Before Paul Simpson came back, too many teams had a field day against Carlisle United for comfort. After his return, not so much.

All the same – when you finish 20th in the division, it stands to reason you’ve had a few more unfortunate encounters with the better teams and players than you’d care to remember.

It may not have been a vintage League Two campaign, but there have undeniably been some excellent performers along the way, and Carlisle have come up against several in top form.

Here’s my pick of the best opposition players, based on their performances against the Cumbrians in the 2021/22 campaign.

JAMES BELSHAW (Bristol Rovers) – The 31-year-old former Harrogate Town goalkeeper had the fortune to encounter United at their weakest in October, but still made some strong saves in the Gas’s 3-0 win which brought about the end of Chris Beech’s reign. At Brunton Park, he was a defiant barrier even as Carlisle came out on top thanks to Kristian Dennis’s winner – and can now look forward to League One football after Rovers’ dramatic last-day promotion.

News and Star: James Belshaw (photo: PA)James Belshaw (photo: PA)

KANE WILSON (Forest Green Rovers) – League Two’s top right-back showed his quality in two comprehensive wins for the eventual champions. Wilson’s pace and dynamism was a key part in those results – a 2-0 win at Brunton Park, and a 3-0 triumph at the New Lawn – as well as Forest Green’s dominance of the promotion race. The 22-year-old was also 2021/22’s best player in the division, according to the recent awards, and there won’t have been a great many arguments about that.

News and Star: Kane Wilson (photo: PA)Kane Wilson (photo: PA)

CHRIS HUSSEY (Port Vale) – United’s fatal mistake when hosting Port Vale in February was to allow the visiting left-back time and space. Hussey’s crossing capabilities are among the best around, and certainly no secret. As the 33-year-old whipped telling ball after telling ball into the Blues’ area, in a performance when the Valiants dominated Carlisle in wide areas, Keith Millen’s team had little answer.

News and Star: Chris Hussey (photo: PA)Chris Hussey (photo: PA)

JORDAN MOORE-TAYLOR (Forest Green Rovers) – A solid and dominating presence for the eventual champions. As Carlisle struggled to break down Rob Edwards’ team, it was often Moore-Taylor who took command and left the Blues feeding on scraps. The Nailsworth outfit put together a pair of clean sheets in their comfortable wins over United, and neither was in a great deal of doubt.

News and Star: Jordan Moore-Taylor (photo: PA)Jordan Moore-Taylor (photo: PA)

JOEL LYNCH (Crawley Town) – A well-travelled customer who made his debut against the Blues in Crawley’s 2-1 win in Sussex, Lynch’s experience stood out then. At Brunton Park, meanwhile, the 34-year-old was too strong and composed for most of United’s sterile attacking efforts at Brunton Park, until Lewis Alessandra rescued a late point for Millen’s men.

News and Star: Joel Lynch (photo: Barbara Abbott)Joel Lynch (photo: Barbara Abbott)

TIM DIENG (Exeter City) – Another team of the season man, and for very good reason. Dieng added some smart attacking movements to his obvious defensive strength in midfield, and could have helped himself to several goals were it not for some defiant goalkeeping and defending at Brunton Park. How the Blues could use the sort of middle-ground presence he brings to the Grecians.

News and Star: Tim Dieng, right (photo: PA)Tim Dieng, right (photo: PA)

PAUL LEWIS (Northampton Town) – The highest scorer against United this season, and all coming from midfield. Lewis’s timing and finishing were spot on when he ran up a hat-trick in Keith Millen’s admittedly bereft first game at Sixfields, and Lewis also poached their equaliser on that dramatic day at Brunton Park when Jordan Gibson’s late penalty brought the house down.

News and Star: Paul Lewis (photo: PA)Paul Lewis (photo: PA)

NICKY CADDEN (Forest Green Rovers) – To many minds the finest left-sided midfield player in the division, Cadden’s quality is no secret by now, and at Brunton Park the Scot scored one of the best goals by a visiting side in 2021/22: a beautifully-struck rocket from which there was no coming back. Will surely come in for attention from other clubs before too long.

News and Star: Nicky Cadden (photo: PA)Nicky Cadden (photo: PA)

DAVID AJIBOYE (Sutton United) – Newly-promoted Sutton menaced Carlisle twice in 202122, and Ajiboye was a main reason: diminutive, pacy and relentless. Could have scored more than the one he got in each of their meetings, and on both occasions looked the sort of player primed to punish any side not absolutely switched on at all times.

News and Star: David Ajiboye (photo: PA)David Ajiboye (photo: PA)

HARRY MCKIRDY (Swindon Town) – Well, you can’t ignore him, can you? Swindon’s 3-0 win at Brunton Park was very much the McKirdy show as he scored one, set up two, looked the excellent League Two forward he has become, celebrated in that charmingly understated way of his and, in the process, hastened the decision-making that brought Paul Simpson back to United. So we should be thanking him, really.

News and Star: Harry McKirdy (photo: Barbara Abbott)Harry McKirdy (photo: Barbara Abbott)

DOM TELFORD (Newport County) – In United’s 2-2 draw at Rodney Parade, the Blues’ defence appeared in a trance as Telford attacked them. For his first goal, he eased into space to score one classy goal – then he ran past statues to finish another. It was the mark of a forward at his confident peak, and, other than Forest Green’s Matty Stevens, perhaps, there can have been no better centre-forward in the division across 2021/22.

News and Star: Dom Telford (photo: PA)Dom Telford (photo: PA)

Subs: Luke McGee (Forest Green Rovers), Joe Kizzi (Sutton United), Josh Falkingham (Harrogate Town), Jack Diamond (Harrogate Town), David Worrall (Port Vale), Finn Azaz (Newport County), Louie Barry (Swindon Town).

Manager: Rob Edwards (Forest Green Rovers).