Cambridge United 1 Carlisle United 0: It is sometimes said in Carlisle’s favour that at least they haven’t had a proper rinsing in this League One season. They are normally in games. The three or four-goal shellacking by one of the third tier’s mightiest still eludes them.

Yet this, in many ways, was worse than taking a hiding from such a team. It was an opportunity that United shrivelled from so badly that it said gloomy things about their capabilities at this level in the long run.

Cambridge, in the opening stages, were not so much there for the taking as making themselves available in a Black Friday deal. Eight league games winless, a certain anxiety in the autumnal Abbey Stadium air. Grab it now while stocks last.

Yet this is the sort of chance Carlisle are too often unable to take. Or at least not with the kind of consistency that will keep them out of the bottom four: their new home, thanks to this 1-0 defeat.

“We have to improve, we’ve got to,” said Paul Simpson. This was in response to a question not about Saturday’s showing in itself, but about what it said regarding the need for mid-season changes; ie the January window. Carlisle have lots of football to play between now and then but events here only bolstered the case for remedial action.

News and Star: Joe Garner on the attack for UnitedJoe Garner on the attack for United (Image: Richard Parkes)

Tom Piatak, watching from the directors’ box, cannot assume he’ll be able to keep the much-trailed “step-change” budget in his pocket on this evidence. The American businessman is now flying home ahead of what is hoped will be the completion, soon, of his family’s takeover at Brunton Park.

The deal needs to deliver change for the long run, that we know. Infrastructure, facilities, vision, the big picture. But those things will have to get in line behind the need to make this squad more League One-ready and robust right now. Carlisle, after a fair start against Mark Bonner’s side, melted into mediocrity and then a second half performance which bears comparison with this season’s worst.

And we have got this far in, the eighth paragraph, before even mentioning that United lost one player in the warm-up and had two more sent off. None of those situations helped. But none pointed them directly to this result.

Fin Back’s loss was unfortunate yet Ben Barclay’s battlefield promotion to right-back did not wreck Carlisle’s shape. The red cards shown to Jack Armer and Alfie McCalmont – both justified – only came after United had put together the majority of a second 45 minutes which left a bad odour.

News and Star: Ben Barclay, second left, comes in for some close attentionBen Barclay, second left, comes in for some close attention (Image: Richard Parkes)

Carlisle, all in all, lacked pace, lacked conviction, lacked the game-turners who had shown up much better against Burton Albion four days previously. They lacked the sureness of touch to get back hold of a game that had come loose.

They looked, by the end, a comfortable second best to a Cambridge who broke free from their own early worries and came onto United in the growing knowledge that their opponents had few punches to throw. George Thomas’ winner, which came during a persuasive spell by Bonner’s team, was a fair reward.

For the Blues, a second successive 1-0 defeat on the road took a notably different shape to the first one. After the gutsy effort at Portsmouth, there was the false dawn of their start at the Abbey. The second minute might have brought a Dan Butterworth goal via a snappy left-sided attack, while Joe Garner looked to show his fangs.

Cambridge found spaces in response, Sullay Kaikai often the man to find them on the left, but the hosts’ delivery was as uncertain as United’s penalty-box defending was sound. Sam Lavelle made three clearances in the space of a few seconds and United’s body language was, initially, better.

A finish, a piece of execution, eluded them. Jordan Gibson, Butterworth and Sean Maguire failed to click the pieces of another attack together, Barclay headed a Callum Guy corner (not an Owen Moxon corner, significantly) wide, other half chances passed and then, from the midway point in the half, things started slowly shifting.

News and Star: Sub Terry Ablade shoots to no availSub Terry Ablade shoots to no avail (Image: Richard Parkes)

Not to the point where Cambridge were suddenly menacing, but at least to the stage where their footing grew surer. The quality of Carlisle’s passing dipped, the urgency of Cambridge’s improved. Tomas Holy saved from Kaikai then Jordan Cousins cleared the bar. James Brophy went close at the back stick and by half-time the main sense was of two toothless sides gumming each other to a standstill.

Then the hosts put their dentures in. From the beginning to the end of the second period they were better, right-back Liam Bennett an increasingly positive outlet on the right in conjunction with Brophy. Gassan Ahadme and Bennett went close, Kaikai whipped a shot wide and, after Simpson made two changes and Bonner three, the same direction prevailed only with different personnel.

By the time Holy had denied Brophy and Bennett had narrowly cleared the crossbar, it was a case of whether Cambridge could finally punish Carlisle. No other plot line was available. Duly the conclusion arrived, United giving up possession generously for the umpteenth time, Bennett crossing and Thomas, untracked, heading home.

Two more Carlisle changes then came, as did one good chance – miskicked by McCalmont – but there was no overhaul, no faith in the cavalry sorting things, and the rest was simply a case of totting up the ways for the afternoon to get worse. Armer, for pulling back Saikou Janneh, was shown a second yellow, and McCalmont a red for a high foot against Paul Rigby.

Carlisle’s fans let rip at ref Sam Purkiss, and were entitled to for his mystifying refusal to award a couple of late free-kicks to Terry Ablade, but these were trivial complaints in the overall context. The real story was a display too close to Halloween to avoid the obvious comparisons, and a day not so much of questions as a further few uncomfortable answers.