Luke Joyce is in the process of having a website built for his own football academy and the search for supporting material takes him inevitably back to Carlisle United. “I’ve been going through a timeline of my career – first start, first goal, first sending-off and so on – and I ended up on YouTube looking at old footage,” he says.

“I came across loads of games on there. One was when Kev Gray scored the winner at Rotherham, which relegated them at their old stadium. Heaps of others. Brilliant memories.”

That game was in 2007, at the outset of Joyce’s first-team career. Thirteen years and a second United spell later, the Blues are back on his agenda when they take on Port Vale today.

It says something about the pace of change that, despite his long connections with Carlisle, Joyce finds as many familiar United faces in the home squad as with the Cumbrian visitors. He is one of five ex-Blues players in John Askey’s ranks, whereas Carlisle are strangers in many respects after another summer of upheaval.

“Even Dolly’s not there any more,” he says of the long-serving physio, Neil Dalton, who recently left for Aberdeen. “I won’t be able to see him for a chat and a brew. Col the kitman’s still there, I know Gav Skelton, and Amy and Andy on the media side, but other than that, I probably know more of the fans personally than the players or staff.”

In the Port Vale corner, as well as Joyce, there is Mark Cullen, Shaun Brisley, Harry McKirdy and David Amoo: a collection of names that span a period from 2006 to 2020 at Carlisle.

“Bris is the only one I actually played with,” Joyce adds. “We still mention the goal of the season competition [in 2016/17], when he scored that volley against Yeovil. He’s still adamant I went around the room on the awards evening bribing people to vote for my goal [against Crawley].

“I’ve told him the goal does all the talking. And that his was a disguised clearance.”

News and Star: Joyce celebrates his goal of the season for Carlisle against Crawley in 2016 (photo: David Hollins)Joyce celebrates his goal of the season for Carlisle against Crawley in 2016 (photo: David Hollins)

Joyce is the most experienced player of the quintet, McKirdy the youngest. United’s 2019/20 top scorer was released after a season of double-figure goals and assists but also fall-outs with fans, and last month ended up at Vale Park.

There will be no Carlisle supporters there to be reacquainted with McKirdy today. “Whether that’s a good thing for Harry, I don’t know,” Joyce says. “I’m sure he could possibly be one of those pantomime villains that will want to come back and haunt Carlisle.

“He’s settled in alright. He knew a few of the lads previously, because he’s from around that area, and from playing against him you know he’s a decent player - one of those who likes to wind players up and be a bit of a nuisance. But he’s definitely got ability.”

McKirdy is not yet first-choice at Vale, who have started the season solidly, but Joyce, 33, remains front and centre. He may not lead the betting to net against his old employers but says of the latest encounter: “Some players maybe have that desire to prove something and that bit of frustration to get out of their system, but I left on great terms after both my Carlisle spells.

“I don’t score many, though, so any goal’s welcome, no matter who it’s against. I scored one last season against Morecambe. I probably average about one. We’ll just see who the unlucky team is this year…”

Joyce will more often be found deeper in midfield, trying to set Port Vale’s tone in the latest game to take place in strange, Covid-enforced conditions. The unusual environment has set fresh challenges even for such an experienced pro.

“It was a bizarre game at Morecambe last Saturday,” he says of Vale’s 1-0 defeat at the Globe Arena. “They didn’t enter our half, just let us have the ball and Cole Stockton just followed me around the pitch.

“We talked about it afterwards – I know Morecambe aren’t going to get 10,000, but would a few thousand home fans have been happy watching that for 45 minutes? Would they have got on their case a bit about not closing us down or attacking? I’m not sure who [having no fans in grounds] benefits, the away or home team, but it’s something you have to think about and adapt to.”

Joyce says it was a compliment to read that Morecambe boss Derek Adams had identified him as the man to deprive of the ball in order to disrupt Port Vale. However Carlisle set about things today, they will find their former midfielder in a positive frame of mind.

This was not initially the case after Joyce had moved from United in the summer of 2018. “My first season at Port Vale was one of the most disappointing and frustrating I’ve had in my career,” he says. “The football side wasn’t great, and the day-to-day set-up, and training, what we were doing as a squad, the personnel we had…I wasn’t too happy with it.

News and Star: Joyce in action against Carlisle for Port Vale last season (photo: Barbara Abbott)Joyce in action against Carlisle for Port Vale last season (photo: Barbara Abbott)

“You get on with it and do what you can, but when I was playing I wasn’t necessarily putting in performances I was happy with either. I was getting a bit of stick from fans. When results and performances weren’t great, that filters through to social media. The fans also weren’t happy with the owner, Norman Smurthwaite, and it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable club to be at.”

