So long, Joey Garner. And thanks for the memories, the goals, all the niggle and all the elbows – and, most of all, for being someone bothered enough about Carlisle United to play and battle for them four times.

Not many players in Blues history can say they’ve come here then come back thrice more. Not many, with zero initial connection, have worn that kind of affection on their sleeve so repeatedly.

Now, football isn’t often the game of the heart we like to think. The best deal tends to take a player upwards, downwards or sideways rather than outright passion for a place.

Carlisle have benefited from that with Garner as much as they’ve suffered from it, and as much as they’ve arrived at circumstances where this fourth and (presumably) final parting, to Oldham Athletic, feels about right today.

A substitute role for a few months, or an 18-month deal in his approximate locality for someone 36 in April…it’s not hard to see how such decisions are reached, just as United are having to appreciate that being a home-city hero isn’t everything to Owen Moxon when faced with an offer to further his career at a bigger and higher-flying club.

News and Star: Garner was a sub for his final United game against BoltonGarner was a sub for his final United game against Bolton (Image: Barbara Abbott)

So let’s not pretend Garner has spent every day of his life gazing fondly at tattoos of the Carlisle crest on his skin. All the same – it did still matter to him to be here. The place still got its claws into him early on, and he still made it his business several times to return, to play, to score, to try and help.

On its own, there is surely a place in history for someone whose first goal for United came on February 10, 2007 and whose last occurred on November 4, 2023: 16 years, eight months and 26 days apart.

In between, Garner was invariably someone you relished having on your own side and detested in the colours of the enemy. When he played against United, for such as Huddersfield Town and Preston North End, the Blues felt that. They felt his talent for operating on the edge of acceptability, for winning, earning and stealing decisions, for making the odd challenge that causes you to wince, for getting up any nose that might be passing his path.

When the Blues benefited from these sometimes shady traits along with the brilliant ones – his power-packed finishing, his spring, his ever-ready wiles – the package was intoxicating and highly popular.

‘Ooh, Joey Garner’, the terrace song he enjoyed early and late at Carlisle, was for a player fans felt would and did fight for them, who would make sure the face presented to the opposition was tough, uncompromising and sometimes downright canny.

That’s what we wanted from the Blues when they were waging their wars, especially in circumstances when they needed some extra assistance. That’s what they got without condition or question from Garner.

News and Star: Garner in action for Carlisle in his first spell at the club in the 2006/07 seasonGarner in action for Carlisle in his first spell at the club in the 2006/07 season (Image: David Hollins)

United have been able to witness many stages of Garner’s evolution and latter-day, age-enforced regression. As a teenage loan arrival in 2007 he was all limbs, bone, line-leading hostility and fearlessness in the finish.

As a record signing later that year he was more rounded still: a flourishing young striker whose quality in that near-miss League One season of 2007/08 was a glory to behold. What would have happened to Carlisle’s doomed Championship bid had his cruciate not failed him that February is one of the great unknowns of an era.

His third coming, in 2012/13, came after Greg Abbott’s third-tier tenure had peaked. Garner found a club and team that was not fizzing with the life he had known before. He simply got on with the job of putting some better competitive foundations in place before his goalscoring knack, restored through that loan spell, inevitably caught the eye of a club such as Preston.

News and Star: Garner celebrating a goal for United in his third spell in 2012/13Garner celebrating a goal for United in his third spell in 2012/13 (Image: David Hollins)

A decade later, bearing the bruises and the admirable record he had built at Deepdale and other clubs of due size, Garner fancied the idea of assisting United again. There were, it’s believed, a range of colourful options for him last January but the drive for promotion under Paul Simpson tickled his fancy – as, realistically, did the terms of what Carlisle were offering as they tried to tick a box which had been blank for far too long.

And so it came with a satisfying sense of closure when Garner, after a tortuous run-in, finally helped United go up. Not to the second tier, as had been the dream in 2008, but at least back to a level where it felt some credibility was returning at long last.

It has proved an enormous challenge since then, Garner starting more often in League One than had been the intention, a paucity of younger goalscoring options meaning Simpson had to lean on on the hardened reliability of what Garner could still bring, even if the elasticity of old could no longer be there.

News and Star: Garner with the play-off trophy last MayGarner with the play-off trophy last May (Image: PA)

Moments like late efforts against Shrewsbury Town, Stevenage and Burton Albion this season, when he was acclaimed in added time, amounted to a suitable send-off. As, in May, did the sight of Garner in the mixed zone at Wembley, a medal round his neck after that epic play-off final, turning and saying, with all sincerity, ‘That alright for you?’

We got there in the end, he seemed to be saying. Indeed we did, after all that time. So thanks, Joey Garner.