Experienced stopper Mark Howard made no bones about the size of the task facing United’s squad when he sat down to talk to the local press on Tuesday morning.
The Carlisle number one has amassed just under 350 career appearances in his 16 years in the senior game and has been through tough spells before - a factor he hopes will prove to be an asset as the Blues look to shake off a troubled run and get back to winning ways, with regular team meetings a key part of the current work being done.
“We’ve got to stick together,” he insisted. “We’re doing everything we can to put it right. We’re working hard in training but we’re also doing a lot more off the pitch together to try and get that bit of team spirit it might take to get that next result.
“The meetings we’re having are more about passing on knowledge or talking about past experiences to try and show everybody what that feeling is like when you’re in a battle at the bottom of the table.
“We’ve talked about how to change it, things that have worked in the past and things that haven’t, and it’s important that we gather our thoughts and put them together to get the best outcome.”
“The manager asked us to have a chat with each other rather than him leading it,” he explained. “I think it was something that needed to happen to clear the air and make some things known that we don’t like about what we’re doing.
“It was all about what we could do to make sure we benefit going forward, and a lot of it was about the standards we expect from each other.
“When you’re doing this type of thing it’s more about trying to give people things to respond to. If one person takes something away from a meeting like that then it’s a positive, and if we can do it as a collective then it’s obviously even better.
“The more people who are trying to improve and listen, the more it’s going to help us. We all said our piece, which was brilliant.
“Someone like myself, I’ve been through these sorts of battles before, I’ve never been relegated, but it’s just that feeling and the emotion and nervousness and tension you get with that run-in.
“You try to tell them what it’s like, how you don’t want it to be, because you don’t want it to be riding on that one last game. Little things like that that not everyone might understand but one person might take one thing from it.
“I think that’s what yesterday’s meeting was good for. As long as there’s something that someone takes on board.”
“Some of the questions you get asked by young lads, it’s amazing the different type of football that we’ve come from. To try and educate them; part of their learning experience going forward for their whole careers, also for me is really rewarding and challenging.
“That’s something, being the oldest in the dressing room and probably the most experience, it’s something they rely on me for the answers, which is brilliant. I’m thriving off that sort of thing.”
An obvious question to ask is whether or not the message is sinking in and that the gravity of the situation is something that is being dealt with.
“I definitely think it is,” he responded. “From what we’ve spoken about, the feeling in the dressing room isn’t too bad.
“I know we lost on Saturday, but in the first half the performance wasn’t too bad, but the second half was.
“The actual feeling in the camp on Thursday and Friday was different, there was a different mindset. I think we’re developing into that and I think we just need to put that into a performance.
“I’ve been through plenty of these situations, I’ve started seasons really badly and I’ve ended seasons really badly. Luckily enough, I’ve never been relegated and that’s something I do not want to happen, and as a squad we don’t want that to happen.
“In the meeting, a lot of what I said was the real-life stuff about people who could lose their job at the club and how it affects the fans and the mentality. A lot of stuff I’ve experienced in the past has been more about that.
“I’ve been going into the last 45 minutes of a season and stayed up in the last minute of a game at Bolton, that feeling going into a game isn’t nice, knowing that it’s win or bust. I’m trying to tell the lads, we’ve got 15 games to go, we’ve got to start on a clean slate and get on with it.”
Use of the term ‘relegation battle’ has largely been avoided around the first-team environment, but we wondered if the current run of results merited a discussion that it could go that way.
“There’s 15 games to go and a lot of points to play for,” he told us. “It’s difficult to say we are involved in it, but we are where we are in the league and there’s no hiding from that.
“We need to pick up points to get away from where we are. That’s up to us as players to put that right. There’s nothing that the club, fans or the manager can do, it’s up to us as a team to go out and perform.
“It’s things like letting heads drop after a mistake, then we make another. That’s something we’ve spoken about as a collective. Even if we do concede, it’s about how we react to it, we can’t go on and concede another goal.
“I think that’s something that’s affected us a lot, as well as conceding early goals in either half, there’s been quite a few early in the second half in recent games. That’s just mentality about how we start a half.”
And any situation like this puts things under the spotlight, with the manager and coaching staff always in the firing line if a poor run develops.
“The manager has been amazing with all of us,” he said. “The backing he gives us and the confidence he instils in us have been great.
“The gaffer has been superb through the whole time, he supports us all, and everything he’s been doing is because he’s trying to improve not just the players, but the club in general.
“I think his level of professionalism is rubbing off on the lads off the pitch, and we’re letting him down a little bit on it. We’re trying as players to put that right for him because we’re all fully behind him.
“To try and raise the whole level of professionalism at a club from top to bottom shouldn’t just fall on a manager’s shoulders. But at the moment it seems to be, and that’s why me and Callum are trying to make the dressing room a bit better, the players’ lounge a bit better, try and take a bit of the load off the manager.
“That’s the role we should play as leaders in the dressing room. The individual mistakes have been the things hurting our results, and that’s something the manager can’t affect.
“It’s difficult because we’re all trying to do our best for ourselves, the club and the manager, but the errors have cost us and that’s down to the individuals.
“If we stop making those mistakes, we’ll start picking up points. We’ve all talked about the fact we don’t want a relegation on our CV as professional footballers.
“It isn’t a good way to start or end a career, you don’t know what’s next round the corner for anyone. We’re all pushing in the same direction to make sure we aren’t that team.
