Carlisle United 3 Bury 2: It tells the story of this game quite perfectly that, though five goals went in, the best player was a man keeping them out. Carlisle 3 Bury 2 was a 0-0 draw in different clothes; Adam Collin’s performance worth a month of clean sheets.

With brilliant reactions and reflexes, United’s goalkeeper ensured the score was as low as an open and dramatic contest like this could hope to be. If their play-off bid has indeed been “reignited”, as Steven Pressley hopes, a defining image will be of a Bury player holding his head in disbelief, and a big Cumbrian in yellow, a few yards away, having just deflected the ball away from his posts.

Carlisle, in the second half, showed all the spirit and gumption Pressley said they had when fighting from a goal and a man down. The three goals they scored, though, would have been in consolation were it not for Collin. Some of his stops caused you to double-take, so certain did it seem that Bury would score.

This was not the first time the 34-year-old has excelled on Carlisle’s recent, frustrating run, so it was appropriate that he was finally rewarded. The victory came from the Blues back-catalogue of melodrama and you just sensed that taking the lead after 29 seconds was only going to unlock an afternoon of madness.

By half-time United had torched that lead and lost Mike Jones to a red card. Their top-seven hopes were heading south. Adversity, though, brought the best from Pressley’s outfield players, their inspired keeper and the manager himself, whose tactical changes paid off when Hallam Hope headed the 89th-minute winner.

At that jubilant moment, Pressley said he was “Jurgen Klopping” around the pitch. How different it must have felt to the previous weekend, when fans had chanted for his head, and too many other afternoons recently when United have come out badly. “It’s the reason we love football,” said Pressley. “It touches every emotion possible – disappointment, frustration, anger and then euphoria.”

Reality could barge back in if Exeter beat Macclesfield tomorrow and reopen the play-off gap to three points. At least, though, Carlisle have kept things interesting. Their next trick must be to stay this close to the contenders until after Good Friday, at which point their run-in looks a little kinder (not that such certainties truly exist in League Two).

Their players and manager needed this. Bury’s need paying. The financial “issues” at Gigg Lane may feel worse now they have stopped winning. Taking part in a fourth-tier classic certainly won’t pay bills or ease concerns.

United’s crisis has been different, of results, but that got an early nudge when Bury’s Ryan Cooney slipped as a Gary Miller ball arrived in their domain. Jamie Devitt, captain with Danny Grainger injured and Anthony Gerrard dropped, was onto it and though less than half a minute had passed the midfielder seemed to slow time down by controlling and carefully slotting home.

Carlisle with 89.5 minutes to turn a lead into victory is a prospect so ludicrous it makes you laugh. It was, naturally, the opening line to an epic. Bury equalised seven minutes later, Chris Stokes ghosting in at the back post to turn home Jordan Rossiter’s hanging cross, and from there Ryan Lowe’s side exerted control.

Their pressing was brisk, United unable to retain the ball, and the visitors nimble enough to open Carlisle up often, not least from the right, where Nicky Adams was hugging the touchline in his familiar way. Half-chances for Nicky Maynard and Jay O’Shea came and for a while there were white shirts in all the wrong places. Midway through the half, Collin produced his first gallant save, from Byron Moore.

Bury had also been doing a better job at stopping the opposition’s supply, keeping Nathan Thomas’ deliveries far enough from danger. Regan Slater and Callum O’Hare emerged with 25-yarders, while Stokes avoided censure for an elbow on Miller, but just as United seemed to be regaining some bite they conceded: Collin saving from Maynard, but Stokes’ heading the corner in.

Things then got worse when Jones, booked for a poor challenge but seeing the Bury man spread-eagled in front of him regardless. Ref Chris Sarginson deemed this another yellow-card offence; many in the Blues contingent disagreed. Thomas and Hope lingered after the half-time whistle to remonstrate with the officials.

Carlisle, though, had to find answers, not arguments. Pressley’s decision to send on Kelvin Etuhu for Slater increased United’s midfield physicality, a 4-4-1 formation open against such a testing opponent – but Carlisle were rewarded for their risk.

A pause button seemed to be pressed in the stadium when, on 50 minutes, O’Hare slipped behind the defence to meet Thomas’ pass, but his drive beyond Joe Murphy was perfectly fair, and essential to United’s plans, which involved the best containment they could manage but also bold invention when breaking forward.

At their end, a cluster of chances were blocked. Collin terrifically denied Maynard, then got enough hand on the striker’s next close-range finish while, upfield, Murphy twice saved from Hope.

Could Carlisle snatch it? Yes, but only after further Collin brilliance. Ten minutes from time his reactions were sudden as he kept out a finish from Dom Telford, Caolan Lavery heading the rebound wide. Then, the conclusion, starting with a poor Stefan Scougall corner which O'Hare revived with a better cross. Connor Simpson, on for the final stages, helped it back over, and Hope arrived in space to nod the winner against his old club, sprinting halfway back up the pitch in celebration until team-mates got him under control.

It’s a while since Brunton Park has felt so energised. “I can’t tell you how proud I am of the group,” said Pressley, who was planning “a couple of glasses of wine” on his train home. One trusts he raised at least one of them to Collin: United's yellow wall.

United: Collin, G Miller, Parkes, Grant, Liddle, Jones, Slater (Etuhu 46), O'Hare, Devitt (Simpson 85), Thomas (Scougall 63), Hope. Not used: Gray, Gerrard, Kennedy, Branthwaite.

Goals: Devitt 1, O’Hare 50, Hope 89

Booked: Jones. Sent off: Jones

Bury: Murphy, Stokes, Thompson, Wharton (Telford 63), O’Connell (Lavery 73) Cooney, Rossiter, O'Shea, Adams (McFadzean 82), Moore, Maynard. Not used: Moloney, T Miller, Omotayo, Danns.

Goals: Stokes 8, 43

Booked: O’Connell

Ref: Chris Sarginson

Crowd: 4,656 (728 Bury fans)