Owen Moxon is the kind of story that makes football the addictive old thing it is. If a lad can go from driving delivery vans to the strong likelihood of playing in the Championship in less than two years, he should above all be celebrated, roared on his way.

That instinct is always complicated when it’s mixed with regret. In a brighter world Carlisle United would be riding high in League One themselves this season and Denton Holme’s finest would have seen his immediate future still here, in the city of his birth.

Reality is not that, though. United are in a dark skirmish to avoid sliding back to League Two, having just escaped it after a decade, and Portsmouth are three points clear at the top of the third tier: of greater size and ability right now to satisfy a 26-year-old midfielder’s thirst to make the best of himself while he has the time.

That number, Moxon’s age, is surely a factor here. His sellability, from his own point of view, was time-limited. His journey from Carlisle academy reject to resurgent player with Annan Athletic to a United second coming that charmed a city and a fanbase has meant a longer road than others to get to EFL-level prominence.

Moxon is not a young comet of a player who has broken through “the 23s” and played a couple of hundred first-team games already. He needed to take another route, one that spoke highly of his resilience and character as well as the deft ability which benefited Carlisle so greatly and so memorably last season.

News and Star: Moxon in action for Annan in 2019Moxon in action for Annan in 2019 (Image: Stuart Walker)

Working his way back as he did says positive things about Moxon’s durability as a player and person. The majority of youngsters cast adrift at 16 don’t rebound like this. So again – set aside the disappointment of him swapping one blue shirt for another, and applaud what he’s done and what he will aim to go on and do.

What Carlisle do without him trumps any other wish or concern, naturally. Envious eyes may follow him to the south coast but this is now first and foremost a test of his home-city club to evolve without him, to reinvest and to become a side more hardened than they’ve seemed in 2023/24.

Moxon has not illuminated League One so far. Nobody has, consistently, in a United shirt. Nor, though, has he been the dreadful non-performer some critics have described. It is, in many ways, also testament to his rise that Carlisle were expected to build a third-tier side around him this term.

United have, by many fans and pundits, been forgiven their struggles this season for the speed of their climb, the unexpected suddenness of their promotion. Individually, Moxon has not always been given the same grace along these difficult months.

That feels harsh, bearing in mind he continued to lead the statistical charts for Carlisle (he’s far in front of anyone else in the ratings of leading numbers site WhoScored.com) and has remained more prominent than many with a longer grounding in the professional game.

Three goals and three assists are not the numbers of someone yet bestriding the division. In a better side, though, it’s possible to see Moxon flourishing, taking what he’s learned from League One so far and adding garnish to the already effective play of John Mousinho’s team.

This is not necessarily a financial move by the player above all else. Carlisle’s contract offer to Moxon, described as the most lucrative ever tabled by Paul Simpson at United, was genuinely enhanced. It punched the Blues’ weight and no mistake.

News and Star: Moxon starred in United's rise to promotion in his first EFL seasonMoxon starred in United's rise to promotion in his first EFL season (Image: Richard Parkes)

Portsmouth may have more heft generally but Carlisle, since the Piatak takeover, are not financial weaklings. Moxon could have been significantly wealthier had he signed that deal at any point this season.

Doubtless he’ll be above the breadline at Fratton Park too. Making such a move can bring immediate benefits that staying put cannot. This too, though, also seems to be about a player’s ambition: something United had right to question when cited by Morgan Feeney upon joining Shrewsbury Town (currently 15th) last summer, less so as a reason for signing for the club top of the pile and with substantial history at higher levels.

Along the frustrating path of the last few months, when Moxon was declining to pick up the pen at Carlisle, questions over his focus were raised. Only the player can answer those. Simpson last week suggested the uncertainty had indeed been a clouding factor in his performances.

In that respect, clarity on his decision sooner would have been preferable. Yet clubs act with calculation when it comes to the January window and so will a player and his agent. The timing of this matter, by Moxon and Graham Kavanagh, has successfully smoked out Portsmouth’s fullest intentions.

They can reflect on playing it right for their own purposes. Carlisle, however disappointed, will have been preparing for this too. Josh Vela, although not a long-trailed signing publicly, was a midfielder on the watch list for some time, likewise Harrison Neal. Instinct says someone else with creative flair, who can carve out a chance like Moxon at his best, is still needed to supplement those consistent workers in a hopefully more hardened department overall (Callum Guy’s absence has been felt, it’s fair to say, in these trying winter months).

News and Star: The step up to League One has been challenging but Moxon has still topped the stats for United and has now earned a move to the leadersThe step up to League One has been challenging but Moxon has still topped the stats for United and has now earned a move to the leaders (Image: Ben Holmes)

As for the business done: Carlisle can put it down as an obvious and emphatic win in terms of trading. It might not feel that way if relegation soon occurs, but they can still chalk up a hit when reflecting on the deal. A fair few clubs were thinking about Moxon come the latter stages of 2021/22 but United were the club who took the plunge.

Nothing was a given, however brightly Moxon had played in Scottish League Two. Returning to full-time football was a challenge whose outcome nobody could predict. United were rewarded for their faith and have now made a solid return on their hunch and their (relatively modest) investment.

That’s what clubs of their position have to do, however more plentiful Carlisle’s resources now are. Hopefully the development of Moxon encourages them – and other clubs paying attention – to remain creative in how they recruit, to give serious heed to levels that might not be immediately obvious as talent sources.

The supposedly proven player is not always that. Lower levels continue to harbour gems. As he moves on it’s right to consider Moxon as one of those: a player who was brilliant in a season and its climax we’ll never forget, an era-defining story, all those assists, those erupting goals (Hartlepool away, Stockport at home), those dominant performances throughout, displays of terrific maturity in the play-offs, a penalty that helped send Carlisle up…achievements elusive to legions of players over the United years, but not to Moxon.

Having shaped their recent, successful past, then, he’s earned the right to fashion his own future. Amid Carlisle’s toils today, we must still take pride in that, in him. One of our own he still is and will be.