Carlisle United went down to a 1-0 home defeat to League One leaders Portsmouth – but what did we learn from the game? Let’s take a closer look…


Spot the sarcasm. Saturday’s game was, in fact, a rare recent case when Carlisle have performed generally well in the first 45 minutes.

Its outcome, though, followed a familiar and, all in all, remarkably bad pattern in terms of making the breakthrough.

There was, believe it or not, only one player on the pitch who had scored a first-half goal for United at Brunton Park in the league this season, and he was with the opposition.

News and Star: Jordan Gibson had United's best attempts but the wait for a first-half home goal in the league since August goes on...Jordan Gibson had United's best attempts but the wait for a first-half home goal in the league since August goes on... (Image: Ben Holmes)

Yep – since Owen Moxon’s 36th-minute free-kick on the opening day against Fleetwood Town, Carlisle haven’t managed a single first-half goal in League One football at their own ground.

That’s a sequence of 15 games where they’ve reached half-time with a nil against their name (the only other time it’s happened in 2023/24 was against Harrogate Town in the Bristol Street Motors Trophy, through Jordan Gibson in the third minute).

Thirteen second-half goals at home have raised United’s numbers but they are invariably having to rethink at least something in the second period.

On this occasion, they were left to rue their failure to make good on their best spell of the game, around the middle part of the first half, when Gibson had a half-chance or two.

From there, things were generally sterile and a 13th game this league campaign without a goal was duly completed – and a sixth at home.


Paul Simpson had called for extra “nastiness” from his players in the build-up to the game.

There were elements of that on show against Portsmouth, but other occasions when their opponents showed the necessary grit in crucial situations.

Carlisle do now have a central midfield unafraid of a tackle. Harrison Neal, all in all, was probably their best player given the combative and energetic nature of his performance.

News and Star: Josh Vela in the thick of thingsJosh Vela in the thick of things (Image: Ben Holmes)

Josh Vela is no stranger to a challenge either, his late slide on Conor Shaughnessy earning him a booking on his full home debut – his 14th in 31 appearances this season.

Yet the canniness needed to get the better of opponents was not there in total and it was demonstrated by the visitors when they broke through to score the only goal.

Carlisle could have disrupted the Portsmouth counter at earlier stages but there was something particularly telling in the way Joe Rafferty made a run to block Dan Butterworth’s attempt to get close to Abu Kamara in the final creative phase.

Cynical, calculated, shrewd, clever…all of the above. One through-ball from Kamara and a Paddy Lane finish later and Pompey had all they needed to get the points in the can.

These sort of street-smarts are not seen often enough from Carlisle and the sooner they can add some to their game, the earlier they’ll look a more adept side in the business of winning by different and, yes, sometimes “nasty” means.


Simpson kept the same XI for this game but shuffled his players around into a different system – one that involved a back four and Jon Mellish in attacking midfield.

Putting Mellish forward is invariably the mid-game concept at Carlisle but here it was their starting strategy.

United’s manager said he wanted Mellish’s legs and energy to try and lift the tempo of Carlisle’s performance.

News and Star: Jon Mellish started in attacking midfield but Carlisle failed to disrupt Portsmouth for long enoughJon Mellish started in attacking midfield but Carlisle failed to disrupt Portsmouth for long enough (Image: Ben Holmes)

You can always rely on the Blues’ longest-serving player to do that. But, again in the refined world of League One, it was a scheme that brought limited results.

Mellish didn’t manage a single shot or a “key pass” (in the terminology of data site He only touched the ball 28 times, the second lowest number of all United players who completed 90 minutes.

His commitment is unquestioned and there are many more things wrong with Carlisle’s general play than Mellish in midfield.

But United are simply coming up every week against sides too accomplished to be unsettled by something that worked more readily in League Two.

Carlisle probably don’t have a fitter player or one with a more impressive engine. You also know Mellish would be first in the trenches to fight alongside you.

The truth, though, is that United need to find some more polished solutions in that midfield zone, currently from within and, longer-term, in the market – and send their Wearside warrior back into defence, where he’s best.


Carlisle have been beaten more convincingly this season but Portsmouth’s visit still put on display some of League One’s elite.

In the Blues’ long and arduous quest to compete with such teams, it is possible to admire the best of what the division can provide.

On Saturday the cream of John Mousinho’s side was not necessarily in attack, where Colby Bishop had a relatively quiet day.

News and Star: Marlon Pack, right, was one of the most influential players on showMarlon Pack, right, was one of the most influential players on show (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Paddy Lane’s dynamism won the game, as it occasionally threatened to, while Abu Kamara’s influence from the bench showed up the quality gap between sets of substitutes.

But the basis for their 1-0 victory lay further back.

Conor Shaughnessy looked as capable a centre-back as United have come across all season, both for his dependable defending and his footballing comfort in the way he could step up from the back line and start attacks, or play the leaders’ way around Carlisle’s attempted press.

Surely a contender for entry into the division’s team of the season. In front of him, Tom Lowery and Marlon Pack were prominent in midfield – players of good experience, pedigree and quality at this level.

Between them they dominated the ball emphatically more than Carlisle’s central two (141 touches to 99) while Pack’s passing accuracy of 85.4 per cent was the best of either XI.

Pompey’s title tilt is built on the reliability of such players, and whatever their injury issues just now, they surely have the framework to go the distance.

From Carlisle’s point of view, you can only look on with envy.