Graham Kavanagh: 'I needed men who could play but also scrap and fight for Carlisle United'

Graham Kavanagh’s Carlisle squad has been rebuilt with toughness and trust in mind, he tells Stuart Rayner

Chris Brunskill/Getty Images Carlisle United manager Graham Kavanagh
Carlisle United manager Graham Kavanagh

It is the kind of footballing manifesto you expect of a man who made his name as a cultured midfielder.

“I want to pass the ball and be pleasing on the eye,” Graham Kavanagh says of Carlisle United. “I want us to be creative, to express ourselves and have a freedom.”

So far, so pure. The formations Carlisle will play this season – 3-5-2 and a midfield diamond – are designed to dominate possession. But scarred by relegation in his debut season in management, Kavanagh has rebuilt with a much harder edge.

His new-look squad – with 13 players gone and nine (rising, he hopes, to 11) in – is physically much more imposing and he expects it to be tougher, more argumentative and easier to manage.

“You’ve got to be able to stand and fight your corner,” he explains ahead of Saturday’s League Two opener at home to Luton Town. “You’ve got to be aggressive, you’ve got to come for crosses, you’ve got to catch, you’ve got to head, make tackles and blocks. But likewise, you need that composure at the other end.”

That is reflected in his signings.

“I needed to get men who could play, but could also scrap,” he says.

“The number of times I spoke to opposing managers after games last season, and they said, ‘you play lovely football’, but we hadn’t got the result.

“A lot of the players were academy players (on loan from bigger clubs) learning as much about themselves as about the experience of a League One relegation battle. You do need to be a little more aggressive, a little more direct. You need to take pressure off your back four by not playing in your half so much.”

Last season, Carlisle used 48 players, 20 on loan. Many were very talented – Tom Lawrence played in the Premier League for Manchester United last term – but there were too many weak characters.

“You could see the emotion in the players, it was weighing heavily on them,” Kavanagh recalls. “The physical pressure they were putting on themselves was really weighing some of them down and they literally couldn’t perform. Last season, I was probably managing three or four players way too much in terms of motivation, time-keeping, performance. I thought those four would be key players for us, but in the end it didn’t work.

“So this season, I knew I wanted to get men in who were self-motivated and who we could trust. I’ve seen lads dig each other out and take it like a man. It’s for the benefit of the group.

“You get that team spirit and togetherness where the players take responsibility for each other. Likewise, if there’s a bit of argie-bargie they’ll back each other up. Last season, we didn’t have enough leaders. The majority we’ve signed are 26, 27, 28, 29, and they’ve been round the block. I don’t think we’ll be intimidated this season.”

Not that Kavanagh is absolving himself of blame. “I had a real long think about where we didn’t do so well last season,” he reveals.

“I don’t think I managed myself very well. I wanted to do everything, know everything. I had a discussion with the staff and said, ‘Look, there’s certain things I don’t need to know. Manage those things’. It gives the opportunity then to focus on the areas I want to work in.

“I was in the golf club with a few of my friends and one of them said, ‘I hope you’re not going to be a pain in the arse like you were last season. You were there, but you weren’t there.’ In my own mind I thought I was managing it well.

“But if they noticed it and my wife and kids noticed it, the players must have noticed it.

“I’ve probably got to put a mask on or deal with the pressure better.

“I went away in the summer, but I was chasing agents, chasing players to make sure we weren’t missing out on targets just because we hadn’t put enough work in.

“I wanted to meet them all face to face so they could see my passion, my determination and my drive.

“I went to America for two weeks and I was getting deals done at Disney.

“That was when Billy Paynter signed and my missus said you could see a complete change. I was a lot more at ease.

“I completed my Pro Licence and that was a weight off my mind. I had eight days at St George’s, qualified on the Saturday, and we were back in for pre-season on the Monday.”

The word Kavanagh keeps coming back to is trust.

“I trust that they understand the game, they understand the system, they understand what’s required and I can trust them to give their all,” he says.

“More times than not that will be enough to get the job done. Will we always play well? Probably not.

“We are going to have to win ugly at times. That’s the nature of League Two football.

“We’ve got to look to be in the top seven and anything else will be a bonus. In terms of budget, we probably should-n’t be in the play-offs but we’ve recruited very well and got value for money. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do.”

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