“It will be a big test for us,” says Danny Grainger. “It always is against Carlisle – especially now with Simmo back.”

The scene, then, is set for a latest pre-season friendly where the teams are managed by one of United’s most popular captains of recent times and one of their most popular bosses of all time.

Workington Reds v Carlisle United is a staple of the summer calendar and it sees Grainger pit his NPL West promotion hopefuls against the club he skippered for so long.

Both clubs are rebuilding after a period of disappointment. In Carlisle’s case that is an understatement given the crisis Paul Simpson had to avert in 2021/22. In Workington’s case, it is an attempt to go further after missing out on promotion in last season’s play-offs.

News and Star: Danny Grainger has teamed up again with No2 Steven Rudd at Workington (photo: Tom Kay)Danny Grainger has teamed up again with No2 Steven Rudd at Workington (photo: Tom Kay)

Chris Willcock, the manager in charge then, went at the end of the season and Grainger returned for a second spell at Borough Park. He is a couple of months back into the job and looking forward to the challenge of facing his former club – and their respected Cumbrian boss – at this stage in Reds’ rebuild.

Grainger, from the outset, felt Simpson had lifted the mood at Carlisle, and expects this to be reflected in how United approach this weekend’s game. “He [Simpson] is putting his own mark on how he wants things done.

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“There’s no hiding the fact Simmo’s a top manager, and it’s always a tough test against Carlisle, probably even more so with that feel good factor around it.

“You can see people are pushing and trying to drive to get in the starting XI, plus younger lads trying to get involved in the squad, knowing Simmo will give them their chance if they’re doing well enough.

“It will be a real test and we have to make sure we’re ready for it. It’s one we’re looking forward to and it’s what pre-season is about.”

It will be Grainger’s first opportunity to pit his wits against Carlisle. A friendly during his first Reds tenure in 2020 was kiboshed by Covid. Saturday, then, is an overdue reunion for the Cumbrian who played for the club from 2014-19, mostly with the armband on.

“People know my feelings towards the club,” Grainger adds. “It will be nice seeing a few of the old faces, the likes of Col [Nixon, United’s kitman], Gav [Skelton], even an old team-mate and room-mates in Dev [Jamie Devitt].

News and Star: Grainger and Jamie Devitt with Carlisle in 2018 (photo: Stuart Walker)Grainger and Jamie Devitt with Carlisle in 2018 (photo: Stuart Walker)

“But when the game starts I’ll only want to concentrate on one thing and that is Workington Reds.”

The home side have a number of former Carlisle players in their ranks. Is this friendly an opportunity for them to make a point to the Blues.

“I wouldn’t say proving a point,” says Grainger. “The way the lads approach every game is massive for me – it’s important that they go out to do the business every game, whether it’s Carlisle United, Whitehaven, Penrith, Carlisle City, Dumbarton…

“If you’re going into the game against Carlisle solely worrying about yourself and trying to prove points, sometimes it can come back and bite you, especially against a good team who are getting towards full flow now.

“Whatever happens, it’s a pre-season game – there will be mistakes from our boys as there will be from them. Fingers crossed we can iron them out the longer pre-season goes on.”

News and Star: Paul Simpson takes his Carlisle squad to Workington this weekend (photo: Barbara Abbott)Paul Simpson takes his Carlisle squad to Workington this weekend (photo: Barbara Abbott)

For Workington it is a third home friendly in eight days, after defeats to Blackburn Rovers’ under-23s and Dumbarton. It is a solid sequence of tests for the Borough Park side as Grainger continues to piece together his squad.

“Blackburn was a really good test,” he says. “They were well-organised, and not, probably, what your typical 23s are about. They were quite fiery. It was a really competitive game, which was great. That’s what we were wanting.

“Tuesday night against Dumbarton gave me the chance to have a look at a few trialists in a game environment. We’re now building into Saturday, then a busy schedule after that.

“It's been good so far, we’re starting to get the bodies in the door, and a few lads back from injuries. We’re starting to get to where we want to be, with hopefully a couple more additions as well.”

Grainger confirms that Reds, who lost a small handful of players but saw a number re-commit along with some new faces, remain in the market for more.

News and Star: Charlie Birch is among the new faces at Workington (photo: Barbara Abbott)Charlie Birch is among the new faces at Workington (photo: Barbara Abbott)

“We’ve spoken to two players this week – they probably won’t be in before Saturday but fingers crossed further down the line we can get them done and strengthen our squad even more,” he says.

