the games.

“To play in a cup final was unbelievable; that, and scoring against your biggest rivals are great memories.”

Grainger had spoken to Carlisle in 2013 at a time he was recovering from a cruciate knee ligament injury but it was not the right time for either party. He had, though, resolved to come home at some stage soon. “The time it did come, [my wife] Heather was pregnant with Maisie, Oliver was getting towards school age, and we just said, ‘Do we carry on another couple of years up here [in Scotland], or do we go home and set up some roots?' That was when we knew it was time to come home.”

Kavanagh, who signed Grainger in 2014, did not last long as boss that season and as United struggled, Grainger faced flak. “It’s been an up and down five years,” he said. “Your first season, when you come in, you want to hit the ground running and I don’t think I did. A relegation fight in your first season’s not what you want."

Receiving the armband was, though, an honour. “That’s tipped it off, really. Keith Curle came in, and Thir [Paul Thirlwell] was captain. I’ll never forget it. It was when we were at Newport. The manager hadn’t pulled me in or anything. It was Thir that told me, ‘You’re captain now’. He was brilliant with it. A lot of people would have been a bit upset, because Thir was a legend himself.  But I was more than happy to take it over and Thir was great with me.”

United survived late in the season, then had an eventful 2015/16, marked by Anfield, the Storm Desmond floods and a 10th-placed finish. The following year they looked set for promotion but mid-season injuries to Grainger and Mike Jones, plus the sale of Charlie Wyke, left them scrambling for the play-offs. 2017/8 was a frustrating affair while this volatile campaign, steered by different managers, is going close to the wire as the Blues try to cling on to the top seven.

“It’s been mad,” Grainger said, considering all these campaigns. “That night down at Exeter [the play-off semi-final second leg] when we lost with the last kick, after the jubilation a few days earlier when we won 3-2 to get in the play-offs. Anfield was a proud night. We’ve had some unbelievable days here. Even the one against Hartlepool where we won 3-2 [in October 2016, when Grainger scored from a free-kick routine]. Nath Thomas doesn’t let me forget that one...

“I’ve made some great mates here. It would have been nice to finish with 200 appearances but I’m happy with 197.”

On his penalty-taking, Grainger said: “I’ve always said I’m confident taking them. I probably haven’t been as prolific over the last nine months which is frustrating. Some players don’t mind it, some enjoy it. I’m one of those players who, if it’s there, I’ll do it. It’s a free hit from 12 yards and you should back yourself every time.

“It’s been great – the penalties, and some of the other goals I’ve been lucky enough to score. The flukes, a couple of right-footers and a header, which is unheard of!

“All the little records [such as United's 5,000th goal] are lovely to have but as I’ve always said, it’s the club’s success that’s the main thing. It would be great this season if we could finish this job off and get promoted. We know it’s an uphill task now but it’s all to play for. Two big games, and if we do the business I’m confident we’ll finish in the play-offs, then I’m more than confident seeing where we’ll go.”

United will also miss Grainger's off-field contributions. No Blues pro in the last five years has done more to represent the club in its community and if Grainger had done nothing else for Carlisle, his instinctive response to rally team-mates to help flood victims in the city in December 2015 should guarantee him lasting respect.

On his community efforts, he said: “It’s something I’ve taken seriously. I’ve taken things from what I’ve seen other captains do, and it’s probably been easier for me to captain this club than any other because this is a club I’ve always wanted to be at. Going into the community is no bother, because I remember when I was young, Proky [Richard Prokas] and other players used to come in [to schools and clubs] and it meant a lot. I wanted to make sure the kids round here have the same sort of buzz I did when I was their age.”

Embarking on a career as long as Grainger’s brings certain lessons, some he can now pass on as a coach, whether that be in his Cumbria Football Academy or in other positions in the game. “You can’t have regrets,” he said. “But one thing I would say is I was slightly negative in the early part of my career. Mistakes bothered me and that negativity slowed me down a little bit.

"When I speak to younger players, I say, 'Things happen, get on with it'. That comes with experience. Although it’s easy for me to sit here now with over 400 appearances and say that."

Experience also told when he started to consider the end. Grainger said it was about two months ago that he first started talking seriously to his wife about the idea of retiring, the annoyance of injuries having weighed heavier than before. “It’s hard when you’re on year-to-year contracts,” he said. “I always wanted to finish my career here and knowing I only had a year left, you always think, could this be your last one?

