Tranmere Rovers 3 Carlisle United 0: It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Twelve games ago, Steven Pressley was appointed at the pivotal stage of a promotion push; now, mutiny in the away end, chants for his head and a promise from the man in charge that he is a “resilient” figure who believes he can “turn this around”.

It is the latest unhappy development in a season of different directions: the dithering summer, the patchy start, the brilliant winter and the steady deflation of hope since early February.

Carlisle’s play-off challenge has always been precarious but it looks increasingly bust right now. Somehow after one win in 10 they are still three points outside the top seven but can there be any confidence they will prevail in a majority of their final six games?

The person betting on this campaign ending with a two-legged semi-final and then Wembley is reduced to the blindest faith. United are a club with a historical attachment to melodrama but a grand finale does not look likely now, and the debate has already shifted towards Pressley’s fitness for the job.

Many supporters called for him to be “out” during and after this 3-0 defeat, while his decision to substitute Jamie Devitt in the second half was booed and the subject of another derisive song.

The manager believes that, given time, he can make a “significant” difference to the Blues and a decision will probably boil down to how much directors put this bad form down to the simple absence of the necessary tools.

If United believe Pressley will make more of a fuller squad, ideally with centre-forwards, the job may well be his. If this short-term stint is an audition purely based on results, his case is not strong. Whichever way the club goes, and when, it will now be made in the face of growing disquiet from the terraces. The club’s higher financial circumstances are unlikely to escape attention too as this campaign turns into a stagger.

Events at Tranmere were of a piece with a situation where one side is in prime nick and the other can’t buy a win. Carlisle were genuinely the better side for 44 minutes in areas other than finishing. That, again, cost them, and the moment the hosts got in front, there was no sign of a way back.

The second half was, for all the sweat expended, a non-event in terms of a fightback. Micky Mellon’s side were comfortably the more dangerous from here and by the end Carlisle had conceded two of their goals – probably all three – in avoidable and highly frustrating ways.

Pressley said it was a display of the right effort but not the “finer detail”. The latter comment was his interpretation of the first and third goals, which came from badly-defended set-pieces. The one in between saw James Norwood benefit from a deflection which can come to strikers nearing the 30-goal mark by late March, but also from a road United repeatedly failed to block: a right-wing cross that split defence and keeper, and nobody there other than Adam Collin to try and prevent Norwood finding the net.

Before that moment, and Ollie Banks’ earlier opener, there was clear enough evidence of what Pressley wanted this side to generate. It was without Danny Grainger (injured) and had Tom Parkes at left wing-back, with Nathan Thomas up front in a 3-5-1-1, and while it was unorthodox in some ways, this week’s exasperation comes with knowing that, in many key areas, it did seem to be working.

Although Tranmere threatened first, Norwood heading Jake Caprice’s cross just wide, there was, for much of the half, more substance about United’s. Their three central midfielders stole good ball, drew the hosts onto them and spun it into the channels where Mellon’s big centre-halves, including ex-United man Mark Ellis, were less comfortable.

The hosts were knocked by an early injury to Luke McCullough and also by United’s industry. Parkes, overlapping, and Thomas both went close from the same angle on the left and there was persistence about these breaks. After Collin saved from Banks, there was then the Blues’ most dynamic attack, when Regan Slater tackled David Perkins, Thomas eluded Ellis to the right and put a cross on a plate for the arriving Callum O’Hare – but he hit the bar.

A side in better touch converts that. United could not make their own luck and it was dismal indeed when their previously tight work at the back came loose just before half-time: Perkins eventually easing away from Slater to cross after a corner, and Banks free to head home from a few inches out.

This was now a big ask against a side so used to seeing victories through, and Carlisle had far too few answers. Tranmere were better of tempo and confidence after the break and United failed to get up the pitch. Collin saved a Perkins dipper and Caprice then slid his crucial cross into the corridor, Norwood benefiting from the gambling run no defender followed and the flag that wasn’t raised as Carlisle might have wished.

It was at this stage that the anti-Pressley chants begun. His team looked downcast and, at the back, weary. Norwood went close again, Banks tried to lob Collin from halfway and then the decision to replace Devitt with Kelvin Etuhu (tactical reasons and Devitt “tiring” were Pressley’s explanations) was jeered from the Cowshed stand.

United’s passes were now at their slackest and there were no chances of note until after Manny Monthe, the biggest player on the pitch, had escaped Anthony Gerrard to bullet home Tranmere’s third. By this point some away supporters had left Prenton Park and an O’Hare free-kick curling wide was the only vaguely positive sight they missed.

Then came more grief aimed at Pressley, who applauded those fans and then, to the media, set out his belief in the players and his methods, and his determination to make a fist of this predicament. He accepted and answered all questions with a calm enough bearing but until actions follow the words, what are those annoyed supporters to think?

United: Collin, Liddle, Gerrard, Grant, Miller (Hope 58), Parkes, Jones, Slater, O’Hare, Devitt (Etuhu 73), Thomas. Not used: Gray, Kennedy, Simpson, Scougall, Branthwaite.

Tranmere: Davies, Caprice, Ridehalgh, Ellis, Monthe, McCullough (Harris 11), Morris (Gilmour 76), Banks (Smith 85), Perkins, Jennings, Norwood. Not used: Pilling, Dagnall, Buxton, Mullin.

Goals: Banks 45, Norwood 64, Monthe 83

Ref: Scott Duncan.

Crowd: 8,095 (910 Carlisle fans)