Cardiff City 2 Carlisle United 2: If Carlisle United could play Championship opposition away from home every week, instead of those pesky League Two sides, how different would their season look? Fourth-bottom in the fourth tier, but gutsy in the cups, this engaging draw with Cardiff was just reward for a positive performance in the Welsh capital.

Before kick-off, United’s fans tried to interrupt Men of Harlech as the anthem boomed over the speakers. Then their players did their utmost to intrude on the home side’s FA Cup intentions.

There is always the gnawing knowledge that it could have been even better. United had chances to win it, had a grievance about Cardiff’s equaliser and a reasonable handball shout, all after losing a 2-0 lead.

In the round, though, this must still go down as a very positive effort in a season of few other joys. When building their interval advantage, Carlisle were compact and opportunistic, nowhere near as loose as they had been against Crewe three days earlier.

They were then dazed by the hosts’ rapid fightback, but regrouped solidly and were a few inches from victory; the margin of Hallam Hope’s miss when he was nudged through on goal in the 85th minute.

Not many who have suffered United’s difficulties in the league since August would have placed a fortune on their number staying alive into this old competition’s fourth round draw. They did, though, put Barnsley away with deceptive style in the League Cup and looked similarly capable on Cardiff’s trimmed pitch, and a whopping tie next could give their season further meaning, and incentive, if fortune favours them and they prevail in a replay.

Chris Beech will also hope their constructive work here can somehow overlap into better league consistency. It certainly saw them in the right shape for this cup test, earning the vocal appreciation of their supporters, who made a fair old racket from their pocket of the Cardiff City Stadium. Those fans were in merry mood indeed when Jack Bridge and Harry McKirdy found the net before half-time, and kept the volume up even after Callum Paterson and Gavin Whyte had struck back.

The latter goal was contentious, as it seemed the ball had crossed the byline before Paterson, moments later, got it across for Whyte. Similarly, United’s penalty decision looked generous, and weighing up all the questionable decisions from Geoff Eltringham and his officials would be an interesting game.

Better, probably, to focus on the good the Blues did, before and after Cardiff’s five-minute surge. They were, initially, disciplined in their shape, and survived a couple of tame opening shots before pouncing for the lead. Aaron Hayden, bounding down the right, won a corner and Cardiff failed to deal with the initial delivery, from debutant Elliot Watt, and then two more from Nathan Thomas.

The latter found Bridge in tempting space and though contact was limited when Danny Ward and Sol Bamba tried to step in, down the midfielder went. Alex Smithies saved the penalty but Bridge was quick to head in the rebound.

Suddenly, and early, Carlisle had something to defend, and defend they did. Cardiff were sterile and United defiant; the teenager Watt was vocal in midfield and United’s lines were largely intact, apart from Josh Murphy’s surge beyond Jon Mellish which eventually saw an inaccurate finish from a tight angle.

Adam Collin often looked to punch, while a thumping defensive header from Byron Webster brought applause from Beech. Cardiff were furtive rather than convincing, the tricky Murphy not yet into a dangerous stride and Will Vaulks’ long throws failing to unsettle Beech’s defence unduly.

Whyte dipped a shot over the bar, and Murphy later extended Collin with a free-kick, but Carlisle coped with all this and then, sensationally, scored again, breaking through Hallam Hope, whose deep cross was headed superbly across Smithies by McKirdy.

Cue another shushing gesture from United’s forward. Cardiff’s fans, meanwhile, were noisy only in the sense that they booed their team off a minute later, and there were presumably a few raised voices in their dressing room judging by the sharper way they re-emerged.

They did so with a dynamic spell that Carlisle simply could not contain. Collin saved well from Murphy two minutes into the second half but then Cardiff struck, Paterson scrambling home ahead of Webster after Bamba had struck the bar. Then, another Collin save (from Ward), and another goal, Paterson the provider this time, and Whyte heading in off the post.

It was rather deflating, and ominous, but United can be credited for the way they recovered and rebuilt. Stefan Scougall’s introduction for the limping Bridge was a timely change and the Scot helped Carlisle gradually retain more ball, and rediscover their front foot, with McKirdy also pushed up to lead breaks. A Watt free-kick brought handball shouts (ignored by Eltringham) and, after a Murphy goal was disallowed, the Blues constructed a new attacking spell.

Thomas, first, whistled a shot over. Scougall was then denied by a flying blue body, and McKirdy tested Smithies from the left. “Beech’s blue army” was chanted incessantly by the travelling fans and, when Cardiff came back, Collin was as obdurate as required.

The Cumbrian saved from Vaulks and Sean Morrison, and the subs, Lee Tomlin and Robert Glatzel, couldn’t inspire a Cardiff win. The home side had made better use of the pitch’s width in the second half but it was Carlisle, breaking from midfield contests, who had the clearest chances.

The best, when Hope linked with Mike Jones, was missed by an agonising whisker, and Hope then failed to feed sub Ryan Loft, who also scuffed a late effort. At the other end Carlisle had their share of crosses and set-pieces to defend, but scares were limited.

“Cambria ne’er can yield,” runs one line in Men of Harlech. Nor, here, did Cumbria, and a replay keeps a little extra song in this season for a little while more.

Cardiff: Smithies, Coxe (Tomlin 78), Bennett, Bamba, Morrison, Bacuna, Vaulks, Paterson, Murphy, Whyte, Ward (Glatzel 78). Not used: Day, Peltier, Nelson, Sang, Bowen.

Goals: Paterson 50, Whyte 55

United: Collin, Hayden, G Jones, Mellish, Webster, M Jones, Watt, Bridge (Scougall 56), McKirdy (Charters 90), Thomas (Loft 80), Hope. Not used: Gray, Iredale, Olomola, Birch.

Goals: Bridge 11, McKirdy 45

Booked: Hope

Ref: Geoff Eltringham

Crowd: 5,282 (719 United fans)