For United’s Joe Riley this season has been a long time in the making, with 25 appearances for the Blues a just reward following a stop-start career which has seen him have to do things the hard way when an injury picked up during the pre-season of 2019 ruled him out of consideration for his previous club Bradford for the best part of a year.
A product of the impressive Manchester United academy system, he left Old Trafford having played and learned with the best, with the hopes that the move to Valley Parade would provide the opportunity he needed to showcase his talents on the first-team stage.
All eight of his appearances for the Bantams came at the start of the 2018/19 campaign, the last one against Accrington on 13 October 2018 being the last game he would feature in until he took to the pitch for the full 90 minutes of Carlisle’s first game of this season, a 3-1 Papa John’s Trophy home defeat against Fleetwood Town.
Fast forward five months and Riley, now 24, has become a firm favourite with the fans having made an unfamiliar midfield his role his own with a series of committed and full-blooded displays.
With his injury nightmare now well and truly behind him, he spoke very openly this week about the difficult journey he’d been on, and the way that maintaining a focus on the positives had helped him to get through some very dark times.
“I can’t emphasise enough how much I’m enjoying being part of this at the moment,” he said. “I’ve got a good relationship with the gaffer and everyone gives their all in every match.
“We’re all desperate to go on and do something this year. For me to have come back from an ACL injury last year and now be playing in centre midfield is so enjoyable. I’m learning a lot from the other players, we’ve got some good senior players here who have got lots of experience and even the likes of Callum [Guy] and Jon [Mellish] who are younger, I’m playing next to them and they’re good to learn from.
“I’m just enjoying it so much. I think I said in my first interview when I signed that I know I owe the gaffer and David [Holdsworth] a lot after they brought me in with me having been injured for so long last year.
“I was so excited to come here and start playing football again. As soon as I got the chance, especially in midfield, I’ve just loved every minute of it.”
“I have had a tough time over the last 12 months,” he admitted. “An ACL injury last year kept me out of the whole season and then Covid hit when I was just about to come back.
“The gaffer has given me a real opportunity to come and play here and he let me know straight away that it was up to me. There was no guarantee I was going to start every game, but he’s given me the chance and I’ve worked hard to grasp it.
“Now, with how things are going, I don’t want to look back anymore. It’s been tough, it has, but I’ve come through it and everything I took from that period is what I’m using now to keep me motivated as I look to do as much as I can to play in every game.”
But the mental challenges of having to deal with so much uncertainty, particularly with a long-term injury thrown into the mix, must have been huge.
“It is really tough,” he confirmed. “There are players going through similar things now and some get through it and some don’t.
“There’s a lot goes on behind the scenes in football that people don’t see, and that’s why it’s nice for fans to sometimes get to hear about the things that can happen, and the mental health issues players can go through, which definitely occur within these situations.
“The injury happened at Bradford, and I haven’t got a lot to say about my previous club to be quite honest with you, other than I had a tough time there. It’s not something I’m majorly positive about, but what I can be positive about from them is the work I got from the physios once I got the injury was excellent.
“The manager at the time I had the injury was really helpful. I spoke to him a lot and I got a lot of help there, but I surprised myself with how hard I actually worked. I was like a robot, I was the first one in every day and the last to leave.
“It showed with how quickly I recovered, so when I got this opportunity I made sure I was ready. By the way, I didn’t even know if I’d have another opportunity to play football while I was going through it.
“I didn’t know if I’d have another club giving me an offer, and the uncertainty got even worse when Covid came along. I was extremely worried, but I just kept trying to put it to the back of my mind so that I could do the rehab and be ready to go should something come my way.
“Thankfully the gaffer wanted to speak to me and it was a very surreal day and a huge amount of relief when I got an offer from him. I didn’t even really care what the contract said because I was just dying to get playing again.”
With many days to face in the gym on his own following the reconstructive surgery, and then a gradual return to full training to be negotiated once he got back onto the grass, he revealed that it came down to an inner belief that he would make a return that kept him going, even with the knowledge that his contract with Bradford was drawing to a close.
“I don’t know where the mental strength comes from, to be honest,” he told us. “Like I said earlier, I surprised myself with how hard I worked. Every day for the first five months you just don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“You have aches and pains and you wonder if this is just how it’s always going to be. You’re inside while the boys are outside, and you just don’t feel part of the team. If that happened here – Danny Devine is a good example, he’s got an injury but the boys never allow him to feel left out. He’s always involved, he’s kept in the loop and that’s how it should be.
“For me it was down to myself as an individual to pull through, so I suppose it comes down to how much you want it. If you want to succeed you have to make sure you give it everything.
“That’s why I put the negativity to the back of my mind and the gym helped me a lot. You can’t tell now, I’m not really that big anymore, but I was in there at half seven every morning and it gave me a focus and kept me occupied.
“I needed distractions away from football to keep my lifestyle as healthy as I could, because I didn’t want to think about the fact I was out of contract at the end of the year. With that it meant I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I worked hard and hard and hard and I did not stop until eventually I could get back out onto a football pitch.
“That’s when you start to see light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s when you kick on, as I did. Other players may be different but as long as they speak to people, and have good people around them, they’ll pull through.”
So what was it like for him when he walked down the tunnel to make his first appearance for the Blues after such a long absence.
“You can’t really explain it,” he commented. “Without embarrassing myself, if you could have seen my reaction on the day that David Holdsworth said they were going to offer me a contract, I was on the way home and I was in floods of tears.
“The relief of working so hard for over a year, honestly, it was non-stop, relentless, to then get told I was getting the offer - it was just weird and the relief in my body took over. I knew I was going to be able to kick on and hopefully do well, so it was a great feeling.
“People are talking more and more about mental health, which is great. I know I’ve been through a really tough period with my injury and I probably didn’t speak about it enough. To have come through that and be playing every week is great, I feel fantastic.
“To have overcome something that was hard in my life thanks to the gaffer giving me a chance is just a great feeling. I think I’m enjoying my football more than I ever have.”
“Like I say, I don’t want to look back too much now,” he concluded. “I want to look forward. Obviously it all started for me at Manchester United and it does feel fairly long ago that I was with them, but I spent so many years there it will always be a special place to me.
“I learned a lot, I met a lot of great people and had some fantastic experiences. It’s things you will cherish forever. It was always the right time to leave, I needed to play first team football, and I’m just thankful that I’m doing that here.”