The final weeks of a season bring it all back to Karl Hawley who, 13 years ago, was a promotion hero for Carlisle United. It has not always been an easy journey for the striker since then and he has recently been watching DVDs to remind himself of those golden times.

“I came out of the professional game not really liking it,” he says. “Because of that I’ve tended to look back more at things that didn’t go so well. Reliving the good memories made me feel better about myself, about my career.”

It has been a fond nostalgia trip because, in three seasons at Brunton Park, Hawley helped United to Conference promotion, scored 26 goals the following campaign as they won League Two, and also stepped up well in League One. The most vivid day of all was at Mansfield, in April 2006, when Hawley netted in injury-time to clinch a 1-1 draw that confirmed Carlisle’s rise to the third tier.

“I remember the ball ricocheting about and thinking, ‘I’ve just got to smash this’, says Hawley, smiling as he recalls his scruffiest but most meaningful goal of many in 2005/6. “I tried to run to the other end to celebrate with our fans but I only got halfway before the other players started jumping on me.”

Hawley is now 37 and no longer sports the vivid afro he wore that day – which was a result, he says, of there being no black barbers in Carlisle and a lack of time to get his usual plaits done elsewhere before the game. “To score the goal was special personally, but it was for all of us,” he adds. “The characters we had in that dressing room were unbelievable. When I think of that time the hairs on my body stand up.”

Hawley says these brilliant days gave him a “false sense of security” about football which would bite him down the line. Before the tougher material pours from him, he reminisces more about the brightest times. Released by Walsall, his home-town club, he had joined Carlisle after an approach from his former Saddlers youth coach, Dennis Booth, who was assistant to Paul Simpson at the newly-relegated Blues.

“I’d been looking into being a fireman, that sort of stuff,” Hawley says. “When Dennis called, I didn’t have a clue where Carlisle was. I’d been in a comfort zone at Walsall, all my friends around, going out on the town and people looking up to you like you’re a hero. It was time for me to move, to grow.”

Hawley made a positive start and scored 13 goals, but was left out of the team that beat Stevenage in the Conference play-off final. “I was fuming,” he says. “You have to remember, it was my first season as a professional and I was learning on the job. I didn’t know how to deal with the setback of not playing.

“Although we went up, and it was a happy time, I felt I wasn’t part of it. I remember saying to Simmo at the party, ‘Give me number 10 next season and I’ll be top scorer, 100 per cent’.”

Simpson agreed to the request – and Hawley superbly honoured the bargain. “Before that [League Two] season, I’d always suffered with a lack of confidence,” he says. “I actually think that held my back throughout my career. You don’t realise it at the time – little things, like spending too much time out of the box, thinking, ‘it’s safer here. If I go in the box, I might miss’.

“Psychology is a massive part of the game now but we didn’t get taught about that. If you weren’t confident, you were weak. Once I was flying, though, it was totally different.”

Hawley’s renewed drive and belief peaked as he combined with fellow strikers Derek Holmes and Michael Bridges. His lethal finishing included successive hat-tricks against Stockport and Torquay. “When Soccer AM was on, I remember being above people like Thierry Henry on the goalscorers list,” he says. “That was a bit special.”

Hawley dwells on the “trust” Simpson placed in him, and on the captain of that champion team. “If I was a manager in League Two now, I would say, ‘find me a Kevin Gray.’ There’s none about. Off the pitch he used to look after me; I lived with him in a flat and he would cook for me. On the pitch he was a different kind of animal. I remember before we played Rushden, their striker Drewe Broughton giving it, ‘Ah, number six, he’s got no legs, terrorise him’. Kev was calm as anything. Then, first challenge – oh my God. He folded him, absolutely folded him. Broughton had one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen after that.”

Hawley says scoring became “like a drug” and he maintained the habit under Simpson’s replacement, Neil McDonald. There was interest from League One rivals in January 2007 but Nottingham Forest’s approach came late and Hawley was happy at Carlisle. Things became more strained when, his contract expiring, he changed agents and chose to wait for potential summer options in the Championship. Hawley found himself out of the side as things reached an impasse. “The manager had his reasons, but I felt it took a bit of shine away from what I’d done at the club,” he says.

