"He was actually sitting in the bath when he told me,” says Carl Taylor, recalling the surreal but special moment when Keith Curle informed him that he was to become a first-team player at Carlisle United. It was the spring of 2015, the Blues were preparing for their final game of a turbulent season, and Taylor, a first-year youth team player, was on the rise.

“He said, ‘Would you be alright playing on Saturday?’ I said, ‘Fine’. The next day I looked on the board and my name was on the sheet.”

Taylor had been training with Curle’s first team but was still gripped with excitement as he discovered he was in the squad to face Hartlepool. “I rang my dad straight away,” he said. “On the day itself, I was so nervous walking into the place. There were loads of kids outside asking me to sign their books. I was shaking.

“When I saw my top in the changing room, ’32 Taylor’, and he [Curle] named the team and the bench, that’s when I properly realised it was happening. As soon as I put my boots on and went out to warm up, everything was fine.”

Taylor was among Carlisle’s substitutes as United, having secured Football League survival two weeks before, surged into a 3-0 half-time lead in front of 8,105 fans. Just after the hour mark, the young midfielder was summoned. “When he [Curle] shouted, I thought I was hearing things. He shouted ‘Taylor’ again and I looked up.

“I remember getting ready to go on and I froze for a second. My legs went like jelly. ‘Whoa, this is really happening now’. The keeper coach Tony Caig then sat me down and had a little word, showing me where on the pitch I needed to be, who I was marking. The manager was saying stuff like, ‘If I didn’t think you were a good player, you wouldn’t be going on today. Just do what you do’. When I went on…it was the best feeling ever.”

Taylor, who had not long turned 17, replaced Steven Rigg and the skinny youngster was a a new sight for most supporters in Brunton Park. His arrival coincided with Hartlepool’s fightback to draw 3-3 but he cannot forget the occasion.

“I’ve still got the DVD,” he says. “I’ve looked at it the odd time and analysed my game. I played right wing and I’d never played there in my life – my main position was centre mid. But I didn’t care where I was playing that day.

“My first touch didn’t go that well, but there was a time the ball went up in the air, I brought it down, went to kick it down the pitch but turned a player instead, played it into Kyle Dempsey’s feet and we were away.

“I thought I did well. It was one of the best days of my life. When I walked outside afterwards all the young lads were wanting my top. I was saying, ‘It’s my first one, you can’t have this!’ That night, one of my mates’ mams recorded the Football League Show, so a load of us ended up going back there and we were sat around together, watching me playing. It was like, ‘Whoa, this is mental’.”

Taylor did not know that it was a day he needed to treasure even more than a debutant normally would. His first senior appearance also turned out to be his last and he looks back on it now with the sort of hard-earned perspective that comes when your dreams don’t go exactly to plan.

“I coach football and work at a leisure centre now,” he says. “I started off as a lifeguard and worked myself into the gym, doing classes, spinning and stuff. I’d done coaching badges at Carlisle and ended up going into that. I play part-time football still. It’s good to mix and match with work.”

It has taken Taylor a good chunk of the last five years to reach this contented place. It has not, he says, always been the easiest time since those days when he appeared, for a while, to be one of those young players simply destined to make the grade at United.

Carlisle had signed him after eight years with Middlesbrough. Taylor joined hundreds of released teenagers at exit trials at Leeds in 2014 and was quickly picked up. “I was one of the lucky ones,” he says. “I wasn’t even out of the car park and there were teams ringing me. I went to Scunthorpe, Peterborough, and was due to go to Sheffield United, but something just felt good at Carlisle. Alan Moore was the academy manager and he was loved at Middlesbrough. I thought it would be good for me.”

News and Star: Carl Taylor, second right, with fellow youth team players clearing snow from the Brunton Park pitch in the 2015/16 seasonCarl Taylor, second right, with fellow youth team players clearing snow from the Brunton Park pitch in the 2015/16 season

For a large part, it was. Taylor, from Gateshead, knew fellow north east lads in Jordan Marshall, Frankie Wallace and Tom White and to this day wishes to express his thanks to "Graham and Mel", whose guest house formed his digs in Carlisle. He enjoyed working under Moore and, “after a couple of weeks, Graham Kavanagh [then United’s manager] took me and Matthew Douglas and put us straight into first-team training. I was flying.”

With relegated United struggling in League Two, Kavanagh was sacked that August. The Blues grappled their way to safety under Curle, and Taylor, along with fellow youth player Connor Hammell, got on the pitch against Hartlepool. “I remember [Curle] having a chat with me after that and saying I was gonna be in the first team squad straight away next season.

