Morgan Feeney knows a thing or two about bouncing back, perhaps that’s why he’s become such a key figure in the remarkable turnaround at Carlisle United under Paul Simpson.
In mid-February, a 3-0 defeat to Swindon Town left Carlisle winless in eight games, just a place off the bottom of the table and seemingly heading for the drop, but two months on, the 1-0 victory against Mansfield Town on Easter Monday confirmed their survival – a timely story of EFL resurrection, it could be said.
Feeney has been ever-present during their rise, starting every game as they’ve taken 22 points from 12 games under Simpson, and is emblematic of the self-belief and determination that has helped the Cumbrians climb back up the League Two table.
The defender has learned those two traits through experience. Whether it was “bad days” training with the Everton first team as a teenager, his release from his boyhood club, becoming clubless during the Covid pandemic after a short spell at Sunderland, or the injury issues that have plagued him throughout and forced him to wait seven months to make his Carlisle debut – there is no denying the 23-year-old has faced setbacks on his way to where he is now.
“Any footballer will tell you they just want to play football and coming here that was my plan,” explains Feeney when asked about how he arrived at Brunton Park.
“I got injured early doors coming here but finally this season I’ve been able to play a lot of football and hopefully I’ll play as much as I can. It will be a successful season for me personally to play as many games as I have.”
With 39 appearances under his belt so far, the 2021/22 campaign has been by far and away the most productive of the defender’s career to date and the quality has been there alongside the quantity.
Feeney by his own admission “loves the dirty side of defending – the blocks, tackles, headers, things like that”.
He can impact the game in possession as well, as his driving run that led to the stoppage-time equaliser against Tranmere Rovers illustrated, but he is under no false illusions about what his main job is.
“There is an emphasis on being able to handle the ball as a modern-day defender,” he says. “Which I also like to do. Going forward there are a lot of things that you want to improve in your own individual game but as a defender, first and foremost my job is to defend and stop the ball going in. Those are the challenges I like to take on.”
His strong defensive displays in recent months earned him the FLW Fans’ League Two Player of the Month award for March but have, more importantly, been vital in helping Carlisle secure their EFL future.
Staying injury-free has centre-back while the impact of Simpson, who Feeney knew from his time with the England U19s and U20s, in February cannot be overlooked either.
“He’s been brilliant with me,” he explains. “I’ve worked with him in the past so I knew exactly what he was like coming in but he’s been brilliant with me.
“I mean you can talk tactics and all that but I think it’s just the fight he’s put in us. He’s really encouraged us and taken the pressure off us to let us go out there and play and enjoy winning. That’s what he’s done really, he’s come in and allowed us to go out there and express ourselves.
“I think having that freedom has allowed us to not only win games but it’s brought us closer together, which you can see in the performances. Winning games does not lie and it’s the freedom he’s given us to win games and fight for the points.
“You can see by the performances on the pitch, the sort of togetherness we’ve got. The way we’re celebrating together, the way we’re celebrating goals, and just the fight that we’ve got right to the very end in games.
“We’ve really come together as a group, it’s a good feeling.”
Feeney believes that togetherness is also a product of the fact that while it is no less important to the local community, Carlisle is a smaller outfit than his previous clubs.
He expands: “In terms of people in the building there are obviously going to be hundreds more staff at your Evertons or Sunderlands but it is a bit more tightknit and I think that means a closer group.
“That’s not a negative thing, it’s a positive thing if anything. Everyone in this building is really close and tight-knit, which is a positive thing all in all.”
It’s not just in the dressing room that the centre-back is a popular figure, a glance on social media shows clear evidence that the 23-year-old is establishing himself as firm favourite among the Brunton Park faithful – and the feeling, it seems, is mutual.
“You’ve got to try and earn their respect by playing games,” says Feeney. “But the fans have been brilliant with me from day one.
