Goals dry up in the rain as shot-shy Carlisle Utd are punished by Mansfield
Mansfield Town 2 Carlisle United 0: Mansfield's ground has hosted an uncommon amount of good times for Carlisle United over the years - title parties, relegation escapes, new eras - but this was something from the other menu, an absolute non-event of a defeat that left fans fearing the worst about their promotion chances.
To be blunt, the Blues left the rainy One Call Stadium in relegation form: one point from six games and not a single goal in the process, the latter sequence now a club record.
This volatile season arguably reached its lowest point two days ago. Not necessarily in performance (United have been poorer) but certainly in outlook. A team breaking positive records in the autumn have now become one that looks like it has forgotten entirely how to score, how to progress.
The point of the game has eluded Keith Curle's side since Reggie Lambe's winner at Wycombe on February 18. More than a month, and nearly 10 hours of football, have passed without the net being disturbed by a United player.
It is stark to think that even some of the club's genuinely awful seasons have never had a period like this. The effect has been to suck a lot of the joy out of what had, for several months, looked like it was going to be a campaign to remember.
Instead, the remaining eight games will be a grim struggle to cling onto a top-seven place. The chasing pack outside the play-offs are just two points adrift. "Squeaky-bum time," Curle acknowledged, after a long monologue on his team's failure to observe "simple instructions" in their defeat to Steve Evans' men.
Mansfield themselves had gone four games without scoring, before Matt Green and Shaq Coulthirst sorted that out in a brittle United second-half spell. There was little suggestion of a fightback from there, and when Carlisle did attack the home end as the clock ticked by, they saw a few unfriendly words staring back at them.
Not about them, it should be said; the banners some fans brought to Nottinghamshire were critical of the regime rather than Curle or his professionals. "Bored of the board," one read. Another used a particularly Carlisle term to describe John Nixon, the co-owner, as a "shan".
Curle refused to hide behind this unrest when he picked over the game afterwards. Indeed, he parked himself firmly between the directors and the flak by stressing how supportive they have been of him.
It was decent of Curle to try and deflect heat from his paymasters and invite all the scrutiny upon himself and his squad. Whether fans annoyed by things like the billionaire debacle will take him up on that is questionable. The only banners about Curle right now suggest his popularity still far outstrips that of United's controllers.
But still: United's boss has to sort his share of this out, and determine why a team mostly made up of players from the core of 2016/17's best days, plus a couple brought in to strengthen, looked so tame against a side who have been well behind them for most of the campaign.
Considering the personnel, Carlisle's fluency and chance-creation on Saturday were dismal. It did not help that Tom Miller lasted five minutes before having to go off with a bust nose, and it would be an optimist that expects Junior Joachim, the crowdfunded new signing, to transform these fortunes on his own.
But now would certainly be a good time for the strong characters and voices to reappear, for the most talented players in the admittedly injury-affected ranks to dig deeper, and for Curle to apply some serious skill to this problem-solving time. "Watch me do my job now," were among his last words in his radio interview.
A fanbase will watch with interest - a practice that dwindled on Saturday, especially when a reasonable (at best) first half collapsed in the second. The 561 travellers had barely settled in their seats when Miller's afternoon was up, a collision with Danny Rose requiring lengthy treatment for both men, before the latter was bandaged up and the former went off, Alex McQueen coming on.
From there, it was a physical scrap on an average-looking pitch, Mansfield emerging as the likelier scorers but both sides, in truth, rather shot-shy. Coulthirst turned and engaged Mark Gillespie from 20 yards while Mal Benning's left foot tested the defence with crosses. Rose and Coulthirst, again, ventured into dangerous areas without truly bothering United's keeper.
Going the other way, Carlisle had a few useful periods of progress but seldom with anything to show. A couple of Nicky Adams crosses needed more devil in the attacking, while Shaun Miller sneaked a lob onto the roof of Jake Kean's net.
Otherwise, nada. Stags captain Krystian Pearce was next in the wars, forced off after a collision, yet Evans' team barged their way into a stronger spell of pressure after the half-hour, Rose denied by an offside flag and then by Gillespie's smart save. Proctor, with a rising shot from 25 yards, offered a paltry United reply.
Curle had, by then, altered his system, shifting Gary Liddle from midfield to right-back and asking McQueen to exploit his pace further forward. Lambe tucked into the centre yet there was no place, until the latter stages, for John O'Sullivan, the winger who had looked so bright against Luton.
By the time he did come on, the game was up. The start of the second half was the period Curle felt his team stopped doing those "simple" things, and there were certainly warnings in the way Alex MacDonald was twice able to find space on the right to send the ball into promising places for the hosts.
They got closer when Rose hit the stanchion after pouncing on a Gillespie parry, but then, after Joachim had replaced Proctor, the goal finally came: space for Coulthirst to cross from the left, and Matt Green climbing above Danny Grainger to head home.
Adams was a picture of annoyance as the opener landed in Gillespie's net. A few accusing eyes went to the right of United's team for failing to stop the supply. It was Shaun Brisley that the creator Coulthirst had evaded.
And so another salvage job was under way. While stewards briefly converged around some of the lads with their banners, Joachim made a couple of attempts to surprise Evans' defence, while McQueen rose at the back post to head wide an Adams delivery.
It wasn't nearly enough. Mansfield then came back and found the kill. First Coulthirst evaded Shaun Brisley to tee up sub CJ Hamilton for a deflected attempt, and then the former Spurs man did the job himself, beating Liddle to drill the second past Carlisle's seemingly unsighted keeper after a counter-attack.
Evans, roaring orders from a directors' box seat, looked down at this point to see his No2, Paul Raynor, grip a colleague in a bear-hug, and even from the 76th minute there seemed little doubt of the outcome from here.
Joachim again chanced his arm, as did Luke Joyce and O'Sullivan, but a late flurry of corners produced nothing - while Lambe, frustrated with events at his old haunt, argued his way to a booking.
Brisley, lured into a late foul, also saw yellow, and by the end that was the only colour that featured with any significance on such a grey day. So, with eight games left, it is over to Curle, and all those around him, to bring this badly drifting season back out of the shade.