The last time Brunton Park saw a league crowd lower than Tuesday's, the new Northampton manager was trying to keep the Blues in the Football League and Charlie Wyke was two seasons away from being the kind of striker whose sudden departure could kill a promotion push.

Carlisle had not yet come all the way through fallow times when Wyke scored the winner for Keith Curle's team against Cheltenham on March 3, 2015. Only 3,116 were in the ground that night and if circumstances are different now, the comparison still highlights the challenges faced.

There was no iFollow three-and-a-half years ago. There was, though, a sense of long-developed deflation keeping fans away, something it took Curle time to partly lift. The latest attempts to do that are becoming partly visible at Brunton Park today but it is a balancing act that will require a certain core strength and a great deal more elaboration.

In some departments we are seeing what might be described as the slow EWM-ification of the Blues. It may not be as a result of direct instruction from Edinburgh Woollen Mill but the club's main backers are watching matters closely, and in terms of lighting matches under posteriors that is already taking effect.

The resulting activity has seen small steps first. United are being more up front in the promotion of various commercial opportunities and initiatives such as happy hours. More kids are on the pitch at half-time and, when thinking of Liam McCarron, it is a while since a Carlisle youth player's graduation to professional status was presented with the same co-ordinated fanfare.

If these are signs of the Blues taking more care with aspects of presentation, then they cannot be regarded as anything other than positive. In some respects they also make one wonder about the way some things were - or weren't - being done before.

There may be a hundred more areas crying for attention but, as anyone who remembers Stephane Pounewatchy returning from a corner in the 1990s, slow progress is still progress.

"Little things can make a big thing," said David Holdsworth, the new director of football, who appears responsible for laying down of some of these new demands. When speaking to BBC Radio Cumbria this week Holdsworth added that communication between club and supporters/community had been "a little bit barren" in recent years. Carlisle's change might require many instalments but they would not succeed by "being quiet," he also said.

United sharpening their act in some off-field areas can only be welcome. Observing the often-mentioned "accountability" being installed will be interesting from here. It must, though, be not just a long game but one with a bigger and brighter conclusion, as Tuesday's gate (3,316) warned.

A smallish midweek crowd on a chilly evening is nothing new. Even in top-10 seasons there have been times when United didn't hit 4k. The bite taken by live-streaming out of potential attendances cannot yet be measured (viewing statistics, absurdly, have still not been released) but as a new factor it must certainly be considered.

Still - the other night was not a buzzing endorsement either, and while shifting perceptions at United may be a case of not running until the walking part has been mastered, convincing people about the whole show calls to mind another phrase: something that might get worse before it gets better.

As highlighted in this column a few weeks ago, it is rare for United's opening league crowd to hold by the time the end-of-season average is calculated. Budgeting for something around last season's middle line of 4,609 already appears ambitious.

Nobody can yet predict with confidence where this campaign will go but three consecutive home defeats without scoring cannot be part of any strategy - particularly when results and displays at Brunton Park were highlighted by some, notably CUOSC's representatives, in the argument for moving on from the Curle era.

Early days still. But you would not describe Carlisle's headquarters as a place teeming with life and atmosphere on matchdays and here is an area both ripe for improvement and which, given the lower-spending, small-squad policy of this season, might take the longest to turn.

There are, no doubt, many waiting for decisive and much-needed regime change before committing afresh. Others will have a different menu of concerns. For some it boils down simply to the football being better. This, overall, is where new expertise and new troubleshooting would surely be most beneficial yet direct opinions from the most significant source are elusive.

What do EWM think of the lack of atmosphere at Brunton Park, let alone the shortage of goals? What would, or will, they do, now and next?

As ever, it remains a matter for guesswork and speculation bearing in mind the supporters' group minutes last week which said, regarding the recent fans' forum, that EWM's United director John Jackson "did not attend as it was felt others could answer the questions he would answer".

That is, whichever way you frame it, a cop-out - a frankly ludicrous notion, in fact, that the company sustaining and supervising United would serve no useful purpose by speaking for themselves. It is, again, something that will keep people wondering rather than feeling they have maximum understanding of the state of play.

The sense remains that Carlisle are only passing early staging posts on a journey many, both inside and outside the stadium's walls, hope will lead to takeover - to Philip Day, EWM's billionaire boss, deciding that putting serious fuel in the Blues' tank is something he can not just live with but be excited by.

If that is a realistic prospect - and if there is no other substantial opportunity in town - then there is, admittedly, sense in going about it carefully, considering Day is not, at heart, a football nut. We will not, clearly, see the man sat at a table in front of the East Stand any time soon, in the style of John Courtenay and Roddy Collins, chatting and singing in that hour of post-Knighton release.

Yet that jaunty moment, and the initially big crowd it brought, did not lead to success or particular sustainability. This long game, which seems to involve EWM seeing first how United respond and behave to quieter promptings, and of course the trimmed budget, is what we have today and winning it - getting people to associate what happens with a new era, rather than the old one - is the critical task.

It is one that, as Tuesday's limited gathering and spectacle showed, has many miles of patient distance to go.


There is no great reason to hold Liam McCarron back if the 17-year-old winger looks like he might, even at such a young age, offer some bright new answers to Carlisle's attacking questions.

It is still sensible, though, to apply the brakes at certain points, even when the competing temptation is strong.

Knowing when to press and release that pedal has been a challenge faced by a number of Blues managers down the years.

In the 1990s, Mick Wadsworth was confronted with the supreme self-confidence of a teenage Paul Murray, who announced on the director of coaching's first day that he would soon be in his side.

It was not long before the prediction came true, Murray given a debut as an emergency left-back against Northampton. Yet it was two more seasons before the Cumbrian flourished regularly in the first team.

Wadsworth had a fine team keeping Murray's claims at bay until then - as, in 1996/7, did Mervyn Day, when a certain clamour built for the promotion of Matt Jansen after a handful of engaging cameo performances.

Day used Jansen sparingly until, the following season, his case became irresistible. Like Murray, he was then brilliant for half a campaign and then swiftly sold to a higher place.

With Kyle Dempsey, more recently, there was not such a high-flying squad to restrict his chances. He broke in quickly, putting his flag down in the teams of Graham Kavanagh and Keith Curle and justifiably so.

If this Carlisle remain as limited as they have been in front of goal, then it is John Sheridan who will face the age-old dilemma - that between protecting McCarron from the demands and pressures of constant League Two selection, and sensing that, all things considered, the kid is still better unleashed than not.

It is a precarious choice; one, you sense, where Sheridan's own experience must guide him well.