“We’ve also got the likes of Dav Symington and Ruben Jerome coming back from injury, we’ve got Stevie Rigg, Cieran Casson, Sam Smith, Robbie Hebson and Greg McCarragher still missing through injuries. Once we get everyone fit and up and running we’ll have a real competitive edge to the squad which is what I want.”

The latest two through the door at Workington are the former Carlisle left-sided prospect Charlie Birch and ex-Everton trainee midfielder Bobby Carroll.

“Fantastic additions,” Grainger says. “I know Charlie personally and as a team-mate and know what he can bring to the team; it’s just a case of him bringing that now. I think he’s looking forward to hopefully being part of a successful season and trying to make a real imprint on the squad.

“Bobby’s the same – he’s a lad who’s had a great pedigree, he’s come out of that [Everton] environment, gone to Chorley, it hasn’t quite worked for him, and he’s taken hopefully a couple of steps back to take another few forward.

“That’s what we want to do – give these lads an opportunity to kick on again in an environment that’s going to test them with high standards.”

Grainger says he is steadily introducing his playing principles to the squad as they progress along pre-season. “We touch on it every session, try to add bits as we go along, but we’re still five weeks from the first game of the season and that’s when I want to be peaking.

“We’re still dropping little messages in, but at the moment it’s more about the fitness side, making sure we get plenty of minutes in their legs and each session and match we’ll drop in a little bit more, getting closer to the finished squad and they’ll all know their roles and responsibilities within that.”

Carlisle have so far given most players 45 minutes apiece in their friendlies. That may be upped to an hour this weekend. Grainger is likely to hand players longer on the pitch, through necessity.

News and Star: Grainger says David Symington, left, is among the Reds players returning from injury (photo: Ben Challis)Grainger says David Symington, left, is among the Reds players returning from injury (photo: Ben Challis)

“We’re very different in that we don’t have the luxury of 22 players where we can change a full XI,” he said. “We did against Whitehaven due to having a few development boys in, but this weekend there will be a few of the lads doing 60, maybe 90 minutes.

“We’ll then drop back down before building back up. I would love to have a squad of 22 but we don’t have that.”

What is at Grainger’s disposal – and those of his managerial peers – is the opportunity to work together, perhaps in a more connected way than before. The county’s leading clubs all have Cumbrians at the helm, with Penrith’s Darren Edmondson and Carlisle City’s Jim Nichols joining Simpson and Grainger in these top jobs.

Grainger hopes to tap into the links both ways. “It’s got to work for both parties,” he says. “It’s not just a case of us needing a player – it’s got to work for Carlisle too. It’s got to be right for their player as much as it is for us.

“I’d love to go to Simmo and Gav and ask if we can have two or three players to help bolster us. I will be asking the question, no doubt about it – there’s no point having a club like Carlisle on your doorstep and not asking the question.

“But I won’t take them just for the sake of it and I’m sure Simmo won’t send them unless it’s right for what he wants to let players develop.

“It works in all directions. It’s the same for us and Penrith, and Carlisle City. We want to try and help them as much as we can but it’s got to be right for our players and it’s got to work for them.

News and Star: Grainger hopes to strengthen links with other Cumbrian clubs including Penrith, managed by Darren Edmondson (photo: Barbara Abbott)Grainger hopes to strengthen links with other Cumbrian clubs including Penrith, managed by Darren Edmondson (photo: Barbara Abbott)

“I’ve got good relations with Edmo and Jim, speak to them on a weekly basis, and it is good you can call on these people. There are good links between us all, and fingers crossed it can help the whole of the county’s football.”

Grainger is clearly enjoying being back in the front line, having ended a spell of several months out of the game after his winter departure from a No2 role at Falkirk.

“The games have started now, coming thick and fast, and that’s the best part about the job – matchday,” the 35-year-old says.

“I love working with the boys; they’re a great bunch which makes it even easier. We want to be successful together, they buy into everything I want them to do, and fingers crossed we can continue to do that.

“If we can go about our business the way we can there’s no reason we can’t be successful this season. There are some really good teams in our league and it’s going to be a real test but this is why I wanted to come back into it, to be part of it with the club.

“I’m enjoying it. It’s nice to be back and looking forward to the season ahead.”

And looking forward, hopefully, to a good summer crowd at Borough Park for the traditional meeting of red and blue, and some familiar reunions.

“Hopefully with the sun coming out it might make it easier for people to get down to Borough Park on Saturday,” Grainger adds. “We hope people come, enjoy the day and will be back next season.”