There was a rap on the door in Wetheral and, when it opened, a figure with the grey hair was on the doorstep. In his hands, a pair of football boots.

“There you go, son,” he said, handing them to the ten-year-old recipient.

Matt Jansen never forgot his first proper boots – black Reebok numbers with a flash of green – and nor did he forget the person who delivered them.

They were a prize due to the precocious Jansen after being named the star player in a tournament at Kirkbride. Clive Middlemass had recently been appointed Carlisle United’s manager and it was his duty to hand them over.

They were treasure to a kid with vast ability and big aspirations, at an age when an avuncular, friendly footballing figure could leave a profound mark. Middlemass, Jansen recalled long after his brilliant and agonising Premier League career had ended, was a “kindly, genuine man” with a warmth carried by his Yorkshire burr.

READ MORE: Carlisle United pay tribute to former manager and ex-Workington Reds player Clive Middlemass

The lingering memory is, in its quiet way, telling. When recalling football managers is it often their successes and failures that are listed first. Really, though, it is the unseen touches, the subtle moments, that last.

Keith Curle, another young player Middlemass helped, appreciated the man as well as simply the manager. He fondly recalled their one-to-one chats over breakfast in Bristol at a time Curle was a raw, rapid young winger seeking his place in the game.

Middlemass, who has died aged 77, fancied Curle could do a job at centre-half. That hunch, and Middlemass’s nurturing work – including individual sessions, away from the clamour of squad training – turned the unsure teenager into an illustrious defender who played for his country.

News and Star: Clive Middlemass, who has died aged 77Clive Middlemass, who has died aged 77

Decades later, when Curle’s Carlisle set a club record for an unbeaten start to a league season, the man whose milestone he passed was quickly in touch. Middlemass would often share insights into Brunton Park life with his protégé, and had recommended United take a chance on Curle.

He was warmly pleased, then, when the vintage of 2016/17 went beyond that of 1989/90. The achievement brought back to mind a particular season and a particular time at Brunton Park. It captured a period of fragile resurgence at Carlisle United under Clive Middlemass.

It ended quite agonisingly, but the fact United were in the running for promotion at all in 89/90 was a tribute to the credibility of Middlemass’s management.

Carlisle, after all, were in bleak decline when he was appointed in 1987. The club had suffered consecutive relegations to the bottom tier and league crowds were approaching historic lows.

The surrendering of pretty much all optimism was reflected in gates around the 1,500-1,800 mark. Carlisle had gone down, gone down again, and but for a catastrophically imploding Newport County, might have done so terminally a third time.

Middlemass, whose playing days had largely been spent at Workington Reds, had a job on his hands at hard-up United. The second-tier heroes of the early 80s had largely gone. The Blues were more dependent on local players and journeymen than ever before.

News and Star: Nigel Saddington, pictured in action against Liverpool in 1989 was one of Middlemass's best signingsNigel Saddington, pictured in action against Liverpool in 1989 was one of Middlemass's best signings

Yet gradually the new boss rebuilt. A signing midway through 1987/88 was Nigel Saddington, who became an iconic, classy captain who could have graced brighter eras.

When it came to 1988/89, the squad was also enhanced by such as Ian Dalziel, Paul Fitzpatrick, Derek Walsh and Paul Proudlock. Allied to the delicate brilliance of John Halpin and the boisterous frontrunning of Brent Hetherington, Carlisle grew.

The enormous boon of an FA Cup tie against a great Liverpool side, in 1989, gave Carlisle fresh life. That was a stirring occasion in the January mist and Middlemass’s team performed creditably, Hetherington skimming the crossbar and, even in a 3-0 defeat, the Blues competing harder than the declining team earlier in that era might have managed.

A rise to mid-table followed. It was the first upward movement at the club for half a decade. Then came the tantalising adventure of 1989/90, which occupies a substantial corner in the memories of United fans of that age.

That season it felt, for a long while, as though all the right things were converging, and a team put together on not very much were somehow striking a range of perfect notes. At the back, Saddington brought composure, steel, a footballing awareness and also an unerring conviction from the penalty spot.

Up front, Keith Walwyn was a determined, characterful veteran. Proudlock brought rare and impudent skill, while the angular Fitzpatrick was a ball-player of consistent quality.

News and Star: Paul Fitzpatrick was a star of United's doomed 1989/90 promotion pushPaul Fitzpatrick was a star of United's doomed 1989/90 promotion push

When Tony Shepherd scored the winner in a promotion face-off against Exeter City in February 1989, the rain shook from the Warwick Road End roof and an 8,000 crowd splashed home merrily through the puddles.

It was one of those tense nights when it felt Brunton Park was the only place to be. It mattered again. And Carlisle won. They were top of the league, with less than three months to go.

There is no need to labour the point of what happened next, only to underline the fact it was deeply, painstakingly regretful. Carlisle lost key players to injuries and struggled to replace them.

A string of gruelling trips south yielded next to no returns. There were flickerings of magic as they tried to arrest the slide – Craig Goldsmith against Scarborough, anyone? – but, in the end, too many mishaps for a small squad to weather.

The late-season departure of the superb goalkeeper Dave McKellar to Kilmarnock, and his replacement by the inferior loanee Kevin Rose, was a particularly damaging blow and summed up the irretrievable change. Defeat at Maidstone, in the heat and the dust on a ruinous final day, cost United even a play-off place.

It felt like the end for something which had always been precarious, and the following season saw Carlisle back into reverse, the major investment in Eric Gates backfired and, come March 1991, a brutal 4-0 home defeat for Gillingham saw fans chanting for the manager’s head.

He went, and United got worse still. Middlemass had, on reflection, led United along a tightrope quite skilfully for some time - introducing, it cannot be forgotten, bright young talents like Steve Harkness, Rob Edwards, Jeff Thorpe and Darren Edmondson along the way - but given the financial state of the Blues back then a fall was always going to come.

It must have been a painful parting but, as the years drifted by, he remained in touch with figures such as chairman Andrew Jenkins. Amid coaching and scouting roles – including a trusted role in David Moyes’ set-up at Everton – Middlemass continued to occupy a respected place in the game.

News and Star: Middlemass took a young Keith Curle under his wing at Bristol Rovers and City, and the pair always remained in touch (photo: PA)Middlemass took a young Keith Curle under his wing at Bristol Rovers and City, and the pair always remained in touch (photo: PA)

He always retained a feel and a thought for the Blues, too. When I interviewed him a few years ago, he could not help but go back over 1989/90; the circumstances of that great nearly season. For fans of a certain generation, though, it is better to recall the little shot of hope he and his team offered at a barren time.

That, and the friendly touch that stayed in the minds of people like Matt Jansen, long after the ball had been put away.