Sharpening your sword, Aaron Hayden called it – a nice line in imagery and certainly a different way of describing what is commonly known in football as…training and playing.

Hayden, the former Carlisle United defender, was talking about the period early in 2021 when the Blues were short of games, thanks to Covid and the weather, and also training facilities, thanks to Covid and the weather.

The spell, as we know, had a ruinous effect on United’s momentum. Top of the league at the start of January, Carlisle had a 28-day wait before their next game and, when the first defeat soon came, watching the team trying to rebuild their confidence from there was akin to a child trying to believe in Father Christmas again having been given the alternative view.

The spell when sword-sharpening had been elusive – the Neil Centre offering United their only ground for preparation – can only have harmed the team and squad. Carlisle were suddenly limited, lacking the full daily work and regular bite that good teams need.

The same risk is present in players who are out of the team for a long time. In the middle months of last season, Corey Whelan did not lack for training facilities or practice opportunities, but his own sword risked being seriously blunted by four months without a game.

The defender was seldom injured, generally available, but between December 20’s defeat at Northampton Town and April 18’s draw with Stockport County, he did not kick or head a first-team ball, having played 18 times until then.

Paul Simpson preferred other options, as well he might given the potency at the back of Morgan Feeney, Paul Huntington and Jon Mellish. Later, the finally free-from-injury Ben Barclay came in when Huntington had a short spell out.

News and Star: Whelan, left (with Jokull Andresson) has been in the shadows most of this seasonWhelan, left (with Jokull Andresson) has been in the shadows most of this season (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Not Whelan, who was an unused substitute, at best, from Christmas to spring. Come the Stockport home game, when Barclay was not allowed to face his parent club, the call finally came again.

What followed was a period that defined United’s recent history. It was not strewn with victories – Carlisle won just two of their remaining seven games over 90 minutes – but was a matter above all of nerve, of forcing something over the line when it was making a stubborn go of staying this side of it.

Whelan, picking up his sword, had to slot straight into the business of using it well. He started against Stockport, Barrow, Salford City and Sutton United in the League Two run-in, then against Bradford City in both play-off semi-final games when Mellish was suspended.

These were not games for the cold of form or the disgruntled. Whelan’s performances, particularly in those Bradford duels, were in the circumstances quietly outstanding.

Then came Wembley, another game in which he might not have played had the opposition been anyone other than Barclay’s Stockport. Whelan completed the entire 120 minutes, put seldom a foot wrong against one of the division’s most dangerous attacks, and had a promotion-winner’s medal around his neck by the end of a sweltering May day.

None of the above is new information but it is the sort of account that deserves it day again now that it’s known Whelan won’t play another game for Carlisle. The 26-year-old, out of favour to the tune of only seven appearances this season, turned down the offer to settle his contract last month, and was subsequently left out of United’s squad list for the rest of the campaign.

To some, this was a poor way to treat a solid servant. To others, an unfortunate consequence of Carlisle’s struggle to revive, and possibly make space for a belated free agent in, a squad that can go forward on what’s left of this League One road.

On the decision itself: at least it’s been delivered straight. It might not make Whelan feel greatly better about things, but at least we’ve had none of the “extra training” psychological warfare waged on a few unwanted players in the turbulent season of 2014/15, which ended with the Professional Footballers’ Association involved.

News and Star: Whelan stepped up when United needed him most last seasonWhelan stepped up when United needed him most last season (Image: PA)

At least Whelan was handed the decision up front. And at least his entirely justified decision to turn down the contract settling, and continue training at the club who awarded him his present terms, was accepted.

This is, in those areas at least, an honest handling of an awkward and in many ways sad situation: a Wembley winner, a good pro, sidelined for the foreseeable. This is aside from the range of opinion on whether, and to what extent, Whelan would have improved or at least steadied Carlisle’s porous defence right now.

My instinct is not to over-egg the angle either way, it being a stretch to think the goals would suddenly stop going in were he reinstalled to the side, but also reasonable to argue he might have done as well, or better, than others in recent leaky times.

We can only know what’s happened, rather than what might have been. From here it is about what Carlisle manage between now and April - raising the tone in some way after six straight defeats - and, after that, what Whelan goes on to do with his career.

Several others, you fancy, will be in that position too come the end of this player-heavy third-tier struggle. When it comes to waving Whelan off after three years in Cumbria it will be an occasion for respect towards someone who gave more substance to the cause than his understated image and intermittent appearance run sometimes made you think.

When the toll is taken of a player’s career and his input at Brunton Park, high on the list of considerations is what that player did when he was most needed. Whelan, from December 2022 to April 2023, could have left Carlisle, could have cut up rough, could have filed transfer requests, could have briefed his agent to play havoc on the gossip sites and forums.

None of the above took place and a great tribute to the man is that, when he came in – when Carlisle’s need was at its highest – it did not look like he’d been in the cold, even though he had, and the rewards for player, team, club and fans were gloriously plentiful. Good luck to him, wherever he eventually goes.