“I hated that time, absolutely hated it. The manager was offering me contracts left, right and centre, and plenty of times I was saying to my agent that I’d just sign. It was never the case that I wasn’t happy, or wanted more money. It was just that I had an opportunity to go to a higher level. I’d never been in that situation before.”

These tangled feelings erupted at United’s end-of-season dinner. Hawley drank himself paralytic before the event and was photographed slumped on a sofa at the venue before being put in a taxi home. It was many fans’ last sight of the striker and this is the first time he has properly revisited the night.

“It was the culmination of a lot of things,” he says. “You can have a skin as thick as a crocodile’s, but with all the things people were saying about me, I was a state. I think part of me also wanted to give two fingers to the manager for the way things had been going on.”

Does he remember the evening itself? “Nah, I just remember waking up to the text messages and pictures. I’ve kind of shut it out. It’s a bit embarrassing. I’m very closed, keep my feelings to myself. My family, listening to this, wouldn’t even know. I’m not proud of it, but these things can happen.”

Hawley moved to Preston, under Simpson, but when his old Carlisle mentor was sacked his path became less positive. After a couple of loan moves, he joined Notts County, rejecting the chance to return to United “because I had that self-doubt about whether I could reach those old heights again”.

Notts were a circus, under mystery new owners. “Sven-Goran Eriksson was there, and there were rumours that [David] Beckham and Roberto Carlos would be coming in. When Sol Campbell came into the dressing room, it was just surreal.” The Meadow Lane dream collapsed and though Hawley did well under certain managers, his general struggle to emulate his Carlisle heyday dragged him down.

“I would never say I was mentally weak, but things chip away at you,” he says. “My form was a shadow of what it had been. There were times I was put on the wing, other times when I wasn’t playing and no reason was given to me. I started to fall out of love with the game.”

Hawley went on loan to Crawley but says he was messed around by Steve Evans – “just a horrible man” – and returned in an emotional rut. “I didn’t know how to get out of it. I didn’t have any psychologist, or anyone I would confide in. It was me, myself and I. There were times I wouldn’t turn up to training. I’d call in and say I was ill. I was that much at a low with football. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it was my way of surviving it.”

He did better at Scunthorpe, but a spell at Torquay under Chris Hargreaves soured. “He kept telling me this and that, giving me false hope. I ended up leaving there after I broke my arm. And that was my professional career, basically.”

This was 2014, as Hawley went to play for Alfreton and struggled with reality. “Outside that football bubble, nobody cares what you’ve done,” he says. “What skills have you got? What are you going to bring to the table?”

A chance conversation with Oshor Williams at the Professional Footballers’ Association eventually turned him towards a sports science degree, but Hawley’s cloudy state of mind took time to clear. “It [the degree] was a massive rude awakening. I hadn’t studied for so long, and it was hard. I also started going to the gym a lot more, and did a personal training qualification. If it wasn’t for the support I had, from my fiancée [Chanelle], as well as that focus of going to the gym, I honestly think I would have had a breakdown. I would have lost the plot.”

He stresses he does not want sympathy for these revelations. “I was in a privileged position,” he says. “But there’s a saying that everyone’s got their own problems, whether you’re a millionaire or you’ve got nothing.”

Hawley found his new path by playing for several non-league sides whilst running soccer schools with his former team-mate Adam Murray, who he later assisted at Mansfield and Boston. He now combines college lecturing with coaching in Burton Albion’s academy, and aspires to be a manager, believing his own mental hurdles can help him nurture young players today.

“I’m not the loudest person in the room,” he says. “It used to be hard for me to talk to people I didn’t know. I was probably the worst player for you to interview at Carlisle. But you have to start somewhere. To stand up in front of a bunch of kids was terrifying at first, but now I do sports lecturing. I’ve enjoyed getting over that challenge.”

He stays in touch with old United colleagues, some of whom will join him at Brunton Park this weekend to watch their former club face Crawley. The years have whizzed by yet Hawley is still the last player to break 20 goals in a season for the Blues. “I’ve kept everything – all the medals, my hat-trick balls, my trophies,” he says when reminded again of his best days.

“Watching those DVDs brought it all back. It was just a great time.”