“I started to talk about it around the first time I did my hamstring, about six to eight weeks ago. That’s when I was getting frustrated and taking things home.

“It’s not been a rash decision. It’s been coming. I just think that, moving forward, the club needs some fresh blood. They need a fresh start. I think the manager has said that – there will be changes in the summer. It just felt like it was the right time for me to step away from the club. That knock-on effect is that me finishing at this club is me finishing my career.

“I always said my target was [age] 32-33. I think now my body and everything’s just decided that it’s the right time. To be fair to Dolly [physio Neil Dalton], Paddy and Dave [fitness coaches Paddy Maher and David Waldie], those guys have been unbelievable. I’m not the most agile player and they’ve been able to get me on the pitch week after week. This season has just taken its toll and it’s been frustrating.”

Given his central part at United these five years, is there no suggestion he could stay in another capacity? “There hasn’t been any sort of conversations like that. I spoke to the gaffer [Pressley] and David Holdsworth [director of football] – they both said they respected my decision and will look at things further down the line.

“I’ve no idea what the plans are after this season for myself. I think the most important thing is the club will kick on. It’s been my biggest disappointment that I came here when we were in League Two and we’re still here. Hopefully we can finish with a trip to Wembley and a promotion just as I finish.”

Whether he is fixed up with another position early in the summer, or has to wait for the right opportunity, he concedes the approaching weeks will be a curious time. “It will be very strange [not to be coming back to Brunton Park for pre-season]. There’s loads of things that go through your head and that’s one of them – what am I gonna do with my summer? I don’t have to run, don’t have to get fit! One of Heather’s things was, ‘Don’t get fat…’

“It will be a strange summer, but one when I can wind down, enjoy my kids and Heather and see where we go.”

Grainger replied “never say never” at the long-term thought of returning to United in their dug-out one day. He stressed, though, that he has respect for Pressley. “I want him to be a real success. I speak to him quite a lot, we’ve got a good relationship off and on the pitch and I think the club have made a good decision in giving him a year’s contract to go on and prove he’s the right man for the job.

“He’s been brilliant for me since coming in. With this [decision], I sat down and had a conversation with him on Sunday about it, had a coffee, and he was superb about it. He said any time I want to come and watch training I’m more than welcome, things like that."

What, then, could be next? “There’s a couple of little things I’m looking at that might work for me. It’s very difficult at the moment because I’ve got my academy and I want to build that, with our own training facility – it’s very important we get everything up to scratch, and that will take care of itself after that.

“I don’t want to be sat in the car for two or three hours every day. There’s nothing that I’ve put any sort of thought into yet. I just want to get to the end of the season, get back fit and hopefully help push the lads over the line into the play-offs.”

Does he have an overriding ambition for his career post-playing? Grainger nodded. “I said when I started at Gretna that I wanted to play as high as I could, and there’s no difference with the coaching side. Whatever I do, wherever I go, whatever the next step is, I’ll give my all with it.

“I’ve been quite lucky to have worked under some really good managers and coaches, national managers, and with my captaincy I’ve [learned] things I’d like to think I can take into that [coaching] side. I’ve got two or three really good friends in that respect too…Gav [Skelton] has been a massive, massive influence on my career. He was there from day one, and even now he’s someone I speak to a lot for advice.

"I’ve been quite lucky in my career. My mam, my dad, my family, my sisters, my wife and kids, my best mates, they’ve always been there for me, and [staying in this area] is important. My kids are settled, they’re in school, have their own group of friends, my wife has her job, and everything’s always been about me prior to these last five years. The 12 years prior to coming to Carlisle was all about me being away doing what I can, whereas now it’s important for them to have their own little bubble as well.”

How closely will he remain attached to his former club, Carlisle United, when he is no longer part of it? “It’ll all depend what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m still a Carlisle fan, I want to see the club do as well as possible. I would love to be sat here this time next season thinking, ‘Damn, I wish I’d stayed one more season so I could have lifted that trophy’. I’ll be back next season as much as I can, watching."

As he recovers from his hamstring injury, Grainger has not given up hope on playing again this season, the play-offs his most likely opportunity to add to 463 career appearances should Carlisle make it. If, though, tomorrow's game against Crawley does not go to plan, and a top seven place drifts away, it will be Grainger’s last experience of a Brunton Park matchday as a United player.

Even though he will not have his boots on, there is the prospect of a difficult but, he maintains, appropriate farewell. “It will be emotional, it will be tough,” Grainger said. “But it’s the right time.”