Carlisle United 0 Bristol Rovers 1: Own the north? Right now Carlisle United would settle for a short-term rental agreement for a space measuring eight feet high and eight yards long. The goal, it’s called. Remember that?

It would be nice to pay a short holiday there one of these days. The worry is, by the time Carlisle reacquaint themselves with the most vital part of a football pitch, things might be too far gone.

The Piatak takeover, which ought to be done in time for the next league game – and which was welcomed in advance with that slogan on a big stripy banner in the Waterworks End on Saturday – remains a matter of great and hungry anticipation.

News and Star: Sam Lavelle in front of the large OWN THE NORTH flag - welcoming prospective owners the Piataks - in the Waterworks EndSam Lavelle in front of the large OWN THE NORTH flag - welcoming prospective owners the Piataks - in the Waterworks End (Image: Barbara Abbott)

It is something which looks equipped to strengthen United for the long term. Can it keep them in League One this season? That’s a much trickier question, one that's getting trickier with each sterile defeat like this.

Paul Simpson, afterwards, maintained his belief that these players can contribute more, although tellingly he did check himself by hoping this wasn’t a “deluded” thought.

News and Star: Army veterans lay wreaths on the pitch ahead of the Remembrance commemoration before the gameArmy veterans lay wreaths on the pitch ahead of the Remembrance commemoration before the game (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Evidence is not backing up his faith. Carlisle failed to score for the 12th game out of 21 this season and if you wanted a quick primer on their 2023/24 to date, these latest 90 minutes would do the job.

Again, it is not as if the Blues were beaten out of sight. Again, it is not as if they did not have individuals who stepped up. Again, it is not as if they did not have territory, positions, chances. Again, it is not as if they looked remotely capable of maximising any of them.

News and Star: Joe Garner shows his frustrationJoe Garner shows his frustration (Image: Ben Holmes)

Again, it was the case that the opposition needed one break to claim three points.

As such, the conclusion remains that this group is simply not good enough for the difficult task of winning sufficient League One games. If that is an unfair verdict let the three-point gap between United (now 22nd) and 20th in the table be wiped away quickly. Let the overdue climb happen.

No, me neither. You just can’t see it. Carlisle, with this collection, may produce the odd bright day (Bolton away seems such a bitter anomaly right now) but the overall pattern is darker. It says they are one of the division’s weakest teams, one that has not been able to step up since promotion, be that in recruitment (the main issue), performance or, as the injuries now tot up, fitness.

News and Star: Bristol Rovers score as the ball loops over Tomas HolyBristol Rovers score as the ball loops over Tomas Holy (Image: Barbara Abbott)

All this will be needling Simpson sharply. A month and a half’s football until January, and the releasing of that "step-change budget" can cement their fate unless they find improvement either in the free agent market or through a selection spin not yet seen.

The prospect of the latter is limited given how the bodies are piling up: Fin Back now out for “months”, Paul Huntington’s calf giving way on his comeback game, others out either long-term or midway along the road to returning. Simpson has lifted United out of worse predicaments than this but this is still going to be a major test of his powers.

Saturday’s dazzling sun did not blind us to Carlisle’s shortcomings. In the first half they were Bristol Rovers’ match in general play but were paper tigers around the box. With Huntington back in defence and Jon Mellish in midfield, there was a competitive basis about United’s efforts, but not, once more, potency.

News and Star: Luke Plange, one of United's brighter players against Bristol Rovers, is brought downLuke Plange, one of United's brighter players against Bristol Rovers, is brought down (Image: Ben Holmes)

Aaron Collins missed the first real chance for the visitors while Carlisle’s mercury rose with referee Martin Woods’ annoying early decisions. Luke Plange, who was one of the brighter performers on the left of the home attack, nearly opened something up but it was a patchy spectacle in general, neither side threading much together, neither punching into the final third with great purpose.

Harvey Vale squandered one rare opportunity for the visitors and its route ought at least to have warned Carlisle. There was an amount of overlapping menace from Jack Hunt involved in it, and that came back to hurt United for the goal, when he cruised onto a move involving Collins and Chris Martin and saw his driven delivery hit Sam Lavelle and loop over Tomas Holy.

There could not be great faith in United fighting back from this. Huntington went down and then off, and Jordan Gibson continued in his best efforts to evade defenders and create something, anything, but little occurred close to Matthew Cox’s goal. Joe Garner, booked early on, struggled for change either from the referee or Andy Mangan’s defence.

In the second half it was then a case of Rovers dialling down their enterprise in the knowledge Carlisle were not kitted out to obliterate them. United had most of the ball, and all the set-pieces (ten corners to nil) but it was mainly bluster.

News and Star: Terry Ablade takes on George FriendTerry Ablade takes on George Friend (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Plange remained bright, while Dylan McGeouch, on his full league debut, distributed tidily in midfield, but United’s nearest misses weren’t really near: a header by Plange which Cox pushed behind, a McGeouch shot into the keeper’s midriff, a flick by sub Sean Maguire that cleared the bar and then, after a red card for Tristan Crama for fouling the goalbound Terry Ablade, more of the same.

And the same, we know by now, isn’t up to the mark. Bristol Rovers were far from the deadliest side Carlisle have come across this season, and some of the cynicism in their play was a sour feature, but they still deserved their takings, as did United, alas.

It remains human nature to look for positivity even in bleak times, and some was there on Saturday – not in the performance, but in someone there to watch it. Nick Anderton, free from cancer, looking healthy, facing a happier future at last. That result trumps any goal, any win or defeat, and reminds us what really matters even on cold days like this.