Lincoln City 1 Carlisle United 1: On a weekend when university students were making their way back to Lincoln, Carlisle United performed less like nervous freshers than savvy second or third-years who know where to go, which places to avoid and who sells the cheapest beer.

In football terms, the early-season naivete in Carlisle’s League One learning appeared to have gone, to a large degree. There was certainly none of the “impostor syndrome” Paul Simpson had diagnosed in those early, unsure weeks of term.

Instead, there was an intent and intelligence which, crucially, was up to the pace of events. United were, across 96 minutes, the equal of a side more established at this level and who’d won their last two home games 3-0.

With a clearer-sighted referee, they might even have upgraded this respectable draw to a first away win. That box remains unchecked. But others were ticked in terms of Carlisle’s belief, their understanding that they are entitled to be at this level, that they are equipped to take it to teams who have long crossed that psychological bridge.

That has to be the lasting reflection from Saturday’s 1-1 draw, even if the temptation is to look the other way and keep snarling at the man in black. Let us briefly submit to that temptation. Tom Nield’s performance was one of those that left you biting your fist, not least for his baffling failure to penalise Paudie O’Connor for the foul on Sean Maguire which should have seen Carlisle with a penalty and the chance to go 2-0 up before half-time.

News and Star: Fin Back brings the ball forward for CarlisleFin Back brings the ball forward for Carlisle (Image: Barbara Abbott)

“I don’t want to talk about his performance,” said Simpson, whilst talking about his performance. United’s manager didn’t go as far as he did after the Bradford play-off first leg, when his complaints about officials earned him a fine. But this was as maddened as he’s felt since then.

If the job of a good ref is to blend into the game, seldom be recognised, then Nield failed that test, giving some decisions contentiously, failing to give others contentiously, booking five times as many United players as Lincoln men despite this being an even competitive tussle, and, well, here we still are – talking about the ref’s performance.

We shouldn’t any more, in the fullness of it. Let’s instead get back to Carlisle, who got in front through Luke Plange during a fine first-half spell, almost built on it through a terrific frontrunning performance by Sean Maguire, later lost it via Ethan Hamilton’s equalising rocket for Lincoln, then veered between defending it and furtively trying to regain it without success.

The complete third-tier performance is still out there, waiting to be nailed by Carlisle. But this eighth league game since promotion was good in terms of result and application. The 12-week shoulder injury to Joshua Kayode is a regrettable cloud overhead but another striker (Plange) is at least off the mark and, on the whole, United were never overwhelmed by Mark Kennedy’s side.

News and Star: Jordan Gibson makes a passJordan Gibson makes a pass (Image: Barbara Abbott)

The learning goes on, at this tantalising time for the Blues. The game began to chants of “USA, USA” from the away end, on account of a seemingly imminent American takeover. A warm afternoon then saw Simpson’s side repeatedly cross the pond into Lincoln’s territory.

Maguire was outstanding, full of running, savvy back-to-goal play and intellect in tight spaces; a package that made Kennedy’s defenders look more cumbersome than they are. His first shot came after 35 seconds and Carlisle backed up his lively work with active immediate support from Plange, and good industry further back.

Lincoln’s threat, in the opening period, was tame, O’Connor’s dipping header onto the top of the net from a long throw an isolated mini-scare. Carlisle did well to put bodies into the right places to keep their penalty box safe, and then a swathe of pressure down the right led to the opener, when Owen Moxon’s free-kick flew past Lukas Jensen via Plange’s touch.

Eighteen games last season for Lincoln without scoring, then a goal against them after 19 minutes. Football’s gods were smiling on Plange. Yet he has earned his moment, as did Carlisle a period of advantage, Jokull Andresson saving from Jack Burroughs, Maguire annoying the heck out of Lincoln some more, Moxon testing the home keeper, Andresson sharp to thwart a long-range Alistair Smith drive, and then that flashpoint, as O’Connor changed his run to cut into the darting Maguire, who went down.

Neild theatrically waved away the appeals. Simpson turned to the fourth official aghast and did his best Jim Carrey in Liar Liar: “Oh, come on!” One wondered, even after a positive Carlisle first half, whether that would give Lincoln a glimmer and so it did, Hamilton given enough space to line up a shot in the 49th minute, his finish powerful, low and merciless.

News and Star: Ethan Hamilton's shot for Lincoln beats Jokull Andresson for the equaliserEthan Hamilton's shot for Lincoln beats Jokull Andresson for the equaliser (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Carlisle’s depth of defending at that point was criticised by Simpson, but their victory from what followed was in not letting Lincoln impose themselves upon them. The home side had more of the ball, more of the threat, but United defended their lines well, Paul Huntington meeting crosses as if magnet-drawn, Andresson saving well from Ted Bishop and more muck-and-nettles stuff at the back and from Callum Guy in deep midfield.

The actual victory remained elusive, Moxon passing up their best chance after good enterprise from Fin Back. There was then a lull in terms of chances but not in terms of incident, bookings coming in regular order for United, Joe Garner a particularly aggrieved party after coming off the bench, Carlisle working some good areas without a clinical final ball, Lincoln doing likewise with only a Hamilton free-kick they could call a proper near miss.

Terry Ablade’s pace as a counter-attacking tool kept Lincoln honest in the closing stages, ensured they could never discount Carlisle and, right at the end, a disciplined defensive performance by Jon Mellish was signed off by a timely challenge to prevent the jinking sub, Hakeeb Adelakun, from a cruel winner.

“I think we’ve shown we’re a good football team and that we can fight and scrap,” said Simpson, whose general satisfaction was justified – as was his lecture about the ref.