Among Carlisle United’s new-look squad will be four players who have come through the Blues’ youth system.
All Cumbrian natives, Jarrad Branthwaite, Josh Dixon, Keighran Kerr and Liam McCarron will look to make their mark in the senior ranks in pre-season ahead of their 2019/20 campaign and impress manager Steven Pressley.
Winger McCarron, from Appleby, actually has already enjoyed a run in the Blues’ first-team and penned an 18-month deal with United last September, while Wigton centre-back Branthwaite has also been awarded senior terms which will keep him at Brunton Park until the summer of 2021, though he is yet to play for Pressley’s first-team.
Dixon and Kerr are set to join McCarron and Branthwaite in the Blues’ first-team squad this summer after they recently signed professional terms and, for the two Carlisle lads, it’s a dream come true.
“I felt over the moon, really, when I got told I was getting a contract," says midfielder Dixon. "I just can’t wait to get started again after being injured and out for a while."
Kerr, a versatile frontman, adds: “I have been playing football all my life, so to be playing professional football, it’s a pleasure, really.”
For Dixon, the news he was going to be offered a year-long full-time deal came as a surprise after he missed most of last season through injury.
"At the start of my second year, when we were about to start, unfortunately, I did my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] ligaments," he explains.
"So, that stopped me from playing for about a year, so I wasn’t expecting to get a contract at all, really. But I was buzzing when I did."
On the mental challenges that brought, he says: "It was really mentally tough, to be honest, having three operations and things weren’t quite going as planned, which was difficult.
"But the physios at the club helped me get through it."
The 18-year-old, who says he looks up to Jamie Devitt from last term’s Carlisle squad and Man City playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, adds: “I knew my second year was vital because I just wanted to show that I was worth a professional contract and prove myself.
“So, it was really hard at the start [being injured], but the coaches and Chris [Blake] and Dolly [physio Neil Dalton] have helped me massively over the past few months to get me back playing.”
Dixon also says Academy manager Darren Edmondson and coach Gavin Skelton, a midfielder himself, have been big influences in his career.
He reveals: “You go from training on a Tuesday and a Thursday when I was an Under-16 to training every day and playing on the weekends as an Under-18.
So, they have both really helped me and they have been patient, really.”
Kerr, from Harraby, meanwhile, did get a taste of what it’s like to be involved in the first-team set up in the latter stages of last campaign when he travelled with the squad for April’s trip to Stevenage.
“It was an unbelievable experience, travelling down on the Friday and stopping over. It didn’t seem real,” Kerr, also 18, enthuses.
“Hopefully, there will be more of that next year.
"I got told on the Thursday that I was travelling with the firstteam on the Friday. I didn’t think it was true. I thought the coaches were trying to get me or something. But I was buzzing."
At the Lamex Stadium, United went down to a 3-0 defeat after Kurtis Guthrie’s double and Arthur Iontton’s first goal for Boro. Kerr insists he was still desperate to get the nod from the Blues boss, despite the difficult circumstances he would have been coming on in.
He says: “We were 3-0 down. So if I’d come on, they’d have been a lot to do.
“But I did want to come and make my debut for the club I have supported since I was young. Hopefully, I can do that next year.”
Kerr believes there is plenty he can learn from Hallam Hope, too.
“If you look at Hallam Hope, he has scored a number of goals last season,” he says. “So, hopefully, I can implement that in my game and get a chance in the first-team.”
But while Kerr and Dixon were tabled senior deals in April, five of their youth-team colleagues have been released and both admit they will be sad to see some of their team-mates leave the club.
“Some of the lads have also been coming since they were nine years old, as well. So, I have been playing with them for ages,” admits Dixon.
“Then, in the last two years, I have developed quite good friendships with most the lads so, when I was finding out they haven’t got contracts, that was quite difficult to be honest, but I’m just buzzing that I got the chance."
Kerr adds: "I was gutted to see some of the boys go.
“Over the two years, I have made some really good friendships, spending every day with them, and I was gutted to see them go, really.”
But the duo know they need to get their heads’ down in the close-season to ensure they are fully prepared for the beginning of their new campaign.
“The gaffer has said to us how fit and strong we need to be when we come back to be in the team,” Kerr, who says he looks up to Cristiano Ronaldo, admits. “That’s the standard, so we just need to keep working hard.”
Last week, the pair were involved in a trialist week as United try to filter through free agents who keen to join the club.
Dixon says: “There were some good players in the trialist week, so it was a good week for me, just to try and get my fitness back and find my feet a little bit. I felt really good after that.”
Kerr, meanwhile, is taking confidence from 18-year-old McCarron’s breakthrough season.
“We are all good friends. Me, Liam and Josh have been together for a good four or five years now,” he says.
“Hopefully, that friendship can help us and it’s brilliant for Jarrad. He is younger than us.
“But he has been given a chance and, hopefully, we will all get a chance next year.”
Dixon adds: “It’s just really good to see what Liam has done. Hopefully, me and Keighran can do the same.”