Carlisle Utd have made progress under Keith Curle - however it ends today
It must be a particularly hollow memory, as they face the drop into non-league today, that just five-and-a-half years ago being 13th in League One wasn't enough protection for a Hartlepool United manager.
When Mick Wadsworth received the old tin tack in December 2011 the north-east club wanted a "fresh direction". They certainly got that, as today's status - 91st out of 92, one game away from non-league - suggests.
Wadsworth paid the price for a rotten home record even as Pools' away form had them comfortably mid-table. His demise might seem ancient news now, given they have gone through seven permanent managers since then.
Yet while there may have been other factors behind their fall, nobody could argue that hiring and firing at such a rate has been a strategy for success. That the biggest game in their recent history is this afternoon being presided over by a 30-year-old defender (Matthew Bates) and a caretaker team that includes former Carlisle striker Billy Paynter suggests the word stability has been washed away somewhere off the North Sea coast.
Keith Curle, then, could not have picked a better example when he made his be-careful-what-you-wish for speech last weekend. Annoyed to be asked if a dip to 10th was grounds for resignation, Carlisle's boss said that, at some point, you have to put enough faith in a person and a regime to give a club a chance to grow.
It was, naturally, said in self-protection; no turkey will put its cross in the box marked Christmas, and few working managers call for the revolving door to be given another spin, even when bad decisions simply have to be corrected.
On balance, though, his point was fair, and Carlisle's general progress under the 53-year-old meant Curle could legitimately make it.
Whatever happens today, United have advanced on his watch. Entry into the play-offs would make this clear, and while failure would hurt - and raise a few sharp questions - even an afternoon of last-day heartbreak would not disguise the fact the Blues have inched forward again.
This argument, if made during the wretched run of seven games without scoring or winning in February and March, would have been scoffed at. Carlisle have won two of their last 13 and if Exeter cannot be overcome today, many will remember 2016/17 as a campaign when the best chance of promotion for years was squandered.
Yet are we to judge a season on its worst parts, or as a whole? If the latter, then it cannot be disputed that Carlisle have gone further into the race than they did last year, and certainly the year before. Even if, by 7.15pm, we are picking over disappointment, that conclusion ought to preserve Curle.
United could even finish 11th today, one place lower than 12 months ago, and the argument for progress could still be made. The league table never lies, it is said, but sometimes it skims over the plot. Last season's Premier League runners-up were Arsenal, but it was Tottenham who were the most credible rivals to Leicester.
Only Spurs' collapse in a final-day dead-rubber, at Newcastle, enabled the Gunners to snatch a hollow second place. Yet everyone knew who the real contenders had been when the race was still being run.
In other words, wherever United end today, the fact they have taken their challenge to the final afternoon, as opposed to falling short with three games to go in 2015/16, suggests improvement. That would not necessarily be enough for some, but casting aside a manager when this is the general path would be harsh indeed.
There is, of course, no indication that Carlisle are remotely considering Curle's status. They are currently sixth, after all, and recent history says the Blues are not a sacking club until the edge of the cliff is right under their feet. Curle may not be as secure as today's long-serving opponent Paul Tisdale, but he may at least be in that ball park.
Timing, with managerial judgement, is everything; being able to spot decline a fine art. Ignoring some fairly conclusive evidence is another matter and it is here that United's hierarchy have drawn some criticism. Instead of reading into Carlisle's fall from 8th to 17th under Greg Abbott from 2012-13, they committed themselves to a new contract, only to fire the boss when the slide continued a month into the following campaign.
Graham Kavanagh, after overseeing relegation, was similarly backed the next summer, and then sacked in the first week of September as things unravelled further. In other words, the Blues do not blink until things are unutterably dreadful. A pro-active dismissal, such as Hartlepool may have felt they had executed with Wadsworth, is not how these owners operate.
That stance can be a curse, but on balance it is a blessing right now. Curle may have failed to see through the confident march into League One that was in Carlisle's sights at Christmas, but over 45 games he has made them competitive. There may be someone out there who could have delivered the promised land, who could have prevented the post-December slump, but Hartlepool's fate shows the fine line between ruthless ambition and dangerous instability here.
A win at Exeter, followed by play-off success, would flush many of the questions away. Carlisle would return to the third tier in dramatic style and Curle would join the pantheon of promotion-winning bosses. If it doesn't happen, there will certainly need to be an examination of why things dropped so steeply, why United could not even sustain mediocrity in March but instead plummeted.
On this front, Curle has voiced his wish to interrogate Carlisle's injury record. Others will query the short-term signings policy that has made little imprint on the side this spring. United have hardly taken convincing advantage of their golden Christmas position - but the work that put them there in the first place was excellent. It should be factored into any judgement.
The "pillars and foundations" Curle often mentions have looked a bit crumbly in the recent past. But when talent like Nicky Adams is so patently happy at the club, when a captain and ambassador like Danny Grainger wants to end his playing days here, when other recruits like Jamie Devitt are showing they might just, like others before him, be worth the patience of a second season, it is hard to argue that the Blues are on the brink of a sustained fall.
All regimes grow stale eventually. But the facts say that is not yet the position with Curle. However it unfolds today - a leap towards League One or a summer of regret - he deserves the chance to build again.