Minnows Carlisle United took eight-time League Cup winners Liverpool all the way to penalties on Wednesday night during their third-round clash at Anfield, a memorable night that Mark Gillespie hopes will prove a stepping stone in his own promising footballing future.
The League Two goalkeeper, who started his career at fellow Premier League outfit Newcastle United, has overcome long-term knee and groin injuries to rubber stamp his authority as the Cumbrians’ number one shot stopper this term.
After thwarting the likes of Roberto Firmino, Danny Ings and Philippe Coutinho with an outstanding 16 saves and two penalty shootout blocks in midweek, Wednesday’s heroics has given Gillespie the tempting taster of what top-flight football is all about.
Having been at Brunton Park since he was just 16-years-old; the 6ft 3in ‘keeper is aiming to keep injury-free for the entire season in an attempt to lead Carlisle’s promotion bid to League One from the very back.
Following a disappointing 20th place finish in the bottom tier last term; Gillespie believes the impact made my former England international Keith Curle as manager and summer signing Jabo Ibehre as League Two’s top goalscorer can help the Cumbrians achieve their fate at the second time of asking.
Shoot spoke exclusively to Gillespie about Wednesday’s close shave with Liverpool, his personal battle with injuries, his admiration for Carlisle boss Curle and the Cumbrians’ push for promotion.
You produced an outstanding performance against Liverpool in the League Cup in midweek, including 16 saves and two penalty blocks. What was that experience like at Anfield?
“Yeah, obviously I was excited before the game. It was a massive build-up for the club and city to play at Anfield. I was nervous and excited before the game because it was a big occasion for everyone. But it went really well. Even though we went 1-0 down, we stuck together. For me personally; and for everyone that was involved, we gave a good count of ourselves and we managed to take a very strong Liverpool team to penalties. I am really proud of that, but obviously I was a bit gutted that we didn’t manage to beat them in the end.”
You were kept busy throughout the match. What was it like to come up against some world-class players?
“Yeah it was brilliant, that is the sort of thing you work towards. Obviously it was a bit of a different game being at Liverpool. They passed the ball around a lot and they are quick around the box. It was just a case of trying to maintain concentration as much as possible as I knew that a shot could be coming from any angle at any time. So I was just trying to stay as focused as possible.”
After Carlisle’s encouraging cup performance, how confident are you that you can take that sort of form into League Two from now on?
“Yeah, definitely. I think if we can go and win tomorrow; we can go in the play-off places, so that will be a bit of good motivation for everyone involved to help carry the buzz on. Around the club it is obviously very positive at the minute, so we need to keep that going with three points tomorrow.”
How high can Carlisle finish this term? Is winning promotion the club’s ambition?
“Obviously we have had a good start; being in the top-half, so we are hoping for a much better season than last year. But I think we are just playing each game as it comes and it won’t be until Christmas, if we are in the top seven, that we will hopefully stay around there and push as much as we can. There’s no reason why we can’t go for it. I think we came down two seasons ago now; since we were relegated, so the main target is to get back up into League One. We had some good years in League One not so long ago, so we know we can do it. It is just about getting back up there as soon as possible.”
On a personal note; what has it been like to get back playing regular football again following injury lay-offs
“Obviously injuries are part of the game, but I think it is just about the case of getting back and playing. It takes you a few games to get going and get your confidence back, but I think I have definitely got that now. It is now just a case of staying in the team and doing as well as I can and just train for a full season, which is something I have wanted to do since I broke into the team when I was younger. Due to injuries, I haven’t been able to do that yet. So that is the target.”
You have suffered long-term knee and groin injuries in successive seasons. How did you cope with those stints on the sidelines? What kept you motivated?
“It is difficult. I think it is just a case of trusting the club physios and trusting myself that you are doing the right rehab and working as hard as you can at the gym. You can put all your motivation towards that because hopefully one day it will all pay off. Like against Liverpool, that work in the gym by yourself and not playing for six months, makes it all worth it.”
You have been at Carlisle since you were 16-years-old. What is it about the club that you love?
“Well obviously they gave me another chance. Newcastle [United] let me go when I was 16, so Carlisle got me involved and got me in training and then playing for the youth team. Obviously it was a northern club and I just loved playing for the club. I have got a good relationship with the fans, they gave me a lot of confidence when I was a young goalkeeper when I first got into the team. So that is why I really enjoy playing for the club.”
This is manager Keith Curle’s first full season in charge at Brunton Park. What have you made of his impact at the club so far?
“Yeah it has been very positive. I think he trusts me to get on with my job. But at the same time, he is very much involved with the team and we have started playing a nice passing style. That starts from the back; so he obviously trusts me to do that and that is definitely improving my game. I am trying to do my best to help the team and he is playing a big part in that.”
Jabo Ibehre is currently League Two’s top goalscorer this season with eight goals. How much of a boost is it for you to know that you have an in-form striker firing at the opposite end of the pitch?
“Yeah, massive. Because in games he is going to score goals and that puts the opposition under pressure. They know they are going to have to get on top of him and that kind of shifts the whole emphasis of the game so that we can attack and score goals. It puts the opposition under pressure. It also takes the pressure off us at the other end a bit. Obviously he is in great form, so long may it continue.”
It is documented a lot, because of your location, that Carlisle are forced to make a lot of long trips away from home. Is this sometimes difficult as a player to deal with?
“I think it can be difficult. Like I said; I have been here a long time, so I am used to it. I think players do get used to it quite quickly. They get very well looked after, even if we get the bus or the train. It is very good, plus the food and hotel is right, so there are no excuses from our end. Obviously it is a bit tougher for the fans. So that is why we are so determined, when we go on these long away trips, that we put in performances and hopefully get results because the fans are travelling the long distance as well. We just want to repay their faith and commitment. That is what we always try to do when we go away from home. We have probably got the best away fans in the league. There was 6,000 there on Wednesday [at Anfield] and there is always a following wherever we go. So they are definitely a plus of being a Carlisle player.”
Do nights like Wednesday, against Premier League giants Liverpool, give you extra motivation to move up the football ladder?
“Having experienced that now; playing inside such a big stadium and in front of a full house, I am not going to lie, it makes you want to do it more often. Obviously the ambition for any player is to play as high as you can. So to get that taster, hopefully we can win on Saturday and that will be the first step to getting promotion this season with Carlisle.”
You started your youth career at your hometown club Newcastle United. Would you like to return to your boyhood club one day?
“I think as a boy; I was always a Newcastle fan, that was a dream. But obviously now it is a long way off and I am just concentrating on staying with Carlisle and doing the best that I can. These days; you just want to play in the Premier League. So obviously as a long-term ambition, that would definitely be one of them.”
Favourite film: The Shawshank Redemption
Favourite holiday destination: Marbella
Celebrity crush: Cheryl Cole [Fernandez-Versini]
Pick one manager, past or present, that you would love to work with: Sir Bobby Robson. Just the stories I have heard about him, he was just a really good character. Legend.
Footballing idol: Alan Shearer