Someone must have pressed the fast-forward button in the summer of 1997. After wondering and worrying about my status, things suddenly sped up.

I came on as a substitute in Carlisle’s opening game of the season at Southend and did well, I scored a consolation goal against Bristol Rovers and, while results were not sensational, a regular place in the side was finally mine.

Very quickly there was talk of scouts at our games and, at a home match against Wigan, it emerged that Ron Noades, the Crystal Palace chairman, was in the crowd.

I wasn’t the only young player at Carlisle drawing interest. Newcastle were looking at Will Varty, Rory Delap was firmly established in the first team, while Paul Murray had already left for QPR the previous season.

I liked the idea that people were coming to watch me. The thought really pushed my buttons.

Mervyn Day, our manager, didn’t hold back with his verdict on my displays. “I don’t think there’s a better young player in the country,” he said in one interview. That was music to my ears, but it also put me in the sights of opponents who liked the idea of chopping me down to size.

I took a few bruises from an encounter with Graham Taylor’s Watford, for whom Robert Page dished plenty out, and more still when we played at Blackpool’s Bloomfield Road.

The game had been put back 24 hours as Princess Diana’s funeral put the country on pause. When we finally made it to the seaside, the Blackpool midfielder Gary Brabin had his crosshairs trained on me.

We went behind early on, but I was still giving them the runaround when his opportunity came in the centre circle. After failing with a few scythes, Brabin came into me with a high tackle, and then clotheslined me with his arm for good measure. He absolutely pounded me to the turf.

As the lads rushed over, both to check on me and to confront Brabin, I was out for the count.

I had only just started coming round when Neil Dalton got to me. This was one of Dolly’s earliest games as physio and it must have been daunting to have to wade into that sort of melee to sort out a teenager who was barely conscious.

He sat me up, threw some water over me and eventually helped me to the side of the pitch for more attention.

I was woozy and unsteady, but this was 1997, and protocols for head injuries were not as they are today. I felt the fizz of smelling salts in my nostrils, another splash of water, and back on I went.

Another significant difference in the game as it was back then, compared with today, was that Brabin stayed on the pitch. No red card.

I wasn’t intimidated by him, though. The opposite was true. I heard Dad’s voice: “It’s because they can’t stop you any other way.”

I remembered Hack Football, the game I played at Newman Catholic School, and the bruises my hero Diego Maradona wore like badges. I thought of the crowd oohing and ahhing as I stayed on my feet as the tackles flew in.

I’ve since seen Brabin on the coaching and managerial circuit. We’ve laughed about that afternoon, and he also confirmed what I knew back then. “It was the only way I could stop you,” he said.

Mervyn was also a marked man, not that he realised it. Michael Knighton fired him after that Blackpool game in a move that stunned everyone else at the club. We hadn’t started the season brilliantly, but we had only just been promoted, and Mervyn was still very well liked both in the dressing room and the city.

His sacking is viewed by many Carlisle fans as the start of the club’s decline under Knighton, which became bitter and almost fatal. I felt for Mervyn, but for a 19-year-old in a hurry, it wasn’t something that chewed me up. It did not deter me from the path I felt I was on, or the speed of progress I was finally making.

This must simply have been my time, my moment, because when we went to Wycombe a few days later under the stand-in management regime of David Wilkes, coach John Halpin and one M. Knighton, we smashed them 4–1 and I had the game of my young life.

I was suddenly comfortable, and confident, with no trace of uncertainty about my place at Carlisle, or as a professional.

It was as though I had evolved overnight. I was on fire. I scored two headers, tore the home defence to bits and I knew I was the best player on the park.

In the past, I had always deferred to senior players and never made much fuss when I felt I needed the ball. At Wycombe, though, I was hollering at much older and more experienced players if they didn’t give me the pass I wanted.

Steve Hayward, our captain and midfielder, had a natural authority and was also one of our best players, but that didn’t matter. “Give me the ball, Steve . . . give me the ball!”

I couldn’t have cared less who was captain, who was manager or who was wearing the other 10 shirts. I was only thinking of being man-of-the-match.

While Knighton, inevitably, took the acclaim at full-time at Adams Park, bowing to the fans and claiming ominously that he had “never believed in managers”, I knew what had really happened.

From now on, I was going to be Carlisle’s best player in every game. When I saw a mark of 10 out of 10 next to my face in Monday’s paper, it underlined everything. I’d cracked it.

I was a different man. If something went wrong, I would no longer gaze in the mirror and assume it was my fault. If I was tackled, the other players must have been in the wrong place. If I was on the bench, the manager had lost his mind.

Off the pitch, things were different. If there was a fete at Wetheral, or a similar function in Carlisle, and the organisers wanted the emerging young United star to make a guest appearance, I would often shy away or ask Mum to make an excuse for me. On the grass, it was a different world. It was my theatre.

* Saturday: My fleeting return to Brunton Park in 2007

Matt Jansen, The Autobiography: What Was, What Is and What Might Have Been is published by Polaris (£18.99)