Corey Whelan does not skirt around the issue. Indeed, he meets it head on. One defeat for Carlisle United must not unfold into two.

“We’ve talked about that already this week,” the defender says. “Teams who are just going to do ok are happy to lose two on the trot, but great teams and good teams don’t let that happen.

“They may have lost, but it immediately becomes about what the reaction is going to be.”

That reaction for Carlisle has to come against Gillingham this weekend. Last Saturday brought their first setback of the league season at Stevenage.

It came at the fourth time of asking amid an otherwise largely positive, albeit injury-hit start to 2022/23 for Paul Simpson’s side.

News and Star: Whelan says he wants to add goals to his game as well as helping United tighten up (photo: Richard Parkes)Whelan says he wants to add goals to his game as well as helping United tighten up (photo: Richard Parkes)

These are still the formative stages of the campaign but the mood can still be set by how United respond to their 2-1 defeat in Hertfordshire.

Whelan says that loss has been studied and lessons learned. He does not pretend to admit Carlisle were on their game at the Lamex Stadium, particularly in the first half.

“In any game of football you’ve got to earn the right to play and for the first 40 minutes I don’t think we did that,” he says.

“In terms of the goals individually we know there were things we can improve on. We knew what Stevenage were, there were no surprises when we started the game – we knew they were quite direct and we had to win first contact, and if not first, second.

“For the first 40 minutes they won the majority of them and that’s why we found ourselves 2-0 down. There were mistakes, and mistakes lead to other mistakes, and we have to try to cut them out.”

United have this week had the rarity of no midweek game as they catch their breaths before another busy run. It has, Whelan says, given the chance to take stock before attacking the challenge of Gillingham at home on Saturday.

“Some lads had two days off which was nice just to spend time with family and chill out a little bit, but you’ve always got, after a defeat, an eye on the fact you just want the next opportunity to come,” he says.

“The tempo in training today was where we need it to be, and lads were getting after each other to keep the standard high. We didn’t have that on Saturday, so we have to put that right at the weekend.”

United, after plenty of travelling recently, have three games at Brunton Park now. After Gillingham they take on Manchester United’s Under-21s in the Papa John’s Trophy, and then host Rochdale in the league.

Carlisle’s ground was not any sort of stronghold last season but it became a place of strength again after Paul Simpson’s arrival. It is, Whelan says, something they must use to their advantage.

News and Star: Whelan has captained the side in Morgan Feeney's absence (photo: Barbara Abbott)Whelan has captained the side in Morgan Feeney's absence (photo: Barbara Abbott)

“It will be nice to be back at home on Saturday,” he says. “That’s where we feel most comfortable. It’s nice when you’ve got your fans behind you. We’ve just got to try and make it a place where we start fast.

“I think it can catch teams out because of how north we are in the country. If teams come down here and are not at the races, similar to how Stevenage caught us out on Saturday, if we start games bright and we can get on the front foot and nick an early goal, I believe in the lads that we’ll kick on and get stronger throughout the game, and we’ll start putting some good results together.

“We know what this place can be when it’s in full voice. Rightly so there were times last year when they weren’t happy. I’m a fan myself, and if my team wasn’t playing well or it looked they weren’t at it, I’d be speaking up as well.

“We completely get that our fans pay their money to see a good performance, and that’s just one of the pressures that comes with playing. It’s one of those where if you don’t like that kind of pressure you’re not in the right sport.

“When we’re giving these fans something to cheer about this is a great place to be. We need to start helping the fans to make Brunton Park that kind of atmosphere so that teams fear us.

“I think you get respect from teams in terms of winning games and your league position, we know that, and maybe we were a little bit of a soft touch at times last year.

“I think people would look at the table and come here expecting to do a job on us. We knew, deep down, we weren’t a bad side and I think now it’s up to us to show that we’re serious contenders this season.”

United’s attempt to be contenders has hit the early hurdle of injuries in 2022/23, but Simpson ought to have more options at his disposal this weekend.

“You don’t want to see any of your team-mates or your mates injured and not involved – but you see with the top teams, like Liverpool, it is something that happens,” Whelan says.

“But the quicker we can get the lads fit and out on the grass the better for us. You don’t need a rocket scientist to say we’ve been short. It’s opportunity for other lads to come into the group and stamp their authority down. But it will be nice to get a few faces back.”

There will be particular competition at Whelan’s end of the pitch given the recent signings of Paul Huntington and Duncan Idehen, plus the imminent return from injury of Morgan Feeney.

News and Star: Whelan says Paul Simpson has helped revitalise United (photo: Richard Parkes)Whelan says Paul Simpson has helped revitalise United (photo: Richard Parkes)

Whelan has been a fixture in defence since Feeney’s injury, and has carried the captain’s armband along the way, and the former Liverpool and Wigan Athletic man says he welcomes the battle for places.