Things improved dramatically, Joyce says, after Smurthwaite sold to Carol and Kevin Shanahan, who have restored positivity to the Burslem club. In a better 2019/20 campaign, they were a point behind Northampton in League Two when Covid-19 curtailed it. Carol Shanahan then voted against self-interest, agreeing with the points-per-game principle even though it ruled Vale out of a play-off race Northampton ended up winning.

“You have to give Carol and Kevin credit for looking at the bigger picture,” he says of a time when the pandemic was surging. “That’s what she’s very much about. What they do for the community here is unbelievable, sending thousands of meals to people, and they can’t do enough for us players too. We’re constantly being asked if there’s anything else we need to make it better for us. You can’t ask for any more than that. The turnaround from when I signed is unbelievable.”

This encourages Joyce to believe he can yet scratch a career-long itch. He was denied a part in a promotion at Carlisle when, in both his spells either side of a long Accrington stint, the Blues were thwarted in play-off semi-finals in 2008 and 2017. “I’ve played hundreds of games, but never had any kind of success where people can look back and say, ‘He’s been promoted there, he’s done this and he’s done that’,” he says.

“I would like to have at least one of those on my CV. I’m 34 next summer, and know it’ll have to happen sooner rather than later. I would be disappointed if, when I do stop playing, I look back and think, ‘You’ve played all these games, but what have you actually achieved?'"

Joyce is famously devoted to his fitness and is in good shape to extend his 558-game career for many more years, but still has one eye on the future. He set up the Luke Joyce Pro Football Academy, which is based in Westhoughton, near Bolton, 18 months ago. It caters for Under-11 and Under-13 players with the aim of adding coaching from Joyce’s professional background to children who play for local grassroots teams.

“I took inspiration from what Danny Grainger was doing [with his Cumbria Football Academy in Penrith] whilst I was at Carlisle,” Joyce says. “I talked to him all the time, asked him about the process he went through, and have tried to do something similar.

“It’s not been easy keeping it going with Covid, but the kids love it. I’ve had lots of good feedback and am getting enquiries all the time. We’ve had games against professional sides like Accrington, Fleetwood, Morecambe and Fylde, and we’ve been up to Cumbria to play Danny’s team.

“It’s something positive for me, too. Sometimes it’s a release from my own football – I can go away, coach the kids and see them smiling, happy, loving football. You remember what it used to be like for yourself at that age.”

Joyce says the academy gives him a professional goal as well as personal satisfaction. “I’ve had a decent career, but when you play in the lower reaches of the Football League, you don’t earn the money some people think you do,” he says. “I know from the day I stop playing I’ll have to start working, whether that’s in football as a coach, manager, scout or agent, or something else.

“It’s hard to plan for some jobs. You can’t necessarily go on a course and know you’ll come out of it as a manager of a football club. I’ll keep trying to progress, get all the coaching qualifications I can, and I can see myself being a coach or manager at first-team level, definitely. But you know what football’s environment is like. There’s no real security in it.

“You can do really well and it can change your life – look at Chris Wilder, who managed in the lower leagues and is now in the Premier League doing unbelievably well. But for every Chris Wilder there’s probably hundreds of coaches and managers who’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked out. So I want to build my academy up first and foremost, and at the very least run that on the side to whatever I end up doing in the professional game.

“I know Danny [now Workington manager] made his decision to retire because he knew exactly what he wanted to do and when,” he adds. “Whether I’ll be that headstrong and I’ll call time on my career, we’ll see. You never know in football. Hopefully Danny keeps progressing and he might bring me in as an assistant, coach or even player. Football’s a small world!”

That is certainly true of Joyce and the connections that will be remembered this afternoon, even though some reunions will be thwarted, since Gime Toure is unlikely to be fit to play against the club where he had a trial two years ago and Amoo is hamstrung for Vale. With Carlisle further hit by attacking injuries, the physical consequences of football’s delayed, compressed calendar are already being felt.

“From our team that played against Harrogate, seven days later we had four missing,” Joyce says. “One was Covid-related, who had been in contact with somebody so he had to isolate. Then there were three injuries in training and playing.

“Bodies have had a long time away from intense training and games, so it’s taking its effect. I’m not quick enough to pull a hammy or a quad, though, so I’m alright.”