Harrogate Town 1 Carlisle United 0: One down, 22 to go. Carlisle United’s bid to make up ground both in terms of the table and the fixture list got off to a losing start here, Harrogate’s first-half penalty enough to account for a Blues side who were some way from their bold and sharp late-2020 best.

United failed to find convincing rhythm after their latest lay-off, and Josh March’s spot-kick settled a game which was finally completed at the third attempt. Carlisle are at last into the second half of their heavily-interrupted season and one hopes for gradual but clear improvement from this rather patchy reintroduction.

The first half was a particular struggle as United aimed the ball north of a sodden pitch to no great effect. Things were better connected after the break but an equaliser eluded them. Harrogate were hardly razor-sharp themselves but did not need to be once Nick Anderton had rashly brought down March, who got up to score past Paul Farman in the 26th minute.

United’s diet of long throws and second-ball pressing has often accounted for opponents this season, but not here. Hopefully they can recover the zip of their best spells now they are back into regular play. It was a new team selection by Chris Beech too, and this was apparent in how some of Carlisle’s edges overlapped, how certain things did not slot into immediate place, how the physical commitment they applied did not go hand in hand with the requisite quality.

The tight dimensions of the EnviroVent Stadium pitch encourage a certain kind of game too: one that puts a premium on poise in narrow spaces. Carlisle improved in this respect after the interval but there was still a sense of them groping for something they couldn't get back.

Salford is the next place they will try to achieve that. Here, result (and, let's be honest, spectacle) aside, it was just a welcome experience to see a game at all. The temperature was a tropical 10 degrees Celsius a couple of hours before kick-off and the floodlights were reassuringly on. What else could fate possibly throw at this cursed fixture?

An absolute bucketload of rain, it turned out. The deluge arrived half an hour before the teams came out to warm up, and a few tiny puddles glinted in the light when they did.

It shouldn’t have surprised anyone that Harrogate Town v Carlisle United was simply incapable of being approached under calm or normal circumstances. The surface, at least, seemed to cope as the practice passes skimmed along it and when 7pm arrived the rain had, thankfully, taken the hint. This twice-suspended match could actually occur at last.

Before kick-off we could enjoy the welcome sight of George Tanner back in the side; such has been Carlisle’s scale of postponements, Tanner had only missed six games despite breaking his collarbone two months ago. After it began, it was a case of watching these two teams figuring out the surface and each other in a battling opening spell which yielded few early chances. Brennan Dickenson, given a full debut, made a couple of bursts but these were cut out, while Aaron Hayden intercepted Harrogate's first attempted incursion at the other end.

United tried to establish themselves with gradual pressure and set-pieces, Harrogate trying to respond with moves off the frontrunning of March, but it was not an attractive contest, balls leaving feet in haste and without a great sense of care or control. One opportunity was donated to Lewis Alessandra via keeper James Belshaw’s scuffed kick, but the forward’s chip was marginally too strong.

Harrogate responded with a couple of salvos from George Thomson and Josh McPake, the latter firing against the outside the the post. For United, Tanner settled well enough, but one of very few floor-based moves at the midpoint of the half ended with Dickenson fouling his man as he leapt to attack Joe Riley's cross.

There was no real sign of attacking clarity from either, and certainly no sign United were on top in the scuffling middle ground but, after Harrogate had failed to profit from a corner, Simon Weaver’s side unstitched Carlisle. The hosts were helped into the lead by Anderton’s needless challenge on March to the right of the box, and the latter clipped the penalty low past Farman, who went the other way.

Two games separated by two weeks, and two avoidable spot-kicks conceded: another result, perhaps, of United being cold from their recent inactivity. They almost gave up a second goal on 34 minutes, but Farman stood up to Simon Power’s shot and also tipped over Aaron Martin’s follow-up header.

In response, United leaned on their aerial methods without much success. From his distant station, Farman cried “seconds” with the frequency of a hungry schoolboy, yet their deliveries, long throws and skirmishing yielded little. Ethan Walker did not see much ball on the left, Dickenson and United's forwards were kept at arm's length, and it called for a good deal more composure and craft.

There were signs of at least some in a brighter start to the second half, even if United did not make best use of the positions they found. Callum Guy started getting ahead of his man in midfield, and one good move saw Walker feed Dickenson, whose effort from the left was pushed away by Belshaw.

Offrande Zanzala, a replacement for Alessandra, almost immediately supplied Joshua Kayode, who went down under Ed Francis’ sliding challenge – a fair one, the officials agreed. It was again a better example of what United required on the floor, though Harrogate nearly killed thoughts of a comeback when the ball was cut back from the byline to Martin; Rhys Bennett making the block.

More of the play was heading the right way, Harrogate now into containment mode, but Zanzala couldn’t connect properly when the ball spun through the box, and a further shot, after a set-up from fellow sub Gime Toure, was deflected behind. United, unable to pounce at these split-second opportunities, tried to claw their way back in via a series of corners, but again to no avail.

Harrogate added the height of Mark Beck, the former Blues striker, as Beech twisted twice more by introducing Omari Patrick and Jon Mellish, Dickenson now heading to left-back. The sense, though, was of United’s limited hopes and ideas burning out. Harrogate almost broke for a second, Farman again doing valiant work to deny Martin, and when Patrick made one surge at serious pace down Carlisle’s left, an eventual heavy touch cost the Blues the chance.

United would have bargained hard for a draw at this dwindling stage. Patrick whipped a late shot wide as they tried again, and the ball was battered into the box some more, but their remaining attempts came short, making it a third (and thankfully last) futile trip to this north Yorkshire ground in 2020/21: a flawed starting point in what needs to be a steadily improving quest to retrieve all the better things that went before.