Tuesday night’s game against Villa brought a welcome return to the fold for 19-year-old midfielder Josh Dixon, who brought to an end a two-year battle against an anterior cruciate ligament injury with a man-of-the-match performance.
The only downside to his appearance was the fact that it came at the cost of an injury to loanee Connor Malley, who limped from the pitch to receive stitches to a gash along the top of his foot.
“It’s possible that Connor will miss a few games,” manager Chris Beech said. “It was a bit of an innocuous situation, but it does look like he’ll miss a few.
“I don’t know the detail of the actual spillage of the information about him from yesterday, I’ve got a meeting with Ross the physio this morning to get to the extent of that, but I don’t think he’s available for this weekend.
“I can tell you that simply because of the cut on his foot I saw the other day. In terms of heading towards January and his loan, we can’t talk about that when we don’t know what the injury is just yet.
“He ended up having stitches in his foot. He’s had an x-ray on it, so it’s not great, really.”
The treatment for Malley brought Dixon onto the pitch earlier than expected against Villa, with just 16 minutes on the clock.
“I had planned for him to get on, I told him that, but not as early as it happened,” the manager confirmed. “For him to recover from these injuries and get through 75 minutes like he did, it’s good.
“It provided extra time for Josh and he did great. Near the end he’s cramping up, the boys are winning 3-0, he takes a short free-kick and makes an overlapping sprinting run, crosses straight to the goalkeeper who throws it out, and we concede a goal.
“In terms of his physicality at that point, he was struggling. It’s a great learning curve, even though it’s his first game for a long time. Of course, unbelievable character to get back, but now, as we walk through a new door, we have to progress his career, and he has to progress it.
“We can’t live on sentiments of the past, he has to keep building. I spoke to him and Taylor Charters about tactically where they should have been to make sure we keep a clean sheet. But he did unbelievably well.
“For Taylor it was his first full 90 minutes, he’s won his first game at home representing Carlisle, another Cumbrian, it’s really good news. Well done to both of those players.”
“Hopefully Josh can have a good, clear run at fitness because he’s got some lovely football attributes,” he continued. “What he’ll get from us and me is the part of the game where we need to get the ball back and compete.
“They’re very big elements of lower-league football and the Premier League actually. His skill levels are high, he has to make sure he competes and works hard to get the ball back. He showed those traits the other day, which was the more pleasing point, because we all know he’s got very good technical ability.”
With it having been so long since he kicked a ball in a competitive game, we wondered if it would now be a case of building things up gradually.
“Yes, and no, because he’s gone past his time of where he’s meant to be getting ready,” the gaffer explained. “He’s had the struggles with niggles when we should have had him available for earlier games and, if anything, I felt a little bit like I was holding a Carlisle baby the other night.
“It was like ‘don’t drop him Chris, he’s so precious’ especially when he was cramping up in the last 10 minutes. Everybody was telling me to get him off and look after him, but sometimes, and my dad definitely gave me a bit of tough love, that helps if it’s done in the right way.
“I was so happy that he stayed on the pitch, he got through it, because he’s come through a different door and his confidence will be bigger now.
“Of course he needs more regular football. We’ve got Crawley and Tranmere, but another factor that’s been difficult in this virus period is arranging friendlies. When I first came to the club I was massive on making sure that players who didn’t play on a Saturday got a friendly.
“In fact, that’s how Jon Mellish was first used as a midfielder. If I wasn’t doing these things he probably wouldn’t be here, he was getting released as a centre half.
“We’re fortunate that we’ve got a game against Fleetwood in midweek and that’ll provide more opportunity. Clubs have been a little bit not forthcoming in having these fixtures because we’re trying to look after our own environments as best we can. Josh will play in that.”
United’s other injury concern is Brennan Dickenson, who is still targeting a return as quickly as possible.
“It’s a shame – Brennan went to St George’s for specific treatment for a week, and somehow picked the virus up,” he told us. “He had to stay at home and that put him back a couple of weeks. He’s back here now and doing really well.
“He was out on the grass the other day doing some strange exercises with Ross, but I’m sure they’re doing something for his hamstring. It’s nice to see him with his boots on.
“Like I say, he was put back a couple of weeks, he had to do the right things the right way, as we all have. It’s very difficult. Rod McDonald missed out on Hayes & Yeading because he had a dry cough and high temperature, but didn’t have coronavirus. These things are what we’re trying to deal with as we progress.”
“Brennan will definitely be involved in the New Year,” he added. “He’s League One if you want to look at physicality, experience, capability, quality.
“What we need to do is get him going for us. The sooner the better, but with something like that, we’ve got to find that balance between patience and need. Our current need for attacking prowess is lesser and it’s great that Gavin Reilly scored, Micah Obiero stepped up, JJ’s back, Omari Patrick’s played a few games without interference, Gime Toure’s available after suspension.
“It’s quite exciting. It would be great if I could have everybody available at one point, especially with the new rule. This five-substitute rule is a real game changing situation.”
Another striking factor from Tuesday night was the inclusion of three first-year academy scholars on the bench.
“I like the centre forward, Sam Fishburn,” he commented. “He’s completely raw and not been in any academy.
“In my 19 or 20 years as a coach, and this is an unbelievable fact, because I did it for the PFA as a presentation for their regional coach monitors when I was out of work, but the three that I’ve been most involved with in terms of … I think there’s been 20 players in 20 years, one a year that’s been like a Jarrad Branthwaite … so the three I’ve had most success with over my career have been the least academyised players.
“Dale Stephens played Premier League football, who we signed at Bury as a young lad who came from non-league at 15, Scott Hogan signed at Rochdale from college football from playing with a friend of mine, and Will Buckley was playing for Hopwood College.
“All three of those lads went on to have success at the highest levels of playing, but they had the least in terms of academy background. I’m quite excited about Fishburn, but he’s got a long way to go, and the other two lads are players Eric Kinder thought deserved a reward.
“The right back is a tough tackler and the left back is doing great, and I’ll see them again tonight when they play in the FA Youth Cup, which is good.
“They’ve all done well, they joined in one session with the first team before the Villa game and I spoke to them afterwards, and they all said how much quicker it was. The demand is the same but it’s all much faster and they need to get that part of it right.
“Tactically they need to get in the fast lane and learn as much as they can. They’re like sponges now and they must soak up as much as they possibly can as quickly as they can.”