It is commonly said that Carlisle United’s team in the 2000/1 season was one of the most rag-tag in history: a gang of renegades and misfits that Ian Atkins managed to keep up despite appalling circumstances and wretched odds.

To a fair extent, that’s right. The Blues had reached their nadir under Michael Knighton and barely had a squad until a few days before the campaign started. They were, it’s fair to say, firmly up against it from day one.

Atkins did the Lord’s work to turn Carlisle into any sort of competitive and functioning team in a climate of civil war between fans and the embattled Knighton with the club increasingly a wreck. They started the campaign poorly, but roused themselves to win decisive games during the run-in.

They also had an amount of “anger” – something Keith Millen wants to see in his current team. Carl Heggs, whose goal at Lincoln City secured survival in 00/01’s penultimate game, recalled dressing-room bust-ups as the risk of relegation loomed.

“Pressure was everywhere and every player felt it,” he told me. “I remember standing up in the dressing room and having a fight with Stuey Whitehead after we’d lost to Scunthorpe. We found out that five of the players had gone out in Glasgow on the Saturday and got steaming. I went absolutely mental.”

The defiant, brawling Blues duly clung onto their Football League status. But there was another reason. For all the flaws Atkins had to mask, for all the grubby heroism, they still had qualities. They still had players.

They had, for instance, a goalscoring midfielder in Steve Soley, a young forward coveted by bigger clubs in Scott Dobie, a predatory finisher in Ian Stevens. Mick Galloway could pick a pass. Mark Birch could handle himself at right-back. Whitehead was a good enough defender to have played in better teams. Richard Prokas was Richard Prokas.

Yes, they had their issues, relied on lesser journeymen like Tony Hemmings, dabbled on fleeting hopefuls like Stephane Lemarchand, were powerless to keep promising performers like Tony Carss early on.

But they stayed up because they still had performers you could depend on. Stevens, in his second United spell, scored 17 goals in 2000/1. Imagine that in this present side?

Imagine, too, some of the characters from other times of struggle. United’s 1991/2 season is by many measurements the worst in their history, the Blues finishing bottom of the Football League but spared relegation by wider footballing circumstances.

News and Star: Andy Watson was a ray of hope in the gloomy 1991/2 seasonAndy Watson was a ray of hope in the gloomy 1991/2 season

They were dire, but Andy Watson, a fine attacking player, was not. Carlisle’s lowest-scoring team, which was relegated from Division Three in 1986/7, still had the frontrunning quality of Scott McGarvey, the midfield class of Ian Bishop.

2002/3 had the aggressive potential of a young Richie Foran, 1987/8 the remnants of Mally Poskett’s class, 2014/15 the teenage emphasis of Kyle Dempsey. Hard seasons; in some cases failed ones. But, here and there, a saving grace.

This is the difficult truth about what we are seeing right now. This far into the 2021/22 season, Carlisle do not have an Ian Stevens to fig-leaf their faults. They do not have a Poskett to settle games against fellow strugglers. They do not have an Andy Watson, to give a poor side hope.

This may not be a bad squad individually, right across the board. Some of those toiling now had United at the top of League Two a few months ago. Yet the deficit in key areas – you know the main one – is plain.

Millen has a month and a bit before the transfer window and as such it is understandable why he would, until then, promote different ideas, such as changing players’ “mindset” and trying to make a quiet team more vocal.

News and Star: Keith Millen is focusing on "mindset" with a month to wait before he can turn to the transfer window (photo: Barbara Abbott)Keith Millen is focusing on "mindset" with a month to wait before he can turn to the transfer window (photo: Barbara Abbott)

These are the areas he can affect right now. It is no use a manager saying in late November that Carlisle are entirely dependent on January. To do so would essentially sideline a few vital weeks of results and write off players Millen is going to need.

The rest of us, though, are at greater liberty to stand back and express the truth of it. Yes, Carlisle, with two victories from 18, 12 league games without a win and five on the spin at home without a goal, might very well need a bit more fight about them.

They might indeed require a more cutting “mindset”. They would not be harmed in any way by a bit of Gray, a dash of Soley, a ladleful of Mountfield, a shot of Grainger, a helping of the Atkins spirit; anything at all that could inspire a meek side to become more hardened and downright offended by where their results currently have them.

The facts, though, tell a plainer story. Considering this is officially one of the least threatening teams in Carlisle United’s history, it is not so much fight they need as players: strikers, frontmen, finishers, line-leaders bail-out merchants, number nines, whatever the 2021/22 version of Ian Stevens looks like.

Millen will know this as keenly as anyone, even if he can’t say it yet. Whatever is uttered and attempted just now, Carlisle’s urgent requirement really boils down to one precious word. Quality.