The sixteenth minute of a Papa John’s Trophy game against Aston Villa Under-21s might not sound like a momentous time. For Josh Dixon, though, it was the occasion when all the waiting, trying, working and fighting paid off.

Connor Malley, Carlisle United’s loan midfielder, went down hurt. The call came for Dixon. Finally, this bright Cumbrian could make his professional debut, after so much injury heartache.

“I took a little bit of time to think about how fast the game was, and things like that, but as the game went on it felt like I’d never been away,” he says. “I pulled up with cramp a few times, but I got through it. I really enjoyed it and being involved in a good win made it even better.

“It meant I’d overcome everything that had been thrown at me and I was just ready to prove what I can do on the pitch.”

Dixon had a hand in one of United’s three goals and, all in all, it was one of the most heartening nights of the Blues’ season. This was because the Carlisle-born midfielder had worked his way back from not one but two anterior cruciate knee ligament injuries: recurring blows for a player who must, at some stage, have wondered what he had done to upset football’s gods.

News and Star: Josh Dixon makes his long-awaited Carlisle first-team debut against Aston Villa U21 last November (photo: Barbara Abbott)Josh Dixon makes his long-awaited Carlisle first-team debut against Aston Villa U21 last November (photo: Barbara Abbott)

The first came in his youth team career in 2018, the second the following summer shortly after Dixon, a new professional, had performed brightly in a first-team friendly against Hibernian.

It required a player who has been on United’s books since the age of nine – one whose ability had long been held in high regard – to find serious depths of resolve so soon into his career.

The fact Dixon is giving this interview after signing a new two-year contract shows how successfully he has overcome that heavy misfortune – and how much faith United retain in his talent. The 20-year-old now sounds enthusiastic about what lies ahead, and talks with a mature perspective about what he has been through. The story of Dixon at Carlisle is unavoidably that of a young player digging deep.

“It was hard after the first ACL injury, because you just want to be out there, so the second one happening straight away was a big shock,” he says. “But I’m the type of person where, whatever happens, I’m always motivated and I never thought at any point that this was going to finish me.”

Dixon’s second injury, suffered in training, seemed particularly cruel, and it is testament to the player’s character that he was able to gather his thoughts and go through it all again, in order to reach that treasured day last November.

“I really am the type of person who thinks, ‘Well, it’s happened now, I can’t go back in time’,” he adds. “I knew I had to keep going and get on with it. I was in the gym constantly after the operation and [when I saw] the other lads going out to train…that is hard.

News and Star: Dixon impressed in pre-season against Hibs in 2019 before suffering a second cruciate knee ligament injury (photo: Barbara Abbott)Dixon impressed in pre-season against Hibs in 2019 before suffering a second cruciate knee ligament injury (photo: Barbara Abbott)

“You have to tell yourself not to give up, which is what I did, and hopefully that will now pay off for me.”

Dixon admits he had “one or two off days” mentally during his long comeback, “but I think that’s bound to happen when you’re out for such a long time and you aren’t even able to train. There was four or five months where it was just gym work, and it is hard to keep going every day.

“Getting back out on the grass is a huge moment, and as soon as that happened I felt ready.”

A campaign like Dixon’s can never be a one-man mission. “I’ve had a lot of people help me along the way, probably too many to name, but obviously the physios I’ve worked with have been great,” he adds.

“Dolly [Neil Dalton] was great with me when he was here and Ross [Goodwin] and Greg [Short, fitness coach] have been the same since they came in. Gav [Skelton, assistant head coach] did loads of one-on-one stuff with me during the close season to make sure I was fit too. And my family have been a massive help. They’ve really kept me motivated and positive.”

Family, and this community, is an inescapable part of Dixon’s story with United. Wearing the blue shirt means a great deal to him.

“My granda was the biggest Carlisle fan in my family, so I used to come to the matches with him,” he says.

“As soon as I started playing football I just wanted to keep going up the ladder as much as I could. I started off locally but I only did that for a couple of seasons before I got picked up by Carlisle when I was nine. Since then I’ve been in the academy and seen loads of people go in and out, but I’ve managed to work my way up to be a pro.

“As I got to secondary school [William Howard in Brampton], all my mates [were] massive Carlisle fans, and I think in my school team there were five or six of us who were in the academy. I managed to get the scholarship when I finished school.

News and Star: Josh Dixon, right with trophy, with his Year 7 William Howard school team-mates in 2013 (photo: Stuart Walker)Josh Dixon, right with trophy, with his Year 7 William Howard school team-mates in 2013 (photo: Stuart Walker)

“When I made my debut all my mates were watching and it was a really proud moment. To play for Carlisle United is a massive thing for me because it’s my boyhood club. I can’t wait to have even more of it.”

Dixon’s eventual return to availability came a good while after some of his young peers had already progressed at Carlisle. Jarrad Branthwaite, Liam McCarron and Josh Galloway earned moves, while Taylor Charters forged his way into the first team.

Did it frustrate Dixon that he had to be a spectator for this, rather than be involved with those boys himself? To a point - but he never resented their success. “I’ve known those lads since I first came in, so to see them make appearances and do what they’ve been doing has been really good to watch. I’ve just been buzzing for them, really.

“It does make it a little bit frustrating because I was on the sidelines a bit, but I never stopped believing.”

When Dixon injured his knee the second time, Carlisle were quick to assure the midfielder of his future with the club. They have done so again now he has had four substitute appearances with Chris Beech’s first team. Hopefully 2021/22 will bring his potential further out into the open.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve been able to play,” says Dixon, who followed that Villa U21 game with an FA Cup outing against Doncaster and league appearances against Stevenage and Walsall. “Once you get those chances you just want more.

“I think I was unlucky a few times not to get into the squad on a matchday but I never stopped working hard in the gym or doing extra stuff after training. I kept going and managed to get an appearance at the end of the season, where I felt like I did well. From there, I just want to push on now and see where I am at the start of the season.”

Did those tastes of senior action give Dixon the biggest incentive imaginable? “A hundred per cent. I’ve seen other lads my age do well and I just want to do the same. Taylor has played a few games and done well, and it just shows you that young lads can do it if we work hard and do what the gaffer asks.

“First-team football is much more physical [than under-18s football] and the tempo is much quicker. You can see that in training; passes are zipped in, so your first touch has got to be good and you’ve got to be ready at all times.

“I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now so I feel much more comfortable now.”

Dixon, happily, sounds confident that his injuries are “all in the past” and that he, along with his physio and coaches, are confident he is in “a positive place”. He is, above all, an example for the sort of determination no young player should have to show – but, when tested, knows he has it within him.

“Just because I’ve had two big injuries doesn’t mean I can’t overcome them and do what others are doing and show that I can play in this league or higher,” he adds. “You’ve just got to keep working hard and stay positive no matter what happens.”

Tomorrow: Dixon on his new deal and his hopes for the 2021/22 season at Carlisle.