“Even when I was injured and couldn’t play, they were very supportive and I can’t thank them enough for how they’ve been with me and the reception they’ve given me. It obviously helps when you’re playing as well.
“It’s a new league for me but in terms of community, the club is very similar to Everton and Sunderland. Just like at those two clubs, in Carlisle, they live and breathe the football club.
“All three clubs I’ve been at have had big local fanbases and that makes it quite easy to settle in.”
Though he will have hoped that things would ultimately play out differently, what’s clear in speaking with Feeney is that he looks back on his time at both Everton and Sunderland with a huge amount of fondness.
Born in Bootle, the defender was part of the Toffees academy from a young age and came off the bench to make his debut as an 18-year-old in a Europa League tie against Atalanta at Goodison Park.
A fortnight later, he was handed his first start away against Apollon Limassol in the same competition and though that would prove his last senior appearance for the club, he is proud of what he achieved there.
He says: “Being a big Everton fan and coming through the system at a very young age, making my debut at Goodison even though the result didn’t go our way and then playing in the next away fixture in the Europa League was obviously a dream come true for me. Playing for the club that I love and support.
“Leaving Everton, I couldn’t be prouder of those two games and everything else that I achieved in my time there but I’ve got to focus on the future now and think about the next game that’s coming. That’s all you can do – play well and win and see where that takes you.”
His experiences in the Everton youth system have shaped Feeney as a player – not least the testing duels with two of the finest strikers of the modern Premier League era in training.
“World class players like Wayne Rooney and Romelu Lukaku,” says the centre-back. “At a young age having to come up against players like that, you learn so much just from training.
“Even on your bad days in training, you come away from it and have learned so much. You have to learn quickly to hold your own when you’re training. Those sort of lessons that I learnt at a young age I still carry with me to this day.
“Playing against players like that, it sort of moulds you to the player you are today. I couldn’t be more grateful for those opportunities.”
Feeney was released by Everton in July 2020 and signed a short-term deal with Sunderland a month later, having impressed then-manager Phil Parkinson while training with the North East club as a free agent.
Unfortunately, due to a number of factors – including injuries, Parkinson’s sacking, and the pandemic – the Black Cats opted not to extend his contract and the defender found himself clubless once again in January.
“I loved it, my short spell there,” he says of his time at the Stadium of Light. “The club as a whole, the fanbase, everything. The city just lives and breathes Sunderland and it was a shame because not only did I get injured but it was the covid period so the fans weren’t allowed in and things like that but the staff and the lads there were brilliant.
“It’s a shame I couldn’t stay longer but the silver lining was that I was able to come to Carlisle and I’m really enjoying it here as well. I feel like I’ve been blessed with all the clubs that I’ve been at in my short career so far.”
With survival confirmed, the focus will soon shift to what the future holds for the Blues and the part that Feeney could play in it.
The defender is clearly one of Simpson’s trusted lieutenants, having been given the captain’s armband on occasion, but the future of both men is somewhat unclear at this point.
The Carlisle boss is set for crucial talks over his future while Feeney’s contract is up in the summer and though the club do have the option of a 12-month extension, it is yet to be triggered.
When FLW spoke to the 23-year-old earlier this month, he had not held talks with the club over his future.
“No nothing. At the minute, I’m just focussing on my football and playing as many games as possible and winning as many games as possible – that’s the only goal.”
It would seem crazy for the Cumbrian club not to either trigger the extension or agree terms on a new deal and it appears that’s something that he’d be open to.
“Of course (I can see himself spending more time at Carlisle),” says Feeney. “I’ve loved my time here and I’m enjoying playing football. But all I’m focussed on at the moment is playing the remaining games and we’ll see what happens after that.
“They’re the sort of conversations that need to be had obviously but at the minute, I’m just focussing on the remaining games.”
There can be no arguing with Feeney’s approach either. His road to a regular starting spot at senior level has included plenty of obstacles and having endured the difficult moments, he’s happy to just make the most of playing regular football.