Fleetwood Town 1 Carlisle United 1: The simple arithmetic of the league table should check any inclination to be completely positive about an afternoon like this, which did contain some individual plus points as well as the encouraging basis of a better performance overall, but ended with the Blues 24th out of 24 and more adrift than they have been all season.

It was certainly a good day for Gabe Breeze, the Cumbrian teenager who was assured in goal on his debut, while it was the sort of showing in general that suggests the Blues maybe won’t, after all, die quietly in League One.

The survival task, though, is now even tougher and the consequence of failing to win games was underlined thickly and several times as darkness fell on the Highbury Stadium. United are now bottom of League One at the halfway stage, five points south of the safety line and in need of a second-half revival that would, in the circumstances, be as impressive as previous Paul Simpson turnarounds.

Carlisle’s position worsened on Boxing Day because other sides, for once, took advantage of the Blues’ latest winless day. United are already two victories from 20th place and, considering they’ve won three of their first 23 matches, there is going to have to be a sea change in form and fortunes in 2024.

News and Star: Alfie McCalmont congratulates goalscorer Owen MoxonAlfie McCalmont congratulates goalscorer Owen Moxon (Image: Richard Parkes)

It didn’t come by the coast, even though other aspects did: a more energetic team, which was much-changed by Simpson after the dismal afternoon against Cheltenham, a belter of an opening goal from Owen Moxon, an attacking performance of good appetite from Ryan Edmondson and the way Breeze adapted to first-team life in Tomas Holy’s place.

United may as well take as much as they can from those aspects, whilst cursing their slackness in conceding soon after they’d taken the lead, as well as the fact their chances, whilst good in bursts, were still sporadic, still lacking the lasting emphasis that a better attacking team – which they’ll need to become from January – can provide.

Wigan Athletic's DW Stadium, on Friday, must see a credible attempt to build on the better of things from this bottom-two encounter, before a hopefully transformative window opens three days later. Without either, survival will only become more remote.

News and Star: Owen Moxon scores an impressive openerOwen Moxon scores an impressive opener (Image: Richard Parkes)

Typically, in a contest from the bowels of the division, neither side yesterday could claim the ultimate prize, however much effort and fight was there. In Breeze’s case, though, the 19-year-old deserves unqualified praise. Whilst he was not besieged with shots, he was calm in his regulation work, good in his kicking, and willing when Fleetwood rained crosses into his area.

In the furnace of a third-tier six-pointer, it was a showing the Penrith prospect could be proud of...and was a day for Holy to chew on. Simpson’s thinking was presumably that the Czech's recent rate of one goal-costing error per game made his retention not the safe call it might have normally seemed compared with giving an untried academy product his debut.

Breeze, after the warm-up, earned a smiling greeting and a friendly slap to the face from Simpson. When he later returned to his goal before kick-off, he found a similarly strong and vocal embrace from Carlisle’s 1,000-plus travelling fans. 

News and Star: Maleace Asamoah, son of ex-United favourite Derek, started for FleetwoodMaleace Asamoah, son of ex-United favourite Derek, started for Fleetwood (Image: Richard Parkes)

No harm in that at all, for a young keeper’s confidence. As the first half unfolded on this chilly day it became clear it wasn’t going to be a hectic introduction for the teenager, who had a few useful early touches of the ball and showed sound anticipation to claim a few low crosses, but was mainly guarded well by United's defensive line.

Carlisle, with a new-look front three of Taylor Charters, Edmondson and Sean Maguire (and Moxon back in midfield as the fifth change), settled earliest into possession but it was not a half or indeed a game of flowing chances. Instead it was a matter of two struggling sides trying to find some passages of play, any cohesion at all.

United appeared to have extra energy in their play and their press and, once they’d coped with a couple of home breaks involving Jayden Stockley’s size and Jack Marriott’s skill, they appeared initially the brighter XI.

News and Star: Fleetwood's equaliser, scored by Jayden StockleyFleetwood's equaliser, scored by Jayden Stockley (Image: Richard Parkes)

There was frustration, as ever, in the final third, as the last pass or cross failed to connect. But at least there was a foundation of performance, with Sam Lavelle and particularly Jon Mellish taking solid command at the back and Alfie McCalmont and Moxon winning some useful ball in the centre. 

A refreshing confidence also took hold when Breeze alertly came off his line to smother a ball Brendan Wiredu was trying to keep alive for Fleetwood. And it was there in bucketloads when Carlisle took the lead five minutes later.

News and Star: Jon Mellish surges forward for UnitedJon Mellish surges forward for United (Image: Richard Parkes)

It was a strike from the less stressful past for both United and Moxon, earned by some persistent work after a throw on the left which saw McCalmont sneak onto a half chance. When his shot was blocked, Moxon’s strike from 25 yards tore past Jay Lynch’s dive.

Simpson spun on his heels and gesticulated his celebration. United’s fans boomed. Moxon was serenaded. A few cobwebs fell from Carlisle’s recent toils. It was, though, only the first act of many that were necessary. Next job was to hold the lead, but that proved only within United’s capabilities for eight minutes. Fleetwood’s reply was as clinical as Carlisle’s was flaky, as Phoenix Patterson – a regular, dribbling threat to Josh Emmanuel from the home left – found space too easily to cross for the latest time, and Stockley got ahead of Lavelle to turn it past Breeze.

News and Star: Ryan Edmondson reacts after a second-half chance goes beggingRyan Edmondson reacts after a second-half chance goes begging (Image: Richard Parkes)

No blame on the rookie keeper. But a sudden and unwanted shift in United’s momentum, which is always delicate at the best of times. Fleetwood were encouraged by their comeback and things were now back in the balance. The hosts ended the half on top and familiar questions were being posed about Carlisle’s fortitude in this sort of situation.

The restart proved a reset of sorts, for Carlisle came back out with new momentum. Only a last-ditch block denied Edmondson a goal after Maguire had stolen the ball from a defender in the Fleetwood box, and then Edmondson, chasing keeper Lynch, earned a chance he narrowly failed to take with his resulting chip.

It was promising, but needed the substance of a goal. It didn’t come and for United it was never quite as good again. In the visitors’ half, Mellish – increasingly rising above most others in the team in terms of League One capability – showed superb timing to rob Maleace Asamoah (Derek's son ) of a breakaway chance, and then came the first flurry of changes for both sides, Jordan Gibson and Luke Plange the Carlisle arrivals, a closely-poised game still waiting for someone to seize it.

Nobody could. Handball shouts after a Patterson corner were dismissed at Carlisle’s end, Edmondson’s whipped cross was punched unconvincingly clear by Lynch at the other. Gibson’s drilled shot was blocked, Fleetwood had most of it from there. United's rejigged attack, with Edmondson now to the left and Plange through the centre, never really knitted together, though defensively they stood firmly enough. In truth, it had all started to feel like a stalemate from some way out.

One game left, then, in this memorable, tumultuous, challenging year – and the climb, now steeper than before, really has to start soon.