Portsmouth 1 Carlisle United 0: One by one, Carlisle’s players filed out of the dressing room, around the blue perimeter of the Fratton Park pitch, some with hoods up, some focused on their phones, most with what can only be described as…that look.

That look that makes your face a few shades paler. That look which confirms that some of the life has been sucked from you. That look that drains your eyes, whitens your cheeks. That look that says: just the seven hours on a bus now.

Wonderful game, football, eh? A sport of millimetre-margins that can be made to appear massive. Minute 90: Dan Butterworth puts his left instep through the ball and, thanks to Will Norris’s fingernails and the tips of fabric on his goalkeeping gloves, it stays out.

Minute 93: in a crammed penalty area, Conor Shaughnessy somehow finds room to leap, to head, and that’s enough. You know it’s a goal before he’s connected with the ball. Tomas Holy, United’s keeper, knows it’s a goal because he doesn’t move.

The majority of Fratton Park erupts with a deafening clang. The vocal minority at the other end of the pitch are, for the first time in more than an hour and a half, silent.

And this – this brutal turn of events – is the deal. For every Bolton there’s a Portsmouth, for every characterful display and victory there is a characterful display and defeat. United can take plenty from the way they performed against League One’s leaders. Their stomachs will also feel hollow today.

Whatever the journey on any given Saturday, it remains the case that Carlisle need more goals, more points, more numbers to add to their belief that they can climb League One. Paul Simpson said the basic arithmetic of a 1-0 defeat is what, ultimately, counts.

News and Star: United's players take part in a minute's silence for the victims of the Israel-Palestine conflictUnited's players take part in a minute's silence for the victims of the Israel-Palestine conflict (Image: Barbara Abbott)

He is, of course, right, especially in United’s context: above the relegation zone by three points, having played more games than those below them, having now lost two on the spin when better things seemed in their grasp.

Portsmouth will reflect that what they did is what top sides do: go to the end, find a way, all those other perfectly true clichés. They are three points clear at the summit, still unbeaten since March, still propelled by some quite bracing sea air.

United, somehow along this 2023/24 voyage, have to find ways of inflicting this kind of thing, rather than suffering it. The quality of their performance at Fratton Park was genuine, particularly a bright second half. They looked a side who had come with a plan and knew how to execute it.

Had Alfie McCalmont finished with a shade more devil, this might have been a famous win. Had Norris been marginally unsighted, or slow to get down when Butterworth took aim, the same. Yet the shortcoming on a day of substance was the same that’s held them up against lesser teams than Pompey, and has to be remedied eventually.

It is the presence of so many ifs and buts in front of goal. You watch a game like this and feel the rest is good enough to carry United. But it won’t carry them far enough on its own.

Broadly speaking, Portsmouth had the better of Saturday’s first half, Carlisle more of the second. The hosts threatened to cut into United through Abu Kamara’s early running, Tino Anjorin’s awareness and Colby Bishop’s centre-forward play, but it never quite happened.

News and Star: Joe Garner and Regan Poole challenge in the airJoe Garner and Regan Poole challenge in the air (Image: Barbara Abbott)

United survived early half chances, then some better ones, when Bishop couldn’t convert Jack Sparkes’ crosses. They then had a spell of worrying Pompey, Joe Garner leading the line ably and McCalmont failing to dispatch a good Jack Armer cross.

At base, there needed to be plenty of attentive defending, of which Sam Lavelle provided plenty. Carlisle in general were industrious, their teamwork good, and if Bishop did squander a 33rd minute sitter, the feeling at half-time was still that United had doggedly earned parity.

Then they tried to convert it. A minute after the break, 676 away fans – what a magnificent number, what noise they made – tried to will McCalmont’s shot into the net, but saw it hit the upright. Sean Maguire was then denied on the break, Lavelle thwarted at the near post.

Fin Back, on the right, was at times an outstanding outlet, and Carlisle’s confidence had visibly grown. Portsmouth, despite a few rumbles, failed to create anything serious for most of the half, United defending Sparkes’ persistent wide deliveries well, and things getting more combative as the contest went on, Garner skirting a red card after a booking, Jordan Gibson not quite nailing a couple of shots, Jack Robinson deputising in midfield for Callum Guy, then the irony of what happened next as United’s fans continued singing the theme from The Great Escape.

News and Star: Portsmouth players and fans celebrate Shaughnessy's winnerPortsmouth players and fans celebrate Shaughnessy's winner (Image: Barbara Abbott)

It was Portsmouth, not United, who cut the shackles of a painstaking day, first when Norris plunged to save substitute Butterworth’s first-time drive, and then, after Holy had kept out Bishop’s header, that final corner, time pausing and then, for Carlisle, the clocks stopping completely.

As Pompey went wild, United in their fruit-salad shirts were a sad and broken sight. Lavelle, the captain, fell to his knees, spent. Later, they all went to the away end, thanked their fans and then vanished from view: another day done in this brilliant, barnstorming and, sometimes, absolute beast of a sport. Other words are available.