There was predictable hilarity from corners of the Carlisle United fanbase when it emerged that Keith Millen was back in management this week.

Ok, interim management, but still: the Blues’ short-lived leader from October 2021 to February 2022 is in the front line again, at Gillingham, and the comments following this news were doused with vinegar.

“God help them,” said one. “Doomed,” another. “They would be better with someone out of the crowd,” another. Welcome back then, Keith: respected player, long-serving coach, well-liked assistant manager, head of academy coaching, nice chap.

No matter the calibre of the man, football doesn’t spare the horses when it comes to signing off bad times. Millen, in truth, was a symptom rather than a cause of United’s last wretched period – a curious appointment by a regime of different pulls and pushes, an avuncular man who never seemed the right fit for Carlisle’s urgent and wider needs.

The moment of his sign-off – that Munch’s Scream of a 3-0 defeat to Swindon Town – feels both recent and distant, when this long-established football person processed what he had seen and boiled his analysis down to “We can’t defend.”

Turned out, in the end, they could. Good luck to him, though, in Kent, where he’s now minding the shop for a presumably more glittering future candidate, reflecting the ambition of new American owners.

United are going down the USA route too but it is hard to envisage the Piataks going the way of the Galinsons, and making a quick chop-change. Neil Harris appeared to have done solid work at Gillingham but Paul Simpson is as close to managerial royalty as Carlisle have known since Alan Ashman.

Nobody around Brunton Park, whether those in the house or those seeking to buy it, are ignorant of this and, not that reminders are needed, a further underlining will come today.

Amid the many positive landmarks passed since Simpson replaced Millen in February 2022, another can be observed today. Carlisle’s attendance in that last game pre-Simmo was 4,345, a figure that included 3,964 Blues supporters.

News and Star: Carlisle's home crowd against Swindon - the last game pre-Simpson - was lower than their away turnout todayCarlisle's home crowd against Swindon - the last game pre-Simpson - was lower than their away turnout today (Image: Barbara Abbott)

And that was still not nearly the lowest of it in terms of United crowds amid periods of struggle. Yet they still sold comfortably more tickets than that for an away game today.

Something in the region of 4,500 were due to be trundling down the M6 and M61 to Bolton Wanderers’ Toughsheet Community Stadium or on the trains, though the cancellation of the latter has dashed a number of plans late in the day.

Good luck to those having to find another way at short notice. And a massive thanks to the train operators, obviously. Knowing Blues fans, a vibrant occasion is still guaranteed whatever the result, however Carlisle play, whether or not this is one of those afternoons when United turn it on or whether it’s another day of more daunting League One realities.

It will be said that this sort of turnout reflects United’s potential. And that’s absolutely true. If the Blues can take these numbers on the road whilst 20th in the third tier, what might they muster if the Simpson-Piatak ‘dream ticket’ (CUOSC’s term) can take them over a brighter horizon?

That’s a fantasy we can all enjoy. But this isn’t just about potential and the future. It’s about the right now. This is the state of 2023 Carlisle United and we must also enjoy it for what it is, as well as thinking what sort of platform it could be.

Are these not, after all, the days we live for, the mornings that spring you out of bed and skipping onto coaches, that send the refreshments down that touch quicker, that make the business of following the Blues en masse as busy and as boisterous as it should be, as it wasn’t able to be when they were floundering in the late-Beech and Millen months, under the footballing acumen of those EWM influences?

United’s fans, in fairness, have often defied low times. They’ve still turned up well in strife. Think of days such as Boxing Day 2014 at Morecambe, the ‘male genitalia’ season when avoiding non-league’s jaws was their only stressful hope.

News and Star: Carlisle's last trip to Bolton was played in an empty stadium in the Covid-hit 2020/21 season. Things will be very different todayCarlisle's last trip to Bolton was played in an empty stadium in the Covid-hit 2020/21 season. Things will be very different today (Image: Richard Parkes)

Think of other away days along that low journey. A few short weeks before the Swindon debacle, just shy of 1,000 fans crammed the away end to watch Millen’s brittle team lose at Salford City.

This is not a fair weather fanbase, never has been. Yet the Simpson revival has brought it higher, up a division and up a level in terms of the numbers we can now regard as normal for Carlisle United support.

On the precipice of change, a future around the corner which we can’t fully know, we must still relish this now, appreciate what Simpson has done and what he has tapped into: reflect on one of many reasons why history will assess him as one of this club’s most significant managers, why the lack of things named after him at Brunton Park will surely be addressed in the fullness of time.

This isn’t just a case of jumping into the comfort blanket of recent happiness when the present, on the pitch, is so clearly challenging. It doesn’t dilute the wish for Carlisle to be better, to flourish, to win some games, to score enough goals to make League One survival appear a touch more realistic and then to go on.

It is simply, if you can put it this way, a stock-take: four-and-a-half thousand and more reasons to appreciate what United have grown back into, what they look like today, what a Saturday afternoon in October is now encouraging so many people to do.

It is a symbol of relevance, the idea made flesh of Carlisle United being strong and meaningful again, of the Blues mattering, the way we always believed they should but a concept which had to come from behind, to say the least, for them to get there again.

Every bottom which hits a Bolton seat, every voice raised from those away-end tiers, plays its part in lifting the club and keeping it there, and that's something to cherish. We’ve come a long way, baby.