You know that a lot of your first half of a season has been a misadventure when, in early January, a climb to 19th in League Two can be greeted with so much positivity and hope.

The happy feelings generated by Carlisle United’s fine victory over Bradford City tell you what a toil it’s been to reach this point. To say the recent Keith Millen-led improvement has been timely is quite the understatement.

United reach the halfway point in their league fixtures sixth bottom: their highest position for three months. Their 2-0 win over the Bantams was their best home victory of the season so far (not that it’s had much competition).

Their current winning run – three league games – is their best since last spring. The quality of their performance on Saturday also far outstripped most of what we’ve seen.

So: United enter the back nine in improved spirits and with a team that looks more capable at last. Many fans would have traded limbs and relatives for this mid-term outcome when watching the incredibly bleak offerings that dotted the opening period.

News and Star: United's 4-0 defeat to Sutton in September was a low point in their poor start to the seasonUnited's 4-0 defeat to Sutton in September was a low point in their poor start to the season

Identifying rock bottom in 2021/22 may be a matter of debate but, of several low points in the decline, three stood out. One, the 4-0 annihilation at Sutton United when the scoreline flattered Chris Beech’s Blues. Two, the 3-0 undressing at Bristol Rovers when the head coach’s race was finally run.

Three, the defeat by a similar scoreline at Northampton Town, when Millen must have felt like he’d trespassed on a funeral.

Each of those rinsings was the product of dire work and build-up, a transfer window of too much upheaval, and a dissolving of faith. The good thing, in hindsight, is that United were so bad at the Sixfields Stadium that Millen, on day one, had a high-definition view of what they needed. Nothing at all was concealed.

News and Star: United fans look concerned during the 3-0 defeat at NorthamptonUnited fans look concerned during the 3-0 defeat at Northampton

In style of play and in body language, the experienced successor to Beech has steadily picked the team up from that desolate day, which had invited comparisons with the very worst of Carlisle United (the early-90s struggles, the Roddy Collins chaos).

The vibrancy they showed against Bradford was incomparable with that error-strewn defeatism. The nuggety away wins at Stevenage and Scunthorpe also demonstrated a new defiance.

At this stage, that says good things about the former Bristol City manager’s touch. It suggests the tactical approach attempted, as well as Millen’s general manner, is indeed what United needed.

News and Star: Keith MillenKeith Millen

The development of a possession game, as opposed to the raw meat of ‘Beech ball’, does seem more attuned to the current squad. Players such as Jack Armer, Rod McDonald and Callum Guy have grown again in performance. Morgan Feeney’s potential is becoming clearer - the former Everton man is starting to fill Aaron Hayden's void with some authority - while two other pre-Millen signings, Mark Howard and Jordan Gibson, have been excellent, adding reassurance and dynamism where there was none.

The remaining 19 days of the transfer window must, naturally, be executed well. Harder games lie ahead, and League Two is such a volatile beast that a six-point buffer zone can just as quickly vanish.

News and Star: Morgan Feeney Morgan Feeney

Carlisle have not come so far that we can assume they've cracked it. They must fight like tigers just to retain their current position. Any assumption the hard work is done must be chased from the building with its pants on fire.

The circumstances that led to this rescue job must also remain in the mind. It is a long time since United’s EFL status has looked in the peril it did during some of those hollow defeats. Things should not have to get that bad before they can get better.

United’s statistics truly highlight the depths reached. They remain the joint lowest scorers at home in League Two (although their home defensive record is the equal of table-toppers Forest Green).

News and Star: Mark HowardMark Howard

Their overall goals tally, 18 from 23, remains ripe for dramatic improvement. Goal difference of -11 tells its own tale. Before the Blues went to Stevenage on December 11, they’d won three league games from 20.

These are numbers associated with the worst of times, and explain why Millen, like everyone else, was also keen to get to January as quickly as possible so he could start signing off deals that would improve United’s prospects.

They acted with necessary speed once the window was unbolted. Joel Senior, Tyrese Omotoye and Omari Patrick have already come in, while Brad Young, Jonathan Dinzeyi and Keelan Leslie have left. Expect Millen to sanction loan moves for young fringe players before too long.

News and Star: Omari Patrick, rightOmari Patrick, right

Ideally, too, extra substance will come through the door. Then what’s left of 2021/22 can be more about rebuilding than outright scrambling to avoid the trapdoor.

Statistics show incremental improvement. Under Beech, United took 11 league games to accrue 10 points. Gavin Skelton, as caretaker, gained two from three matches. Millen has 13 from nine.

On points-per-game, the new boss is on 1.44 compared with the previous gaffer’s 0.91 (in 2021/22). Roughly speaking that’s 15 more points over a 46-match season. Again: progress, from the barren starting point.

News and Star: Jon MellishJon Mellish

Millen has also taken steps in particular places. For one, since December, he has further expanded Jon Mellish’s versatility. Certainly on Saturday, his relentless engine seemed better suited to an attacking role, while Guy and Corey Whelan did the tighter-knit stuff in central midfield.

Mid-game tweaks, like switching Gibson and Brennan Dickenson against Bradford, show a proactive touch. Going aerial, as was the case at Scunthorpe at times, was executed with the help of Mellish and Sam Fishburn, who gave a platform after previous, flaky up-front United offerings.

Set-pieces have clearly improved too – while there is a degree of simplicity in the Blues’ defensive organisation. Millen is a back-four man. Just now, the balance between risk and safety at the rear is being struck. One goal conceded in five league games represents excellent work.

News and Star: Tyrese OmotoyeTyrese Omotoye

How can Carlisle go further now? By becoming truly threatening in the 18-yard box: the most gaping flaw of 2021/22 to date. Omotoye gave an encouraging debut against Bradford, while Patrick appeared to have returned with a burning intent to claw back some lost time.

Their energy refreshed Brunton Park on Saturday. United must next show a capacity to score more scruffy goals, clinical finishes, converted crosses, an ability to make the absolute most of territory and possession.

Improving in the second half of a season is not a common trait of the Cumbrians. Early signs in 2022 offer optimism that, this time, it might be possible. Let us pray so - and that they can reach the summer refreshed, intact and with autumn's nightmares receded.