Exeter City 3 Carlisle Utd 1: Just the 9,385 miles to go, then, in the attempt to prove this was not a sign of things to come, to give supporters reasons to believe Carlisle United can compete and contend in League Two, not struggle and chase.

There was certainly not enough positive evidence on game one, in far away Exeter. St James Park is always a long place to go, even more so when you concede as dismally as Carlisle did here.

After an opening 25 minutes of 2018/19 that left supporters reaching for the reset button, John Sheridan’s team did at least muster a competitive response. More of the second half was played in Grecian territory than the home contingent were probably comfortable with.

It yielded nothing, though. With a fairer bounce, a kinder shade of fortune, United might have sneaked a point out of this baking hot afternoon, but one cannot describe their 3-1 defeat as an injustice. The damage was done in those early stages, when they allowed two goals to pass into Joe Fryer’s net with the most paltry of defensive offerings.

“We do make the game look very difficult at times,” said Sheridan, who was scathing about his team’s grip of the “basics” in that shoddy period. Those words could have come from someone who has grown old and weary at the sight of Carlisle’s faults, rather than a manager who has been in the chair less than two months.

It looked, at times, what it was: a scratch side minus the shepherding presence of Clint Hill, who clearly covered up a few ills last season. Centre-half happens to be Sheridan’s area of focus as he heads towards Thursday’s transfer deadline. Finances as they are, his bid to strengthen may begin and end there.

The kinder readings of this first defeat of term would suggest United have a new team, including a cluster of younger additions, who need time to gel. Exeter’s ground is seldom an away banker, and the home side had a strike pairing that Sheridan must have been tempted to kidnap and bundle on the coach back to Cumbria.

Presuming this was the first act in a relegation battle is too gloomy after episode one of 46, too. Sheridan is hardly the type to settle for defeatism, even though he teetered on the brink of admitting that, in hindsight, he may have selected the wrong team (one whose formation he adapted early, switching from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 in the first half).

Whether, given the chance again, he would include Jamie Devitt and Mike Jones, instead of leaving them on the bench, it’s hard to say. The manager was emphatic in saying there were no sub-plots behind that highly surprising decision, simply that he felt the XI selected would give the Blues the best chance of victory.

It didn’t pan out that way, in too many places did United look short - their midfield was, at times, simply too green in the face of Exeter's cannier operators - and so Brunton Park is where this thin squad heads next in search of the season’s first uplift.

This was also “a new era for the City”, to quote a banner at the home end, Matt Taylor taking Paul Tisdale’s place in the dugout and a new stand well on the way to completion. In the early stages of this game a clearance disappeared down a tunnel in that new construction and a player had to venture inside to bring it back.

Other features of the campaign’s first exchanges included Exeter’s keenness to push Jayden Stockley and Jonathan Forte up against Carlisle’s centre-halves, and either expect them to do damage, or have their midfielders - including the bright Nicky Law - sweep onto the ball behind them.

Forte’s pace off the shoulder troubled Gary Liddle while Stockley’s aerial threat was a familiar sight. Exeter were not especially fluent at this time, with United at least disciplined in their shape, without offering much penetration.

Joe Fryer’s alertness in goal was given a couple of tests, which he passed, yet he could do little about the moment Exeter got in front, when Law evaded Liddle, and then strode onto Forte’s cross to send a crisp volley into the net.

United’s first attempt of term in response, struck by George Glendon on 19 minutes, was not as decisive, though it brought a fumble out of Christy Pym. Glendon’s ball-playing was Carlisle’s most regular route forward until they located Richie Bennett with a little more purpose and direction.

When the latter was fouled in the air by Jake Taylor, the Blues very nearly equalised. Danny Grainger’s free-kick crashed down from the crossbar and just the right side of the line for Exeter to survive.

It was all the reprieve they needed, as they sliced through Carlisle’s brittle right again. Persistent pressure, which United failed to release, saw a dangerous cross survived and a Stockley shot blocked, before Law sent Lee Holmes free in the box and Forte sent his cross into the attic of the net.

It was not the defending of a good side, with Gary Miller having a bad start on debut at right-back, and there followed a period when Carlisle’s “basics” deserted them further; passes floating out of play, attempted control flying from shins. Sheridan tinkered by sending Regan Slater from the centre to the right of midfield, putting Jerry Yates alongside Bennett, but it was still tempting to ask ref Graham Salisbury to call half-time with 10 minutes to go.

A good thing that he didn’t, for United then snaffled a goal out of proceedings. It came after recurring efforts to find Bennett in the box, the last of which saw Grainger cross from the left and the striker send a good header in off the bar.

It was not exactly the result of a polished attacking pattern, though the Blues did sometimes push Exeter back through the sheer energy of Yates and Hallam Hope. They nearly conceded a third before the break, when Fryer saved admirably at Forte’s feet when the striker was through, but the second half saw Carlisle spend more time in the home side’s half than not.

It required a moment of ingenuity, or a clear break, that wouldn’t arrive. United’s shape seemed better but the reliable game-changer they needed to take advantage was absent. Hope, cutting in from the left, played on the front foot, at one point bizarrely denied a corner when his shot was deflected wide.

Half-chances also came for Yates, who was not able to run at his opponents enough, while Bennett’s line-leading was a reasonable platform at times, lacking punch and poise at others. Devitt and Jones were finally summoned, later too Adam Campbell, but Exeter could have killed things before they did, Stockley sweeping over a golden chance and the impressive Fryer saving from sub Tristan Abrahams and Stockley at his near post.

It took until the final seconds before Carlisle were put away for good. Suggestions Law might have handled the ball as he beat Grainger and Devitt to the bounce near the United box were left trailing as the midfielder countered into space, Stockley then feeding Abrahams to rifle high into the net.

Those predicting exactly this sort of result got what they expected in the end. Those fearing a slog over the coming months were not knocked out of their certainty across the opening hour-and-a-half.

The task facing Sheridan looks as challenging as it ever did and the good news, if that is the right phrase, is that this came right at the beginning of the journey, rather than the critical later stages, by which point things will need to be much better, much more rounded, than this.

Exeter City: Pym, Sweeney, A Martin, Brown, Moxey, Law, Holmes (L Martin 64), Boateng (Tillson 85), Taylor, Stockley, Forte (Abrahams 64). Not used: Hamon, Woodman, Jay, Oates.

Goals: Law 16, Forte 25, Abrahams 90

Booked: Forte, Martin

United: Fryer, Miller, Grainger, Parkes, Liddle, Glendon (Jones 73), Slater (Devitt 62), Etuhu, Hope, Yates (Campbell 80), Bennett. Not used: Collin, Gillesphey, Adewusi, Egan.

Goal: Bennett 37

Ref: Graham Salisbury

Crowd: 4,266 (235 Carlisle fans)