Carlisle United 1 Exeter City 1: If Carlisle are looking for reasons to think they edged this contest they might reflect that Jamie Devitt only needed one attempt to send his free-kick home, while Exeter’s Nicky Law required two.

In all honesty it is a stretch to suggest there was much else between the sides. The visitors, early on, looked equipped to make this a stark day for the Blues but by the end the heavier traffic was heading the other way.

This is how it is going to be from here until May. Now that the difficulty level has gone up in Carlisle’s immediate opposition, do not expect anything other than the stressful and the to-and-fro, with points traded and the guessing constant.

Where United scored highest from this rare draw (only their fourth of term) was in how they responded to that tough opening spell. Considering there were a number of new players bedding in, Steven Pressley was entitled to be happy with the “intensity” of their fightback, which resulted in Devitt’s latest free-kick.

Imagining United would be slick and smooth from day one with this rejigged side was a push. A more realistic expectation was for the likes of Callum O’Hare, Nathan Thomas and Stefan Scougall to show at least some promise that, as time goes on, could be worked into a potent blend.

Of the three, O’Hare raised his hand the highest. The Aston Villa loanee comes with a precocious reputation and showed some deft touches and positive movement here. He earned the set-piece that Devitt curled home and was involved in some of United’s best one-touch moves.

Thomas flickered with the odd cameo of quality, changing direction smartly to test Exeter, but one hopes and senses there is more to come. Scougall made a useful second-half contribution in advanced midfield while Mark Cullen’s sub outing suggested United do have a proper number nine at last, albeit one in need of more minutes, and as much patience as they can reasonably offer.

Fitting these shapes into the jigsaw is Pressley’s obvious challenge, particularly in a way that releases Devitt’s best qualities. There were times on Saturday when his ‘false nine’ role was an ill fit, yet United’s promotion hopes will remain realistic as long as the Irishman is involved.

In Devitt and Law, two of League Two’s most inventive players were on show. On a blustery day it was the Exeter man and his colleagues who made the more settled start. O’Hare tucked into the left side of United’s midfield three, Thomas taking Liam McCarron’s place on the attacking right, but the visitors seemed more in tune with their talents, their XI reflecting less immediate change than Carlisle’s.

Initially they looked to get Jonathan Forte behind Carlisle’s centre-halves with high balls. It looked a useful route when, on three minutes, the striker buzzed free, but his hard shot went wide.

In their luminous yellow shirts, Matt Taylor’s players were easy to spot, yet tricky to restrain. Other good chances came when Archie Collins dinked into the box, Adam Collin denying Forte from a close-range position the travelling fans sounded certain would result in a goal.

Carlisle were still trying to connect their own ideas when Exeter scored. Forte, again, got the wrong side of Tom Parkes and was wrestled down. Law’s free-kick hit the wall but he arrowed the rebound superbly home.

It was a fair reward, and challenged United to show greater authority. They took issue with some of Matthew Donohue’s refereeing but further problems came through Exeter: Collin saving a Lee Martin drive and Law narrowly failing to put Forte in.

Carlisle improved when their attacking players got closer to each other and linked at better speed. A better wavelength was in sight when Devitt and Hallam Hope fed Thomas, who shot over from the D, while O’Hare was amongst this too, supplying Devitt for another sighter.

There was one occasion when Exeter’s pressing, and United’s uncertainty, saw a Blues attack end up all the way back with Collin. Better emphasis, though, came when Parkes stepped out and let fly from 35 yards, Christy Pym parrying it to Thomas, who jinked around his man and bent it just wide.

The half ended with Regan Slater dummying an O’Hare pass for Devitt to test Pym, and whilst Carlisle were not potent in these moments, at least the direction of travel had altered. After the break it was frustrating to see some decent-looking wide deliveries headed clear by Exeter’s centre-halves, United absent of aerial threat, but pressure nonetheless allowed the likes of Scougall and O’Hare to get on the ball.

Exeter, at times, were excellent in tight spaces, Randell Williams showing positive pace from the right and Jake Taylor capable of putting out the odd fire in midfield, but United now had a better leash on Forte and the visitors’ flow of chances was more of a trickle.

Carlisle ventured again through O’Hare, who slipped in Thomas for a shot Pym helped wide, and there was another snappy combination between Devitt and the Villa man which was a fraction away from supplying Scougall.

Pressley sent Cullen on for the last 20, a degree of central attacking focus coming with him, as Taylor tried the same with Ryan Bowman against his former club. It was United, though, who made the vital inroads, Hope cracking the bar from 25 yards and then, four minutes on, O’Hare fouled (Exeter disagreed) and Devitt showing his familiar dead-ball class.

The PFA player of the month award looked in good hands when he sent that shot out of Pym’s reach, and the only pity was that United couldn’t then rumble on to victory.

They flirted with the idea when Devitt almost floated a cross onto Cullen’s head, but in truth much of the remainder was free of serious chances, two sides coming up fairly against one another in the end, both with work to do to keep on their recent track, but enough grounds to think they still can.

United: Collin, Miller, Grainger, Parkes, Gerrard, Etuhu, Slater (Scougall 46), O’Hare, Devitt, Thomas (Cullen 70), Hope. Not used: Gray, Liddle, Jones, Grant, McCarron.

Goal: Devitt 78

Booked: Parkes, Devitt

Exeter: Pym, Sweeney, Woodman, O’Shea, Wilson, Collins, Taylor, Williams (A Martin 79), Law, L Martin, Forte (Bowman 72). Not used: Hamon, Jay, Wilson, Brown, Dean.

Goal: Law 19

Ref: Matthew Donohue

Crowd: 4,851 (176 Exeter fans)