“Losing hurts us, we’re the ones playing the game and it does hurt. I know fans will say we’re not from the area and things like that, but this is our job, and it does hurt us when we lose.”
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The emergence of an incident in town at the weekend could have added fuel to the fire, but he insisted that it would be used as a positive, with there always being two sides to every story.
“Regardless of what’s happened, we’re still trying to win the next game, and we can only put it right on a Saturday,” he commented. “It’s up to us as a team to go and get that result.
“I think what happened is something the individuals that were involved in will learn from. As a squad I think it almost galvanises you as players and as a group.
“We are together. We’ve spoken more about showing unity, that we stand together, regardless of what happened. There’s no one person pulling in a different direction. We’re all trying to do it.
“The run we’re on, the results we’ve had, I think every single one of us in the squad should be accountable for this. We shouldn’t blame each other, we’re all in it together, and it’s other people’s livelihoods at stake. Realisation of that should hopefully make us better.
“I take responsibility, and that’s something you do naturally when you get older. It’s a role that I play, and I’ve probably done it since I was 25, it doesn’t matter that I’m ten years older now, it’s just who you are as a person.
“This is something we’ve also tried to address in the dressing room. Unless it’s in your nature to go and kick somebody, it’s not who you are - it’s difficult to tell somebody to do that if that’s not who they are.
“But I think the way we defend, the passion we should show doing that, that’s what we can also change. That’s just a mindset, it’s not someone going out and being more physical.
“The whole character of how we’re conceding goals at the moment, we look a little bit soft and that’s something we’re trying to address.
“There’s a lot of characters in the dressing room and it’s about making sure we use them in the best way we can to get the most out of them. In a time like this, it’s about character and mentality, and I honestly think we will pick up more points than people think.”
Without looking for excuses, it stands to reason that the injury disruption suffered by the defensive unit has had an impact on the cohesion that led to a string of clean sheets just a short time ago.
“I definitely think that’s played a big part and the new lads are coming into a team that’s lost these key players,” he said. “Kelvin [Mellor] has been a massive miss, as has Rod [McDonald], and when you take players like that out it changes the whole dynamic of how you play, let alone each person’s role.
“You definitely miss people like that, but the fact is we have to adapt, and we know that. I think what we’re doing at the moment, and I know they’re making mistakes, but they’re learning, and that’s the biggest praise you can put on them.
“These are lads who are learning their trade, and they know it’s about not making the same mistake twice. That’s something they’re trying to correct in their own pathway, and we’re helping them.
“We’re not passing blame onto the young ones, we’re all part of it, we’re all in this together. It’s not about singling them out, it’s about developing their games to make us better as a team.”
Everyone connected with the club is living and breathing the current situation, with fear of the worst case scenario a constant shadow - something else that players who have never seen this kind of thing have to contend with.
“You can’t afford to carry it with you from day to day,” he commented. “That’s one of the main things I want to pass on, and I’m sure you’ll hear everyone telling you that it’s one game at a time.
“You can’t afford to let it weigh you down. You have to have the attitude that you’re going to put it right in the next game. That has to be our sole focus.
“Confidence can drain, we’ve seen that in some games during the 90 minutes, and it’s something we’re trying to put right.
“The last five defeats have been against teams in the top ten, and don’t get me wrong, we’re frustrated that we aren’t picking up points against these teams, but we’ve got to be realistic to where we are at the moment.
“It’s difficult because the team is changing a lot as we go through each week and it’s just trying to get some momentum going, so these next few games will be massively important for us.
“The good run we did go on, that came from being a League Two football team and being good at your jobs and sticking to the challenge. We were resilient.
“The individual errors have crept in, and that’s nothing to do with how we set up, or how the manager wants us to play. It’s a mistake - we’re all humans at the end of the day, we’re letting one bad mistake affect the next decision and next decision. That’s what we need to sort out.”
Fans concerned about league status have stuck with the team through the 90 minutes, showing understandable frustration at the end of each half, and over 400 will make the journey to the Breyer Group Stadium to cheer on the Blues once again at the weekend.
“I feel like I’ve got a good relationship with the fans and they’re totally entitled to their opinion,” he replied. “Even at my age, I still get a good buzz when the fans get right behind us.
“I still enjoy being able to go up to them at the end and applaud them for their support and get it back from them when we’ve performed well. That’s an important relationship and it’s something we all want, but we have to put that right and give them something to get behind.
“We need them. We need them to stick by us and we’re going to go out in these last 15 games and show the passion we’ve got and the character we’ve got. Like I said before, it’s about our mentality as a team and hopefully the fans will buy back into that if we’re doing well.
“What we completely understand is their reaction to this run. It’s hard to hear it, especially for the younger ones, bit it’s something that’s part and parcel of football.
“You have to learn to deal with that. As I said before, the games we’ve lost are all against top 10 teams and we have to be realistic in terms of where we’re trying to correct our own situation from.
“We’re at the bottom of the league, that’s a fact, and it’s vitally important that we perform against the teams around us.
“All we can ask is that they stick with us as we look to do that. We’ve already said it’s a young squad, and it’s a young squad that’s also trying to learn.
“With that they also need the backing a little bit to try and get their heads high when they do make a mistake - the little pat on the back when they do something good.
“I think that’s something even in our dressing room we’re trying to do, when someone makes a good tackle, makes a good block, we’re trying to show we’re encouraging instead of just being critical or negative.
“The quickest way to turn this around is by being positive.”
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