One of Keith Curle’s first acts as Carlisle United manager was to stage a “truth and honesty session”.
At the time, just over two years ago, the Cumbrian team were rock bottom of League Two and Curle recognised the need for shock therapy. “All the players stood 6ft apart,” he recalls. “I kept pulling two names out of a hat and they had 40 seconds to speak about each other in a negative way and 40 seconds to talk positively. They were too nice. Players at the top level are more critical of each other because their expectations are higher.”
Since then the former Manchester City, Wimbledon and England defender has conducted a metaphorical fumigation of a squad that is now radically remodelled and which has become increasingly “self-policing”. Its new-found blend of professionalism, perfectionism and ruthlessness is reflected in an unbeaten start to the season – they are the only Football League side yet to taste defeat – and a current eight-match winning streak.
Five of those victories have come in League Two, helping propel Carlisle into second place, four points behind Plymouth Argyle and four ahead of Doncaster Rovers. With the free-scoring Jason Kennedy excelling in midfield, the inspirational captain, Danny Grainger, adding six goals in six games from left-back and Mark Gillespie impressing in goal, they are feared opponents.
On Friday Curle – 53 next Monday and a rare black manager in the English game – collected a League Two manager of the month award and on Saturday his side visit bottom-placed Newport County aiming to take another small step towards promotion.
This renaissance has coincided with a long, tedious, often dislocating, mopping-up job in the wider region following the floods that struck Cumbria in early December last year.
Brunton Park, Carlisle’s home, is situated in Warwick Road, one of the main arteries leading into the city centre and an area particularly hard hit by Storm Desmond. The water flooding the pitch reached crossbar level, ruined ground-floor offices (Curle’s included) and resulted in the loss of one of the club’s two prized goldfish, and the damage to nearby homes was frequently devastating.
As the flood’s first anniversary approaches most residents have returned following several rootless months spent camping out with relatives or occupying rented accommodation but the process of drying out, repair and restoration proved frustratingly slow, leaving many householders exiled until the summer and beyond.
Yet if the skips loaded up with fragments of sodden carpet and pieces of wrecked furniture have largely gone, a sense of reconnection with Carlisle United remains. Curle has rarely felt as proud of his players as when they persistently volunteered to help neighbouring residents clear out and clean up their homes last December.
“Being close to people experiencing that degree of hardship gave them an increased sense of responsibility and pride,” he says. “By helping out wherever they could they began feeling more responsibility to produce performances the community could be proud of.”
As a defender Curle blended elegance with edge and he is attempting to recast Carlisle in a similar image. Although seeking to play slick passing football and building from the back, his team have learnt how to look after themselves physically while also being unafraid to deploy the long throw as an attacking weapon.
Almost three years after giving up alcohol and reinventing himself as a thoughtful, innovative coach, the articulate, intelligent Bristolian is on an upward trajectory. His players’ robustness has been nurtured by visits to the Lake District’s Cassius Camps during the past two summers. Head-quartered in a Georgian mansion close to Lake Windermere, this “outdoor challenges” business has much in common with an SAS induction facility.
Patronised by sports teams and business executives, its guests are pushed to their “outer limits” while scaling sheer fell-sides carrying boulder-filled rucksacks and swimming across Windermere’s freezing depths.
“Nothing scares the players now,” says Curle. “Mentally they’ve become a very hard bunch. We took them a long way out of their comfort zones but they were surprised at what they could achieve as a team.”
Carlisle have certainly travelled a long way since the 2014-15 season when their frustrated manager claimed his side lacked the “male genitalia” necessary for success. Such candour, at times, made Curle deeply unpopular.
“It was a difficult club when I came in,” he concedes. “There was a lot of disgruntlement and, at first I upset a few people because I decided things should be done differently. It’s taken two years but the pleasing thing is that now a lot of people are enjoying being part of the environment we’ve created.”
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