Searching for the positives in this Carlisle United season has often required a particularly strong magnifying glass. But here are two: Jordan Gibson and Mark Howard.

For all that the Blues have got wrong lately, this is a pair they’ve got right. If United are to fight or play (or both) their way out of trouble, these two are clearly going to be essential players.

Yes, it’s easier to present these conclusions after a victory. Let nobody allow themselves to think that one win away to Stevenage has sorted many of the issues which the January transfer window must still address.

But the numbers, and the general feel of the performances provided by Howard and Gibson nonetheless allow us to give a thumbs-up where it is due.

Gibson might turn out to be one of the better things Chris Beech left behind. From his 19 games in a United shirt, the attacking midfielder has five goals.

This already exceeds all his previous finishes in English football put together, while each one has come with a certain style.

There was the drilled shot against Scunthorpe which helped the Blues pull a draw out of the flames. His free-kick at Morecambe in the Papa John’s Trophy displayed a different and potentially very useful quality.

At Exeter it was Gibson’s opportunism that gave United late hope in defeat, his well-crafted shooting that handed them a consolation against Shrewsbury in the FA Cup.

Then, at a key point in Saturday’s game at the Lamex Stadium, Gibson did the one thing that can often peel open tense games between struggling teams: he got the ball, looked up, and ran.

Six-pointers like Stevenage v Carlisle United are often settled by the crushing of nerve, the player bundled by tension into a mistake. This time it was a penetrating run by the man in the Blues side with the confidence and clear thinking to attempt it.

Gibson was swift of foot and thought and the challenge in the box from the home side’s captain Luke Prosser was a split-second late. It was an obvious penalty and Gibson seized the ball before briskly sending it past goalkeeper Joseph Anang.

Often in United’s recent difficulties it has been a case of reasonable work between the boxes without the rather important end bit. Gibson’s dribbling and attempted forays have frequently lacked the substance from team-mates higher up the pitch.

Saturday showed what’s possible when a few of the pieces fit better together. Jon Mellish and Sam Fishburn did not necessarily outclass Stevenage’s defence but they did, as Keith Millen said, provide physical engagement – expanding the space between the lines for Gibson to cut inside and do his thing.

The 23-year-old returned to England in August after a positive spell with Sligo Rovers. He had left home in Birmingham to pursue a chance with Rangers, before bit-part opportunities followed at Bradford City.

This, he said upon signing at Brunton Park, was an opportunity for him to make a more lasting mark in the Football League. Bradford happen to be United’s next opponents and one imagines the red pen will circle Gibson’s name when Derek Adams identifies the potential threats in the home opposition this weekend.

As for Howard – if the mark of a reliable keeper is when he is mentioned little, the veteran mid-season signing is ticking an important box just now.

News and Star: Mark Howard (photo: Barbara Abbott)Mark Howard (photo: Barbara Abbott)

The 35-year-old was sharp in his saves at Broadhall Way two days ago but just as important was the feeling that, well, not a great deal was going to go wrong when the chaos of League Two football was happening around him.

Howard joined not long after Beech’s sacking, so who’ll take the credit for recruiting the former Bolton Wanderers and Sheffield United man as a free agent can be determined. Either way: it has proved a wise piece of business, since United’s other option at the time (with Magnus Norman sidelined) was to place all their faith in Lukas Jensen, with the teenage Scott Simons and Gabriel Breeze as back-up.

It’s hard to know how things would have unfolded with Jensen between the sticks, since a wrist injury has since curtailed the Burnley loanees’’s involvement. Yet Howard has provided important reassurance and a vocal aspect to a team which needed all the help and comfort it could get at that particular time.

Six clean sheets in 14 games is a more than reasonable start given United’s problems. Prior to Howard’s arrival they’d kept three in 14. Some of this gradual improvement can be put down to Millen’s work (while it’s weighted to a degree by the fact one shut-out was against Horsham of the Isthmian League).

But the benefits of having an older head such as this are emphasised in a side which does not possess too many players who have been around a few blocks and have the gravitas, as a result, to let the others know what’s what. Extending Howard's contract beyond this winter must be high on the Blues' to-do list.

To repeat: these things do come into the light a little more in the wake of a positive result. But they are also, as Saturday showed, part of the reason why positive results are possible in a time of stress.

Recent weeks ought to have made it clear to Millen: that he has a couple of players here, at least, around which Carlisle must now seek to build better.