Not all swift starts can be sustained. The first League Two manager-of-the-month in the 2016/17 season was Morecambe’s Jim Bentley, whose club, riven by takeover strife, quickly faded and finished 18th.

Some, though, can. So let us assume that what we have seen from Carlisle United in August has greater staying power than many feared, that the positive work done so far by John Sheridan can keep the Blues in the race.

How would United – this cost-careful United– handle an against-the-odds promotion chance? In January, for instance, what would be the approach upstairs? Would austerity persist, or would a challenge be backed? Would sober business sense remain the order of the day or would a gambler’s sense of timing kick in?

Five games in is perhaps early to be considering this outcome; for United’s impressive trio of consecutive wins, one senses the challenge increases today at Mansfield. The Stags have spent the last two summers trying to equip themselves as big-hitters in the fourth tier and while their start has not been scintillating, they remain unbeaten in the league.

If Sheridan’s team emerge from this one, and Cambridge next weekend, with another four or six points, say, we may have to focus minds a little tighter around the possibility of the Blues becoming the real deal. It will then come down to strategy.

Carlisle’s change of financial approach this season has been long advertised, and nothing in early attendances, combined with a reduced salary cost management protocol spending limit of 50 per cent, suggests United will be armed with heavy funds to back Sheridan in the next window.

Unless a “football fortune” windfall comes down the line from cup involvement, it would then come down to the judgement of those individuals (or, in Edinburgh Woollen Mill’s case, firms) with the money to make a difference.

Would someone, having preached prudence, push the envelope at the sight of success? Would they see a calculated gamble as in fact the safer bet, instead of sticking with the current small-squad, lower-cost method and risking the collapse of an opportunity?

United are stretched already, the broken leg suffered by Joe Fryer a particular regret, with other muscle injuries to Mike Jones and Danny Grainger the occupational hazards of any season. While Luke O'Reilly filled the goalkeeping void yesterday and midfielder Jack Sowerby also joined on half-season terms, it is still plain they cannot suffer much more in this respect and hope to have enough.

Were this to unfold as a season of consolidation, with realistic prizes out of reach, the path forward might be more predictable, understandable even. Sheridan, though, does not want to preside over mid-table football and if he continues as well as he has started, he will be entitled to ask for as much help as possible to make the most of United's position.

Spending money they do not have could scarcely be further from the agenda. Director of football David Holdsworth recently outlined the priority to make the club less "vulnerable" in the long run. Yet a little speculation can still benefit, and not being able to do so can also have long-term ramifications.

When United fell from the summit in the 2016/17 season, comparisons were made with the infamous promotion collapse of 1989/90. Yet the latter campaign may serve as a more accurate warning to this one. Carlisle, that term, began formidably from a modest outlook, yet injuries to a small squad, and a couple of untimely departures, denied them even a play-off place in a ruinous run-in.

"Injuries cost me promotion at Carlisle," the manager, Clive Middlemass said. "We had two broken legs and a broken arm at the same time, and I couldn’t replace those players. I got the team I wanted and we were top of the league. Then Ian Dalziel was injured and Johnny Halpin broke his leg."

United were overstretched, also unable to adequately replace the Kilmarnock-bound goalkeeper Dave McKellar, and dropped points in an exhausting period of games in the south, with the club unable to afford overnight stays. "The lads were shattered," Middlemass said.

A core of good players, and some able management, had produced an unlikely chance, only for misfortune and hardship to sabotage it. It took four more years for Carlisle to look anything like a play-off side, by which time they were under new ownership and would also have been a non-league club were it not for the financial collapse of Aldershot.

Imagine had they been in a position to swell Middlemass's squad to protect against what happened. Imagine they had a billionaire at their back.

Philip Day's exact thoughts on the Blues remain to be guessed at, since he is scarcely on the record. His EWM are, though, playing a key hand in guiding United down what is regarded as a more responsible direction, judging by the tone of this summer's work and the principles set out by Holdsworth.

There is also something oddly reassuring about seeing Carlisle fourth, and bigger spenders, such as Notts County, trailing. While the Magpies will surely improve, at this fledgling stage the situation supports those who argue that unity, and organisation, and quality management, can make a significant difference beyond budget imbalance in League Two.

Another essential trait, though, is knowing what a golden possibility looks like when it comes along, even if it is unexpected. Especially if it is unexpected.

You can never be sure, after all, when the next one will arrive. It would be unwise to expect United to throw the house at things this season, whatever shape it takes. But one hopes they'd be in a position at least to add a few more bricks.


NO player should have to own up to his shortcomings every week. If that is the case, they are probably appearing a few times too many.

At the same time, give me an honest pro all day rather than one who takes criticism as the deepest personal slight.

In the first month of the season, we have seen a couple of interviews from the former category given by members of John Sheridan's squad.

After the opening-day defeat at Exeter, Richie Bennett was more interested in owning up to the areas of his game in need of work than basking in a goal. Last week, he commented again on the flaws in his hold-up play.

This followed some scathing self-assessment from Anthony Gerrard after his debut against Blackburn. The defender said he was "miles off it", and "well below" his standard, his displays improving markedly since then.

As long as these are the attitudes we are hearing, as opposed to those who put ego ahead of candour, then these players will deserve more support than stick.