Colchester United 1 Carlisle United 1: The theory is that Carlisle are working their way back towards being a matchwinning side in instalments. The question, with a dozen games left, is how much longer it is going to take.

In isolation, a 1-1 draw at Colchester is a fair result. It was a decent United display in stages, even in an outcome which puts them outside the play-off places.

What we are having to do, though, is keep faith that all the parts are going to knit better together in the end. A four-game winless run can be stomached in the context of major January changes provided there are victories on the horizon.

The fear otherwise will be that this state of adjustment will keep United’s noses pressed against the window, rather than being in the room where promotion is concerned.

Much depends on, for example, the longest first-team outing of Mark Cullen’s loan spell developing into more, the tireless work of Stefan Scougall finding more of the right areas, and Steven Pressley working the others into a fulfilling blend.

That will be the difference between a team that competes and one that challenges. Against John McGreal’s team they often defended with resolve and there are few occasions in the run-in when one can picture a back four of Gary Liddle, Danny Grainger, Tom Parkes and Anthony Gerrard buckling unduly.

There is a foundation; it is what can be built upon it. Hallam Hope’s goal here came when United found some good penetration, but the winning habit is not yet in easy reach. Colchester’s means of saving the game was not particularly subtle but it worked. It involved an increased physical and aerial presence, and enough deliveries to make Carlisle crack.

After his team conceded, Pressley also did. He admitted the final third of this game saw his side uncertain. A lack of “composure” was diagnosed. United had hoped to counter-attack as Colchester came onto them, but instead they were too deep to escape and lacked hold-up strength once Cullen had been replaced, the striker having run himself hard for 69 minutes on his first start since November.

Each game now seems to weigh a little more than the last, and one can probably factor some home-straight anxiety into contests like this too. Carlisle, as they had against MK Dons, began encouragingly in the sun. Scougall’s invention from the right opened an early door for Hope, whose lay-off was met by Danny Grainger with a cross from which Regan Slater should have done better.

The young midfielder, at least, was an industrious presence in Carlisle’s better play, pressing McGreal’s side well and being alert to steal back play. This gave United more presence than, for instance, Callum O’Hare’s mixed selection of frustrating passes and elusive dashes.

United’s efforts also included, at the back, a couple of fine interceptions by Gerrard and Liddle, the latter on his 600th career appearance. A couple of breaks, though, did not find the decisive pass, while Hope, cutting in from the left, could not yet summon the inspiration to finish.

When the hosts’ passing sharpened up, they stretched Carlisle more, but seldom with real edge. Courtney Senior’s low centre of gravity and ability to turn sharply away from opponents was an obvious concern but, up front, Abo Eisa and Frank Nouble were more awkward than authoritative. Adam Collin saved a low Eisa attempt, and a Ryan Jackson cross for Sammie Szmodics was intercepted superbly by Liddle.

This experience at the back was to United’s benefit amid some end-to-end play, a spate of frustrating refereeing from Trevor Kettle and a near own-goal from Kent, when his interception of a Cullen shot almost looped in. Otherwise, the 18-yard boxes were relatively safe zones. Colchester began the second period with a Nouble cross that deserved a finish, but Hope was on his toes when Carlisle came back, Cullen offering some strength on the turn and with his back to goal.

Their goal arrived from persistent work on the right, where O’Hare’s willingness to run beyond opened up the chance. When the Aston Villa loanee’s cross for Cullen broke out of the six-yard box, Hope had arrived from the left to force it home.

Although this increased United’s chances, it did not reduce the tension. A few Kettle decisions had Pressley hopping on the touchline while, for the hosts, Jackson skirted close to a red card with persistent fouls. Hope failed to convert a cross from the overlapping Liddle and it was from here that the game was shoved back Colchester’s way.

A double substitution, adding Brennan Dickenson and Michael Mandron, came as Pressley withdrew the tiring Cullen. Luke Norris also joined the home campaign and United were unable to stem the number of corners and throw-ins that McGreal’s team forced through their direct play.

Their extra man up front was not countered well enough, even as Pressley sought the extra midfield insurance of Mike Jones, in place of O’Hare.

On the break, Cullen’s replacement Nathan Thomas rode a tackle and shot over from 25 yards. It was not backed up, though, and then came further Colchester pressure – and, finally, an awkward Liddle backpass which Collin scythed out, a Dickenson throw, the sub getting it back to cross, and Kent on hand to head home when Carlisle’s keeper pushed it out under Mandron pressure.

One feared what could have been a demoralising fall to defeat from there, so at least United avoided that. It might have gone both ways in added time, Szmodics whipping a low shot close and then a 95th-minute Grainger corner, attacked by Parkes, which finished just the wrong side of the post.

The sort of fortune available to winning teams was not, ultimately, in reach, and so United must now hope to retrieve it at Newport. There is time still, but the league table will not reward a wait of too much longer.

Colchester: Gilmartin, Jackson (Norris 75), Prosser, Kent, Vincent-Young, Stevenson, Wright (Dickenson 69), Senior, Szmodics, Eisa (Mandron 69), Nouble. Not used: Barnes, Roberts, Eastman, Dunne.

Goal: Kent 84

Booked: Jackson, Kent

United: Collin, Liddle, Grainger, Parkes, Gerrard, Etuhu, Slater, O’Hare (Jones 79), Hope, Scougall (McCarron 85), Cullen (Thomas 69). Not used: Gray, Miller, Kennedy, Grant.

Goal: Hope 57

Booked: Cullen, Scougall, Gerrard

Ref: Trevor Kettle

Booked: 3,626 (319 Carlisle fans)