“Happy days. But for some reason, something changed.”

Home-grown players found it harder to attain opportunities in 2015/16. Hammell recently spoke about this difficult time and Taylor also felt there was new distance between the under-18s and senior set-ups.

“Alan and Vince [Overson] always said they were reporting back well, but he [Curle] never came to watch our games,” he says. “You want to show the manager what you’ve got, and I feel if he’d done that, that second year would have been a lot different.

“It was hard to take sometimes. I went away and played unbelievably in a pre-season tournament in Holland, and scored the winner in the FA Youth Cup against Doncaster. There were lots of times when I felt I was doing great, but not getting the rewards, or even the chance.”

News and Star: Taylor scores a winning penalty for Carlisle against Doncaster in the FA Youth Cup in the 2015/16 campaignTaylor scores a winning penalty for Carlisle against Doncaster in the FA Youth Cup in the 2015/16 campaign

The youth regime headed by Moore and Overson was not long for this world and as they departed in the spring of 2016, Taylor and all United’s other second-years were released.

“When he [Curle] sat me down, he said he had been there and done it, and what he needed was old heads to get up the leagues,” Taylor says. “To be fair to him, the season after I left, they did get in the play-offs. But after that they came shooting down. I think it did bite him in the bum with a few of the young ones. Look at Jordan Marshall now, playing really well in Scotland [for Dundee]. Tom White has signed for Bolton.

“I’d always been pretty confident of getting a pro contract. I never thought he would say no. When I came out of his office I was like, ‘Can I do this any more?’.”

Curle had challenged Taylor to prove him wrong but when the young midfielder returned home to Gateshead, he struggled with the next phase of life. “My agent rang and said Ross County wanted me to go up there. I went, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. After a week I got the train home. I was struggling to find that motivation.

“I ended up getting a call from Micky Cummins at Gateshead. He used to be my under-15s coach at Boro. I signed for Gateshead’s reserve team but ended up falling out with one of the managers. I thought, ‘Nah, I cannot do this. If I can’t give it 100 per cent, it’s time for me to walk away’. I stopped playing football altogether.”

Stopping is one thing, starting something else another. Taylor was in his late teens and would not be the first young person to do what he did next, but again says it was a consequence of confused disappointment. “When I left Gateshead, I hit the drink a lot, real hard,” he says. “I went on holiday with the lads, Zante for two weeks, Magaluf for a week, Ibiza…stupidness.

“I’m glad I got it all out of my system but I was in a dark place for a while. I remember lying on my bed one morning while I was at Gateshead thinking, ‘I don’t want to go training’. Imagine thinking that while other people are getting up at six in the morning to go to work?”

After a year out of the game, Taylor pursued work and, eventually, tiptoed back into football. “I went back to the boys club I’d been to since I was four, Leam Rangers. Playing with my mates got me back into football and I tried to start enjoying it again. If I hadn’t done that, I maybe wouldn’t have kicked a ball again.”

Taylor helped Leam win the Durham County Trophy in 2018 before following another former Middlesbrough coach to Hebburn Town. They were third and well set for promotion in Northern League Division One last season when the Covid-19 pandemic intervened, and in September beat Kent’s Corinthian to reach the FA Vase final. Their Wembley date against Consett, which is yet to be set, will be an exciting occasion for Taylor, even though football is no longer everything to him now.

News and Star: Taylor, right, in action for Hebburn Town in Northern League Division OneTaylor, right, in action for Hebburn Town in Northern League Division One

“Some people have asked me if I would like to go and play higher again, and I genuinely don’t know if I would,” he says. “I’m happy, with my job and everything. I would have to think about it.

“I remember sitting last Christmas thinking about the past five years. In some of them I hadn’t really moved. Now I’m looking at the next five years and what I can do. I’m looking at houses to buy, getting on the property ladder. That’s the way I look at life now – having little goals for myself.”

Taylor’s goals were different when his legs wobbled on the touchline at Brunton Park in 2015, and he has learned some tough lessons since. “As soon as you’re told you’re getting released, you don’t hear from people again,” he adds. “Some said they would help me, but it was a load of rubbish. It was a bit upsetting. I’d say to a lot of lads now that, as soon as that knock-back happens, you just have to keep going.

“Football’s a lot of luck. I’m happy for the young ones getting a chance at Carlisle now but it’s a bit heartbreaking that they didn’t take anyone in my time there.

“You live and learn. I’m in a good place now – and being happy’s the main thing. You go through dark times, but it’s how you get out of them. When people ask if it’s character-building, I say, ‘Yeah – that’s the nail on the head’.”