Barrow AFC 2 Carlisle United 2: For much of 2020/21 it would have been a stretch to argue that Carlisle United needed a bit of Barrow in them. A season, though, is a thing of many stages and perhaps the next step for the Blues is to borrow some of the street smarts Rob Kelly’s side displayed here.

It is true that United eventually fought their way back into things – also true that they are a good deal higher in League Two than their fellow Cumbrians – but for a chunk of this game it was clear that Barrow had nudged and niggled Carlisle into some highly uncomfortable places and it was not in the Blues’ nature to respond in kind.

This was at its plainest when Scott Quigley in particular was menacing their defence with some old-school traits. There was a spell in the first half, when Barrow’s leading scorer kept pulling to the left, that he gave George Tanner a torrid time.

It was physical, though not illegally so; intimidatory but perfectly fair. At certain times Quigley was smiling, at others chuntering into United ears. All the shadowy merits of experience were on show and it required someone in the opposite camp to be just as confrontational.

United, for their various qualities, do not have such a sergeant major in their ranks. One sensed that Barrow knew this in the period when they turned this game around and looked set to run off with it. Carlisle, at least, got a draw in the end thanks to a dogged piece of persistence from Offrande Zanzala. If only they had managed to summon a little more of that.

Chris Beech felt his team would have lost this game earlier into their post-Covid comeback. He might be right. They did play to the end and were, in a roundabout way, worth their point. Gaining results from a losing position has not been a dominant Blues trait this campaign, so there was merit in a fightback which still keeps the top seven within range.

What a young side still requires, though, is something Kelly has clearly maximised at Holker Street: an ability to drag a game onto your terms, with a hostile attitude which seeks out any weakness. This is the psychological side of things, not the technical, and is surely among the reasons why Barrow’s caretaker manager has teased better things out of the players he inherited.

Carlisle did start Saturday’s contest well but in between Patrick Brough’s tidily-taken Barrow second and Zanzala’s eventual leveller, there was also too much heavy-footed direct play which suited the hosts more than Carlisle. The Blues appeared to have gone into their tactical shell until the last 15 minutes, when Beech’s substitutes added a little extra life, and width, and almost teased out a winner.

No outcome, in truth, would have been a great surprise from a game which was absorbing without always being attractive. It began with United on their toes and Jack Armer bulleting home Callum Guy’s corner, but defensively the Blues were ponderous when Quigley and the ever-busy Luke James began invading their personal space.

Barrow’s equaliser was United far from their most defiant, Quigley lasering the ball home after the Blues failed to deal with Ollie Banks’ free-kick, and their second was even more striking for Carlisle’s sloppiness: Rod McDonald caught out on the left by Quigley before Brough stepped nimbly in to score, the Blues’ recent clean sheet run now in shreds.

There was, as Barrow forced themselves further onto United’s back-foot defence, even a sense of the visitors being bullied. That, incidentally, does not let Seb Stockbridge off the hook for a rotten refereeing display whose most contentious moment was the failure to show Neal Eardley a second yellow card for fouling Lewis Alessandra.

Pre-season rule changes may force Carlisle to accept he got that one right (a foul amid a "promising attack" which sees advantage played no longer requires a yellow card), even if the law is still an ass. Kelly, aware of how close Eardley was skirting dismissal, hooked the defender at the break yet Barrow’s back three went on to deal soundly with most of United’s aerial play. Kgosi Ntlhe was a particularly calm presence while James and Quigley were alert to some focused home balls over the top, a couple of heavy touches and Paul Farman’s alertness helping United keep the deficit to one.

In the other direction, Jon Mellish could not find space on a tight pitch to impose himself, while Carlisle struggled to feed their wide attackers. One Guy free-kick, though, was headed narrowly wide by Aaron Hayden and Barrow’s failure to finish United off was then punished when James Jones brought down the determined Zanzala, whose clinical penalty might even have provoked a late winner had Omari Patrick connected properly with Alessandra’s back-post cross.

Not to be, a draw fair on both – and no shame, really, given the testing circumstances which showed Barrow for the much more robust side they now are, and Carlisle for the group that might indeed be more durable than they were a few weeks back, but would still not be harmed, once in a while, by getting a little of their retaliation in first.