Cheltenham Town 1 Carlisle United 1: For Cheltenham, promotion; for Carlisle, a glimpse at what could be, what could have been. United produced lots of quality and plenty of spirit in this draw but it leaves, finally, the play-offs out of realistic reach.

A point was enough for Michael Duff’s side to launch themselves into League One. This was their night and, as weird and downright wrong as it is to have to mark this sort of moment in a mostly empty stadium, there was still plenty of noise and champagne as the Robins took flight.

Carlisle had to see and hear all the raucous celebrations as they got to grips with their own regrets. They played, competed, went to the end in Gloucestershire, but couldn't get the win that could have made this season just a little more compelling over the final 180 minutes.

It now needs two victories along with defeats for all the others, plus a huge goal difference swing. Nope. Not even in such an unpredictable division. Had Carlisle found this amount of enterprise and endeavour more often in their run from February until now, they might have been live contenders to accompany Cheltenham on their successful journey.

As it is, the Blues are left to reflect on the good things they did at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium in the context of broader anti-climax. A season that promised so much by halfway has now reached this moment of disappointment. Chris Beech afterwards spoke like a man who was, at heart, devastated United had not managed to sustain their push through the many intervening challenges.

News and Star: Cheltenham launch their promotion celebrationsCheltenham launch their promotion celebrations

There was also defiance from the Blues' head coach as the top seven vanished into the distance. "We should not get criticised," he insisted. "100 per cent. We should celebrate the players' efforts and energies, and try and see off the season in a positive manner - which will be difficult, because they now know they can’t possibily achieve something they’ve aimed for over the last eight or nine months. That’s whacked right down their throats now."

Beech put United's budget back on the table, saying the Blues have "got more for less" in their journey to 10th with two games to go. He spoke of his pride in his team, and struggled to contain his feeling that he and Carlisle have been criticised too much in recent weeks.

Fans can chew on all that as they come to their own conclusions. What is certain is that nobody who watched Carlisle bully Walsall into submission in order to top League Two on January 2 could have foreseen their promotion efforts dying with two games to go.

The heavy mid-season roadblock of Covid-19 infections, plus a prolonged run of postpoments, is United's explanation for the decline. Many supporters will sympathise. Some will still feel United could have been better at stages in their fall. Those immediately looking on to 2021/22 may feel the basis of a maturing young squad is there. Those still digesting this season will remember it as one of the most up-and-down journeys in recent Blues history, which, to date, is concluding with a spell of 22 games with only four wins.

That, alas, is the opposite of promotion form, and so, as Cheltenham danced and cavorted, United could only consider the pluses of their most recent performance. Over these 90 minutes they adapted well in a new 3-5-2 shape, boldly led through Joshua Kayode’s header, and sprang back at Cheltenham after the home side leveller via Chris Hussey’s free-kick.

They crashed the bar through Kayode late on, after Beech had sent on a bevy of attacking players to try and keep the flame alive. But no.

News and Star: Kayode rises to head United in frontKayode rises to head United in front

Cheltenham had, at the start of proceedings, come prepared. At 6pm, a chap in a suit carried a bottle of champagne up to the directors’ area. Near the pitch, manager Duff held court with Sky Sports.

United confronted this impending party with selection and tactical changes (Magnus Norman's extra size getting him the nod in goal, Rhys Bennett returning in a back three), and survived an early trial by long throw before growing into the first half.

After dealing with Ben Tozer's missiles, a cluster of free-kicks and doing well to keep Cheltenham's attacking runners away from the red zone, United imposed themselves. As a front two, Offrande Zanzala and Joshua Kayode gave the home defence a physical stretch, and United pressed well behind them, rising in confidence.

They did so even after losing Bennett to a 22nd-minute injury, after a challenge with George Lloyd, and rejigging their back line as Danny Devine came on and George Tanner switched from right to left. There was increasing bite in their midfield work, some encouraging football on the floor, some hungry forward play and, on 33 minutes, a well-aimed Callum Guy free-kick that was met by a strong, looping Kayode hader.

The lead was not ill-deserved. Guy remained incessant in his interceptions and drive, and Carlisle’s base-line defending remained resolute, Nick Anderton keeping danger in front of him in the middle while Tanner excelled on the left.

The inevitable Cheltenham riposte, though, involved the dangerous and more focused running of Alfie May, a half-time sub, and the equaliser landed on 55 minutes when Anderton was penalised for a jump with Sam Smith (harshly, the Blues felt) and Hussey’s excellent free-kick scudded down and in from the underside of the bar.

News and Star: Chris Hussey celebrates his equaliserChris Hussey celebrates his equaliser

United had to start again in terms of the territory and momentum they had lost. They did so in hard-working and largely effective stages, taking the sting out of the next home spell and Tanner then moving positions again, this time into midfield after Beech sent on Ethan Walker for Joe Riley.

It remained urgent, combative and, to Carlisle’s credit, evenly matched once more. Beech then twisted with two more attacking additions, Omari Patrick and Lewis Alessandra, before an abrasive closing period saw Norman save well from Matty Blair before, at the other end, the quick feet of Walker brought a shot that sailed just too high.

It was compelling, given the circumstances, and then thoroughly agonising when Kayode powered Anderton’s fine cross against the bar. Carlisle finished spiritedly, while Charlie Raglan almost sneaked a 90th-minute home winner.

Cheltenham did not need it. They now vanish over the horizon. United’s task, when they wake up tomorrow, is to figure out longer-lasting ways of emulating them.