Exeter City 2 Carlisle United 1: For 43 largely constructive minutes it was possible to spot a grain of a Carlisle United revival. One needless lunge later and a well thought-out performance against Exeter turned into a 10-man rearguard job, and the Blues left Devon as losers again.

Facepalm. There will come a time, you have to fear, when United will use up all their if-onlys and find themselves too far adrift. While Keith Millen said he needed to look at Jon Mellish's red-card challenge again before commenting with conviction, it wasn’t difficult to decipher his frustration with this in mind.

“I’ll deal with it in-house, because we have to have discipline within the group,” Carlisle’s manager said. This was the whopping “negative” which offset the “positives” Millen found in a performance of good work-rate and endeavour at St James’ Park. It was the major contribution to United ending the day back in the relegation zone.

Mellish last season scored more than enough goals to vindicate Chris Beech’s deployment of him in midfield. Events on Saturday gave fodder to those who feel his raw style is no longer what a passing team (which United are trying to be) needs.

At the very least, his suspension gives Millen and the Blues three games to figure out if they can indeed be better without him. Most of the other players they sent out against Matt Taylor’s high-fliers emptied themselves of focused effort, and there was a genuine pattern in what they tried.

Soon, though, they are going to have to find a way to spin events in their favour. Oldham’s late victory over Port Vale shows the progress available to a struggling side with a victory in them.

United, stuck on two wins from 17, are still not such a side. That needs to change in back-to-back home league games now, given the two-point gap between themselves and third bottom.

That numbers game trumps all – even the decent things United did at Exeter. For pretty much the entire first half they took the sting out of an in-form home side and burrowed into some genuinely positive areas. Before and after Mellish’s banishment (which looked a fair or at least perfectly understandable decision by ref Will Finnie), Jordan Gibson gave an individual performance of life and merit.

There were indeed grounds for thinking Carlisle could take something from a place that hadn’t witnessed a home defeat since March. Some of the detail, though, may still bug Millen, the Mellish moment aside.

Carlisle were, after all, again toothless in enemy territory until Gibson scored his late consolation. Both Exeter’s goals, meanwhile, came from a porous United right side as their depleted team went deep to try and defend their lines.

Gibson’s good finish tacked one onto their slim total, but we’re well over a third of the way into 2021/22 now, and presumably anyone yet to consider the Blues in a relegation battle are now fully across the bleak reality of things.

Hope lies in the evidence that Carlisle know what they are being asked by Millen and, tactically, are in the main carrying out what he is asking. Their first-half display was largely one of composure and method while, up front, Tristan Abrahams gave a good line-leading performance.

His movement off the shoulder of defenders allowed others, particularly Brennan Dickenson, to combine and test Exeter. Further back, Corey Whelan and Rod McDonald were alert in keeping the home side at arm’s length.

Mark Howard’s saves were carried out in comfort. What United didn’t do, though – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – is capitalise when in good areas. When Jack Armer went off injured (a gash to his leg indicated a challenge that deserved punishment, Millen insisted), Exeter tried to pounce, but after Jevani Brown beat sub Taylor Charters in the corner, Howard parried Timothee Dieng’s shot.

Carlisle, at this stage, were in it. If anything, they were edging things overall. Then Mellish’s eyes lit up at a 50-50 and he went clumsily into it, hurting himself, Archie Collins and, ultimately, United’s chances of a fair fight in the process.

Millen rejigged for the second half, and did so again by bringing on Morgan Feeney a few minutes into it and reverting to a central back three. Abrahams was now a lonely soul up front as Exeter pushed themselves onto Carlisle. A couple of back-post chances were passed up, but on the hour sub Jonathan Grounds was found in space and his low cross was glanced in by Sam Nombe, who had ghosted away from defenders.

It was a slow-motion moment, United pinned back a few yards too many, and while Gibson then led a couple of decent counter-attacks, they couldn’t find a sharp edge when the box or goal was in sight.

Exeter’s second then came from a much more familiar menu: one that says if you’ve gone 319 professional appearances without scoring, you might just get lucky against the Blues.

That was Jake Caprice’s merry fate as he shot home after Brown’s pass, Danny Devine having lost the ball in midfield. United did show spirit again, and Gibson got a goal he merited when dispatching Dickenson’s cross a few minutes later.

A few last scrambles could have yielded a point, which wouldn’t have flattered Carlisle generally. But as the drizzle fell and Exeter celebrated, the final reckoning said the Blues’ voyage to Devon had brought a few steps forward, but also a reckless and damaging leap back.