The first time Josh Dixon suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury it was two managers ago and under a previous academy boss. The first-team physio was different and even the name Jarrad Branthwaite was only on the lips of those who knew Carlisle United’s youth levels inside-out.

“Josh had started pre-season well and he’d caught the manager’s eye,” said Darren Edmondson – in September 2018. It was a year-and-a-half before Covid-19. It was well over a year before Chris Beech at Carlisle.

John Sheridan was the first-team manager Edmondson was referring to, United being his last job but four. This helps measure the distance Dixon has needed to travel and, as importantly, the amount of patience he has had to source.

From impressing a boss one day, then having to wait two years to play not for him, nor his successor, but the next one: that requires fortitude, no matter the player, no matter the person.

More than a tenth of Dixon’s life has been spent finding the daily resolve to move a millimetre further forward, another little fraction away from the first cruciate damage – then the recurrence, nearly 12 months later.

That his debut finally happened on Tuesday night was in itself as good a tale as we will have in this United season. That Dixon played not tentatively – which would have been entirely forgivable, more so than in almost any other case – but assuredly, made it even better.

After all, pretty much all he, and we, have had to go on since 2018 has been a reputation. It must be hard for a young player to keep relying on that when so much of the world seems to be passing you by.

There were a few moments, though, against Aston Villa’s Under-21s when we saw a little of what some of the fuss has been about. He set up a goal – for Gime Toure, in the second half, via a free-kick – but if you were looking for a better example of why Carlisle have patiently nurtured and worked with Dixon, why there has been so much eagerness for him to get there in the end, it came in the first half.

It didn’t lead to anything, but was one of those moments when…you just know. Dixon had space to gather his thoughts and adjust his vision, but his lofted, diagonal pass into the path of Jack Armer was perceptive and positive.

It was the act of a young ball-player; someone whose passing, Beech has said, is more advanced than that of others his age.

Hopefully it proves the first of many bright moments, once Dixon has put a further and well-judged period of training and playing between himself and all that gym time, all those dark days and nights.

It’s not how you start but how you finish, Beech often says. This can apply to individuals as well as a team, but in cases like Dixon’s it is also crucial to consider the journey.

To put it into deeper context, consider another recent long-term injury at Carlisle. It took Jason Kennedy 441 days between consecutive appearances as he came back from a hip problem which, at one stage, had him in a wheelchair.

It was a seemingly endless time out for the popular Kennedy. Yet Dixon, other than a brief pre-season cameo in between his two injuries, has been out for longer (Joe Fryer, just back in first-team football for Swindon after breaking his leg for Carlisle in August 2018, can compare notes on this sort of daunting timescale).

Dixon has needed to accept, on some level, that his path would have to be different – that, for him, there would be no jet-powered race up the leagues in the manner of a Liam McCarron or a Branthwaite.

In the time Dixon has been rebuilding his ligaments, the younger Branthwaite has been awarded his first professional contract, made his Carlisle debut, scored his first goal, moved to the Premier League, played in the Premier League and trained with England’s Under-19s.

McCarron dashed through United’s first-team and graduated to Leeds. Josh Galloway made that move without even getting into the senior Blues side. Other peers, like Taylor Charters, are in double figures now appearance-wise, and it must be hard to watch all this, to applaud and admire your mates and not spend each moment regretting that you can’t join them.

Branthwaite did not have a trouble-free journey through youth football, considering – as our special report recounts today – the severe growing pains of Osgood-Schlatter disease which forced him to sit out several months of his teenage playing years.

He certainly required resolve to overcome that at a crucial development time. Dixon, though, had repeated, later instances of the sort of injury that used to imperil careers.

Football can be such a precarious existence. There are, sadly, more than enough stories of careers which have been lost almost before they’ve started. When speaking to Neil Dalton, Carlisle’s former physio, a few years ago, he couldn’t forget those cruel cases. “I retired a 19-year-old kid, Stu Bell, Harraby lad, only played three or four games – great prospect,” Dalton said, remembering one example. “His knee was crumbling from the inside. I went to his house, spoke to his mam and dad. It's bloody heartbreaking. Horrid."

Nobody imagines harsh fate will tap at their door when they're innocently chasing a dream. Each day Dixon defies the past two years is then, a victory for all those who have the chance to keep going, and who, at the worst of times, don’t give up, because something deep inside tells them: they can’t.