Barnsley 2 Carlisle United 1: When your luck’s in, it’s in. And when it’s out, it might as well be as far off as the moon. Carlisle’s position in this relegation battle is not a matter of fortune but they had genuine grounds to curse their fate as Barnsley hit them most painfully with an 86th minute penalty last night.

Jordan Gibson’s challenge on Adam Phillips was not, to say the least, from the robust school of defending. It looked, at least from the vantage point of the press box, such a trifling matter that it could have had a sponge base plus cream and sherry.

It also appeared, from Paul Simpson’s viewpoint, such a modest and indeed fair challenge that only a “disgusting decision” could make the result a penalty. Referee Will Finnie, alas, made that decision, Herbie Kane blasted in the spot-kick, and that was that: another defeat, another sad step on the road back towards League Two.

Yet that doesn’t tell half the tale of a game that might easily have been much cheerier for United, might have given their survival hopes some real warmth. On this freezing January night they could easily have scored four times in the first 12 minutes. They managed one in that time – and, in some ways, that’s also the story of their campaign, as well as of this match.

News and Star: United goalscorer Luke Armstrong shields the ballUnited goalscorer Luke Armstrong shields the ball (Image: Richard Parkes)

Carlisle were ruthless enough to take one of those opportunities, and merry and enjoyable it was, but not the others. Normally such chances arrive occasionally but here they came in bulk. Dan Butterworth passed up three, and Barnsley, even after Luke Armstrong’s goal, were not out of sight.

The game therefore had the potential for a turnaround when the home side got their act together. After a double half-time change, they did: Devante Cole whistling a quality finish into United’s net, and then that hotly-debated moment four minutes from the end of 90.

The upshot: another game gone, another opportunity slipping from Carlisle’s hands, no inroads made into that six-point gap, the focus having to be forced away from Oakwell and towards Cheltenham, the good things from last night’s performance – and there were more than normal, from an away game this season – all United can take from it in place of what they need more than anything: points.

None of the snow that landed on Cumbria on Tuesday morning followed United to south Yorkshire, but some chill winds did. In November, when this game was postponed, injury-hit United were grateful. The January rearrangement, though, offered few fresh benefits given Carlisle’s position.

News and Star: United celebrate after Armstrong's openerUnited celebrate after Armstrong's opener (Image: Richard Parkes)

Equations get simpler at this time of season, and decisions in some ways clearer. In search of three points, Paul Simpson recalled Paul Huntington at the back, and gave him the armband, for the first time since November.

Could the big Cumbrian restore a sense of security to the team? This was a tough stage on which to find out, with 15-goal Cole among Huntington’s opponents. Jack Armer also came back in, with Jack Robinson and Corey Whelan out, while Fin Back was a welcome sight among the substitutes.

Barnsley’s own bench offered a glimspe at their stature, their strength. Nicky Cadden, Sam Cosgrove, Max Watters, all in reserve? Imagine. It was the starters in blue, though, who needed to set a steady tone. Yet Carlisle did more than that. And nearly – much more.

Barnsley started coldly and Carlisle began with fine intent, good pace and an instinct for opportunism that belied their second-bottom woes.

Just 37 seconds had gone when Butterworth received the ball in the home half, rounded the last defender and glided through on goal. Liam Roberts saved his shot and one wondered if United’s best chance had already come and gone inside the first minute.

News and Star: Harry Lewis saves from Callum StylesHarry Lewis saves from Callum Styles (Image: Richard Parkes)

Not on your life. Four minutes later and they – and Butterworth – should have scored again, more keen Blues pressing forcing a free shot for United’s number 11 as he received the ball from the right, looked up…and swept a low finish wide.

No matter. A minute later, they scored – Roberts’ delivery from the back poor, the keeper stranded and Armstrong, from 25 yards or so, putting his head down and his laces through the ball, which fizzed into the bottom left of the target.

It took a split second to register, before Oakwell gave way to a mini blue fiesta: players celebrating on the pinch, Simpson pumping his arms by the dugout and Harry Lewis exuberant in front of the lively travelling fans. “One-nil, to the Cumbrians,” they sang. Problems, what problems?

Then, after Sam Lavelle had thwarted Cole at the other end, mega chance number four: a deft pass by Harrison Neal, a firm cross by Jack Ellis, a diving header by the elusive Butterworth, the wrongfooted Roberts surviving as the ball hit the right-hand post.

News and Star: Jack Ellis battles Callum StylesJack Ellis battles Callum Styles (Image: Richard Parkes)

Make no mistake: Barnsley had been let clean off the hook despite their deficit. The home fans grew disgruntled at the ponderous home play. Carlisle remained just as keen in the press, in their well-worked combinations – and, when needed, their last-ditch efforts too.

Owen Moxon spared them a goal against in the 17th minute, getting his foot to the ball a fraction of a second before Cole prepared to volley home in the six-yard box. Carlisle’s dominance of chances, and Barnsley’s conceding of them, duly evened out but never completely given that, a while later, Roberts saw another clearance charged down by United, Alfie McCalmont unable to take maximum advantage.

United had, through this work, set up the possibility of a result. Lewis, in goal, kept that prospect burning when he saved well at Callum Styles’ feet and Barnsley’s frustration was summed up when Phillips tried a first-timer from 30 yards and rather desperately sent it slicing a mile off target.

News and Star: United survive a Styles free-kickUnited survive a Styles free-kick (Image: Richard Parkes)

One sensed the home side had the potential and ability to do something better at a moment’s notice but after 45 minutes it hadn’t come, Huntington a commanding figure when lines needed to be cleared in Carlisle’s box, and Ellis an excellent, industrious presence on the right.

Barnsley made a double change at the break and tried to shake themselves into life. It took a while in coming but the home side did apply themselves in a more focused way and United, now more on the defensive, faced the challenge of containing them.

They did until the 58th minute, by which point Lewis had kept out a Jordan Williams cross and Carlisle had, in truth, struggled to piece together any sort of passing sequences for some time. Then, after Barnsley emerged through a firm Neal 50-50, they advanced, got clear of United in the transition, Williams isolated Cole to the left of goal – and the striker’s finish was high-class. Hard, low, across Lewis and mercilessly accurate. Simple as that.

Carlisle had to begin again, rediscover some of that early attacking gusto against a side with impetus and expectation. Barnsley, with Cadden a new and focused outlet on the left, denied them that opportunity, pinned them back with crosses, deliveries and Barry Cotter’s ominous long throws.

News and Star: United dispute the penalty decisionUnited dispute the penalty decision (Image: Richard Parkes)

A briefly better United spell followed, with Neal seeing a shot blocked and Butterworth and McCalmont trying to build another platform, and Gibson, then Back, summoned from the bench. While there was time there was hope – but then it was snuffed out as the hosts kept a move alive, Phillips ghosted in, Gibson brushed in with a challenge, ref Finnie bought it and, to Carlisle’s outrage, awarded the penalty.

Kane smashed it high and true past Lewis, and that was the game in smithereens. Them’s the breaks, sadly – and my, how they sometimes hurt.