Reading 5 Carlisle United 1: Carlisle need January like a born-again festive teetotaller. The problem is that it isn’t even December yet, and the headaches clearly aren’t going to fizzle away just yet – if at all.

This was an evening to make you stare through the bottom of a glass darkly: an injury to just about your only sure thing in attack, followed by a porous and increasingly desperate defeat to one of just two sides below you in the table.

United, along this difficult League One journey to here, have tended at least to be defensively stable. Against Reading in their cavernous stadium, there were, for once, far too many gaps, too much space, for the division’s bottom side to exploit. Exploit them they did, with a great deal of relish and Carlisle, as we know, are not good enough in attack to throw sufficient punches in return.

A Sam Lavelle own-goal, a pair of opportunist finishes from Harvey Knibbs, a clinching cracker from Lewis Wing and a vindictive fifth from Femi Azeez reflected the predicament, and Luke Plange’s volleyed consolation was thin gruel in the Berkshire cold. Reading, to give them their due, were on their toes and keen to be ruthless on United’s shortcomings. 

And shortcomings were there plenty. The Royals are not one of the third tier’s supreme sides but still had far more wit and invention than Carlisle, much greater emphasis and strength. The six Piataks, watching from the directors’ seats, will have had United’s transfer needs reinforced with bells on, rather than eased in the slightest, by this spectacle. 

News and Star: Jon Mellish battles for the ballJon Mellish battles for the ball (Image: Richard Parkes)

None of those requirements is anything new in terms of grand revelation. Few of these players have had long-standing applications in to survive a January cull. But last night the problems looked particularly chronic. From the moment Joe Garner went off with a badly gashed knee in the opening ten minutes, Carlisle’s hold on this game was precarious, then slipped away completely. Paul Simpson is not, it’s fair to say, blessed with a well-stocked and fully-fit squad right now and the basic weakness of this position landed heavily here.

The only blessing in the short term is that they do not have a game this weekend. It’s going to take some mighty work, though, for that “step change” budget to get this limping, flagging side to finish 20th or above. 

Garner’s return to the teamsheet appeared, before kick-off, a positive step, the striker rested up and with his fangs, in theory, sharpened after a one-game ban. Jack Robinson also came in for his first league start on the left, in a less expected switch by Simpson, one designed, the manager said, both to pressure and contain Reading in wide areas: a possibly fertile ground according to United's pre-match analysis. 

Such are United’s fortunes right now, though, that the opening events arrived with sour familiarity. Garner’s knee injury saw both physios beckoned on at speed, the veteran eventually helped to his feet and guided off the pitch, moving very gingerly, with the game not even a tenth of the way through.

Simpson must have wondered who was poking the voodoo doll this time. Plange came on and Carlisle worked a couple of areas, but were warned about their sense of security when Knibbs broke from a United corner, slotted Azeez in, and only a faulty finish (under pressure from Dylan McGeouch) kept Carlisle level. 

News and Star: Reading's second goal scored by Harvey KnibbsReading's second goal scored by Harvey Knibbs (Image: Richard Parkes)

From there, it was a case of lots of scurrying both ways, balls that were hopeful rather than assured, yet Reading’s attempt to stretch United wide paid off in the 26th minute when a backheel put Jeriel Dorsett to the left byline and Lavelle, facing his own goal, diverted it inside his own near post.

The response was good – some nimble interplay on the right, a cultured spread by McGeouch, a deflected early cross by Robinson and a fine volleyed finish by Plange – but Carlisle’s best move of the game was only followed by lots and lots United at their worst.

Reading’s second goal came amid protests, Carlisle denied a handball decision on their left, and, put on the back foot, they conceded when Azeez crossed, Lavelle blocked and Knibbs arrived to bundle it in.

Jack Armer’s yellow card for dissent reflected Carlisle’s feelings about that passage of play, but there was no mitigation in the 39th minute when Wing spun away from attention, reversed it to Knibbs, and he deceived Tomas Holy with a low shot. Where was this kind of decisive thinking from those in the fruit salad shirts?

News and Star: Owen Moxon stretches for the ballOwen Moxon stretches for the ball (Image: Richard Parkes)

United’s defiance in the face of it, all in all, was poor, the pressure of their predicament – and ever thinning numbers – appearing to sink in. At the back they looked lost, in midfield they were without control, and up front they were operating largely by rumour, despite Plange's toil. Holy denied Sam Smith a Reading fourth, Josh Emmanuel took another off Knibbs’ toes, and it required quite some leap of faith to think of these Blues numbers as capable of two more goals at least. Blind faith, really.

A half-time switch involving Ryan Edmondson in place of McGeouch was Simpson’s attempt to find any lead in the pencil at all, and it led to a briefly bolder Carlisle spell which saw an Edmondson header from Moxon’s corner cleared off the line by Dorsett. 

Another opening, for Plange, died on a lack of conviction and if there was a little more urgency, there was no more potency. Carlisle’s set-pieces were also often poor and while such as Edmondson was energetic and willing (unlike, it seemed, one or two others), Carlisle need more than energetic and willing. Way more. 

News and Star: Sam Lavelle's expression says it allSam Lavelle's expression says it all (Image: Richard Parkes)

Their supporters, in a corner pocket of the stadium, barely stopped singing all night. There is nothing wrong with United’s backing. There was, though, plenty wrong with their fortitude as, in the closing stages, Wing whipped a brilliant shot past Holy from outside the box, then Azeez ran past the defence onto Ben Elliott’s long ball to smash home. Reading could have scored more after that. 

A penny for the Piataks’ thoughts, watching it all unfold from the team they’ve just bought. A penny for their pennies and pounds too. It looks like plenty are going to be needed.