Assistant head coach Gavin Skelton described seeing Carlisle United go top of the table as “exciting” — but insisted it was vital for everybody involved to keep their focus during increasingly testing times.
Under the management of head coach Chris Beech and boyhood Blues fan Skelton, rejuvenated United reached the League 2 summit with a 2-0 win at Walsall on Saturday when their rivals were hit by postponements.
That came just days after the duo penned new deals to keep them at Brunton Park until summer, 2022.
“It is exciting, you can’t deny it,” said Skelton, of Appleby, who joined the club as an apprentice aged eight before becoming a United academy coach when his professional playing career ended.
“But you don’t really get carried away because it can kick you up the backside when you don’t keep your foot on the pedal. I can’t lie, it’s nicer to be at the top end of the league rather than the bottom end.
“Even though you don’t see as many people because of the restrictions, there’s definitely more interest when you’re going well. It’s nice to be part of it when you’re up there, you can feel how pleased people are and you want more and more of it.
“The better you do, the harder you want to work because you want to maintain that good feeling.”
But Skelton, aged 39, said it was vital everybody associated with the club kept their feet on the ground, with more than half a season still to go in unchartered, COVID-dominated territory.
“You have to because you know there will be ups and downs,” he said.
“And when you’re going OK you become more of a target for other teams so they’re going to up their game, just like when we play teams above us it definitely adds extra motivation.
“Games will be called off and things will change but we’re desperate to stay at that top end of the table, fighting to be in that top seven at the end of the season.”
The key, he stressed, would be keeping together a squad which is comparable to that of a year ago following a flurry of new arrivals and departures.
“If we can add one or two players then brilliant, but obviously it is weird at the moment,” he admitted.
“Alongside injuries and suspensions you’ve got COVID so sometimes you might lose people if they test positive and they’ve got to isolate, or people around them have to isolate.
“So it’s trying to keep all the protocols around the club in place, and if something like that does happen it’s important people stay safe and healthy.
“That’s an added dimension and will have an impact as the season goes on.”
Members of the new-look squad gelled quickly despite strict coronavirus measures which reduced pre-season games last summer and initially restricted training sessions to small groups.
“There are some really good characters in the squad and that shows on the pitch at the moment,” said Skelton, who observed that when it came to training and match days everything was “completely different”.
“There are lots of protocols. I don’t think we’ve ever been in an away dressing room yet. Players have to go in different areas, be it a bar area or a room that’s not used because they have to keep the distances.
“You’re almost on the other side of the stadium to the opposition — they’re getting changed one side and we’re the other.
“For showers the lads have to go in twos or threes. We are lucky, though, and hopefully we can continue doing our job and keep playing football. It’s just a different experience.”
Great help had come, however, from Penrith Rugby Club, where United have trained recently on the artificial grass pitch.
“We’ve trained there quite a bit, including Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day,” said Skelton.
“They’ve been brilliant and they can’t do enough for us.”
Beech and Skelton were handed good news this week as defender Rhys Bennett extended his stay at United until the end of this season, delighting Blues supporters.
“That is a boost,” Skelton said. “He’s done really well when he’s come in. He’s very driven, he wants to do well and play at the highest level he can, and we’re pleased that he sees us as being able to do that.”
And of his own new deal, the former Workington and Queen of the South boss said: “It is nice in the current climate to get offered a new deal, and hopefully I can continue to do well to justify it.”
Skelton — married to Rebecca with two sons, Henry, aged four, and Joseph, one — also expressed his wish to see supporters back at matches in the near future with 2,000-strong crowds having returned late last year until tougher COVID measures intervened.
“You appreciate how much better it is when they are there,” he said.
“Even though there were only 2,000 it felt miles better, because that’s what it’s about. Don’t get me wrong it’s not nice when we’re not playing well and they’re giving you a bit of stick.
“But on the flip side it just feels like proper football; energised; more emotion to it. It helps the players because football’s an emotional game. If there’s a shot or a tackle the crowd get up, or they can help.
“When you’re struggling they can get behind you and if you get a good result, coming off to the fans being happy and clapping and singing, compared to the whistle going and it just being quiet, it does have that better feeling.”