Stevenage 2 Carlisle United 3: It is quite clear by now that Carlisle United are not going to make their way through this League Two season on clean sheets and narrow wins. Thankfully they got the balance right here between leaky defence and dangerous attack, and the tension of the previous few days duly eased.

Thanks chiefly to Harry McKirdy, whose dynamism settled this open game, the two goals they shipped this time were in consolation. United were good enough to break Stevenage three times and the skip up the table to 15th was welcome indeed for Steven Pressley.

A bad day here and pressure would have tightened its grip. Give winless opponents a leg up, and where do you go from there? That question, happily, went unasked and unanswered, because Carlisle had enough about them on a baking hot day.

After the grim battle to victory at Scunthorpe, it is back-to-back away wins against two of League Two’s worst, and these are important results at a time United’s path is uncertain. They keep serious anxiety at bay. Their defensive record, now the equal poorest in the division, took another couple of hits on Saturday and is blatantly the area for work.

Going the other way, though, there is enough to give you hope. Pressley fathomed a counter-attacking strategy which paid dividends when Stevenage’s defenders were high. McKirdy’s pace, running beyond the back line, was the decisive attribute.

“He’s a devastating young player when he’s at it,” said Pressley after McKirdy had followed a first-half equaliser with an 83rd-minute winner. “When you look at McKirdy you always think something’s going to happen.”

The former Aston Villa player’s place in the side has been insecure because of his defensive limitations. United do not, though, have another player as dangerous when his full qualities are unlocked. McKirdy also set up Carlisle’s second goal and enjoyed a merry old day against one of his former loan clubs.

For Pressley, it was a qualified vindication of his first departure from 4-3-3. Instead it was 3-4-3, with new signing Gethin Jones on the right of the defensive three. It did not make Carlisle any better at coping with crosses but it did reveal a greater tactical flexibility than Pressley had previously shown, and at times denied Stevenage a route down the middle.

These were features of a game which did not suggest the cream of the fourth tier were going at it. Stevenage had a certain hunger under their caretaker manager Mark Sampson, and in Kurtis Guthrie a striker able to capitalise from Carlisle’s lack of defensive glue. They also, though, were green in certain areas, notably centre-half, and plainly a side there to be beaten.

United, as is their way, made eventful and flawed work of this task. Sampson had the mother of all distracting first weeks in the chair, accused of a discriminatory comment (his club exonerated him but the FA are investigating) and the alleged target of abusive messages into which the police are looking, but had enough head space to work out where Carlisle could be tested.

As early as the fifth minute the Blues were making heavy weather of a wide delivery. Danny Newton couldn’t shoot past Adam Collin from the scramble but the hosts were encouraged. Guthrie skimmed another wide and it took a while for Carlisle to settle into their shape.

When they did, their midfielders saw better ball and looked to use their extra width. McKirdy twice broke through, lobbing keeper Paul Farman from an angle, but then the old failing came back to bite them: Byron Webster only glancing Chris Stokes’ cross to Guthrie, and his bobbling finish finding the bottom corner.

Stevenage’s players swarmed to Sampson. Their tails were up. But this is not a side attuned to winning. Back Carlisle came, Jack Iredale fashioning a couple of chances through good pressing, Olufela Olomola failing to take the best of them, before a channel ball from Christie Elliott found McKirdy’s run, and he obliged with a fine finish.

This was a necessary leveller at a time United were struggling to be watertight. The goal also, showed the value of an out ball rather than more defensive passing and they began the second half positively, Olomola glancing a Nathan Thomas cross wide and then a break started by Iredale, continued by Olomola, set up by McKirdy and finished at close-range by Thomas as the flag stayed down.

Now it was Carlisle’s turn to blink. A minute later, a cross from Stokes, Guthrie outjumped Nathaniel Knight-Percival. 2-2 in an instant, and another shovel-load onto the pile of frustrations.

It was, you sensed, as much about who would lose it as who’d win it from here. Mike Jones arrived from midfield to have a shot blocked but from the cluster of substitutions it was United’s that had the best effect. Mo Sagaf, advancing in Elliott’s right-midfield position, proved a canny introduction and he helped Carlisle win the game late on.

Before then, an eventful spell saw Sampson and Pressley have a frank exchange of views, Gethin Jones clear an Elliott List attempt off the line, and ref Martin Coy go off injured, fourth official Paul Kelly coming into the fray.

Then: the killer moment, as Jack Bridge fed Sagaf, he crossed in front of the defence, and McKirdy’s shot spun into the bottom corner in front of United’s supporters.

This put those fans into new voice as Carlisle then saw out the game. Olomola showed great strength in helping Hallam Hope and Sagaf carve out another chance, and though Stevenage had their moments, their crosses, and a few too many free-kicks for comfort, it was a relief that United were not, in the end, the team to help them out of their rut.

There won’t be many sunnier days than this as autumn approaches. Carlisle, to great relief, stopped a certain darkness settling over their season. Their next task: to be brighter, and tighter, at home.

Stevenage: Farman, James-Wildin, Stokes, Fernandez (Denton 56), Watts, Husin (Cowley 86), Carter, Kennedy, Newton, Mackail-Smith (List 65), Guthrie. Not used: Bastien, Iontton, Taylor, El-Abd.

Goals: Guthrie 25, 54

Booked: James-Wildin

United: Collin, G Jones, Webster, Knight-Percival, Elliott (Sagaf 70), Iredale, M Jones, Bridge, McKirdy, Thomas (Hope 70), Olomola (Loft 89). Not used: Gray, Mellish, Branthwaite, Sorensen.

Goals: McKirdy 38, 83, Thomas 52

Booked: Knight-Percival, Bridge, Webster

Ref: Martin Coy

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