“That’s why you’re in the sport,” he says. “You can get complacent and take your eye off the ball if there’s no competition there. It’s down to individuals and also helping each other. It could be you one Saturday, it could be your mate the next.

“We’ll have Edmo [Ryan Edmondson] back soon, Jack Stretton’s come in and looked sharp when he’s played, so there will be competition for places all over the pitch. You’ve got to try and make sure you’re in the XI, and if not you’ve got to do the most off the pitch as well to support the lads going out on Saturday.”

Simpson has, more than once, been complimentary about Whelan in recent weeks. The manager praised the defender’s efforts in pre-season and has commented well on his contribution in the serious business.

The 24-year-old welcomes the praise but does not wallow in it. “You hear murmurs, and might read stuff online, but you can’t read too much into it,” he says. “The praise is nice, and you’re grateful you get it, but the minute you think that’s done and you’ve cracked it is the minute you get caught out.

“I don’t think we have many lads with that mentality. We can’t get complacent. You hear that famous saying that you’re only as good as your last game. Football changes quickly – you can have two good games and one bad one and unfortunately the bad one stands out.

“As a group, like we spoke about in pre-season, we want lads getting individual awards, I’m sure Denno [Kristian Dennis] will be in for player of the month – if he’s not I don’t know what’s gone on there. The more lads are doing that the better it is for the group. It shows the group is pulling in the right direction and we’re going somewhere.”

Dennis’s success in front of goal is particularly pleasing for Whelan. The striker has scored in each of United’s first five games – the first player since 1953 to do so.

News and Star: Kristian Dennis is impressive goalscoring form (photo: Richard Parkes)Kristian Dennis is impressive goalscoring form (photo: Richard Parkes)

“I’m over the moon for him,” says Whelan. “He’s a good mate of mine in the group, we share a car most days, and he’s my room-mate on away trips. I keep waking up of a morning and saying, ‘Just keep scoring...’

“It helps the group. But we need to get more of us firing on all cylinders, we can’t just rely on Denno. It’s nice for him at the minute but I’m sure he’d love a helping hand as well.

“I’m buzzing for him, he deserves it. He has a great attitude day-in, day-out, and he’s reaped his rewards. It’s no surprise that he’s started the season as well as he has.”

Whelan also notes how the atmosphere has changed at Carlisle since Simpson returned to the helm. “Everybody knows we weren’t in a great place in February. I remember us sitting down as a group and having an honest conversation with ourselves, then a week later we had that disappointing result against Swindon [the 3-0 defeat which triggered Keith Millen’s departure and Simpson’s return].

“Things change so quickly in football and I think a new voice with new ideas was a breath of fresh air. We just bought into it and once you win a game you can be surprised about how many you can win on the bounce.

“It’s the same the other way as we found last year as well – losing games is hard to get out of but winning them is as well. Since then we’ve proved we’re a tough side to play against and on our day we can beat anyone.

“I think we’re due to give someone a hiding soon because we’ve created a lot of chances. If we keep doing that I think we’ll be fine.”

Whelan is tough on his own failure to take some of the set-piece chances that have come his own way so far this season. He says there is room for improvement, in fact, at both ends.

“First and foremost my job is to defend and keep clean sheets as a team. It hasn’t really been mentioned but we know we haven’t kept a clean sheet since the first game of the season so we need to get back to that.

“As well as that I know I need get a couple of goals from set pieces. The manager, Gav [Skelton] and Gez [Paul Gerrard] always say when we go up for set pieces we aren’t just a number, we’ve got to want to score and get on the end of things.

“I think I have had that, I just haven’t been able to get a goal to come with it. I want to score goals and I feel like it’s a part of my game I have to improve, so hopefully in the next few weeks I can get one and then who knows from there.”

Whelan has appreciated the opportunity to captain Carlisle in Feeney’s absence. “It gives a sense that he [Simpson] trusts me to do the job and that’s a nice feeling to have.

News and Star: Neil Harris's Gillingham are United's next opponents (photo: PA)Neil Harris's Gillingham are United's next opponents (photo: PA)

“You do feel a little bit of an added pressure, but that’s not so much there at the moment because there are lads out there who have done the job before. Callum Guy is a great example, and Jordan Gibson is a leader in his own way. Denno comes with knowledge and experience and now we have Hunts in the group as well.

“Morgan is a leader when he’s fit, so there are a lot of players who lead. It is nice to have the armband but it’s good to know there are others taking the responsibility as well.”

All concerned will hope to lead the way to victory for United against Neil Harris’s Gillingham on Saturday. “They’re a new team to the league [after relegation], they’ve got a really experienced manager and they’ll come here and will fancy themselves,” Whelan says.

“I believe they’ve not scored a great deal of goals at the start of the season so they’ll be wanting to put that right. We’ve got to be up to the challenge and implement our style, and ultimately we’ve got to be better than them.”