Carlisle United 2 Stevenage 2:  It could have been the 88th minute, the 90th, even the 93rd. But no. It had to be the 96th. The flaming 96th. If you listened carefully you could almost hear someone cackling from behind the curtains as Harry Lewis parried Vadaine Oliver’s header and Terence Vancooten arrived to ruin another Carlisle United Saturday.

Stevenage’s equaliser, which punished the Blues’ failure to conserve a two-goal lead, left Paul Simpson’s side with no time even to attempt to rebut it. Not a second. And so a season which has rained blow after blow on United and their fans had one more concussive punch to throw on this cold and windy March day.

Sigh. Carlisle, needless to say, were active participants in their downfall from 2-0 to 2-2, failing to take glorious chances to put the game beyond doubt, and also showing a lack of composure in snuffing out Stevenage’s rudimentary if persistent flame.

Attention can certainly go on the failure to see off the circumstances leading to the visitors’ soft 82nd minute penalty, or the lack of ruthlessness in seeing off the injury-time pressure which ultimately cost them.

News and Star: Two-goal Dan Butterworth celebratesTwo-goal Dan Butterworth celebrates (Image: Barbara Abbott)

A side unaccustomed to winning, though, also needs to take the pressure off itself in such positions, and so a heavier burden seemed to fall on opportunities like Jack Diamond’s in the 87th minute.

The substitute goes through and scores, and Stevenage are sunk. The idea of Steve Evans’ side rolling out of Brunton Park with a point is done. Carlisle have that rare jewel of a W in this bleak third-tier season: a little morsel in a campaign of famine.

The moment Craig MacGillivray saves, you fear the eroding of United’s one-goal gap. You worry about Carlisle’s ability to see off enough of Stevenage’s crosses, most of them aimed for the towering figure of Vadaine Oliver. You worry with good reason.

Simpson said the reason he did not make more substitutions to lift his tiring team late on was that most of the potential replacements were not of the necessary size for such an aerial confrontation. In the event, those retained could not win it either. Nor could Lewis, when saving Oliver’s attempt, push the ball wide enough to make the rebound uninviting.

Details, details…all part of a familiar picture. Perhaps when the initial sting fades, Simpson and his team can take some solace from a better performance overall, one which set up the prospect of victory in ways that most other recent displays have not.

News and Star: Luke Armstrong tries to get away from Jordan RobertsLuke Armstrong tries to get away from Jordan Roberts (Image: Barbara Abbott)

In Dan Butterworth, Carlisle had the game’s star man, scorer of one sweet team goal and another belting individual strike. United largely had the measure of a Stevenage side that looked short of punch without their top scorer, Jamie Reid, and were winless in four.

The Cumbrians’ first half display was as substantial as Brunton Park has seen for a while. Take this team to water, though, and they’ll find some way of rejecting the drink. Another reason, sadly, why this campaign is a write-off, relegation a looming certainty, no hope left anything other than to see out the last stages of it with at least some fair competitive levels.

Those were, at least, on show here. United seemed in decent shape to begin with and in the second minute almost scored when Jack Armer cruised onto a Nathan Thompson slip, and only Luke Armstrong’s failure to fully adjust his limbs for the cross kept Stevenage level.

In response, the visitors tried to get around Carlisle’s defence, sending bodies behind their frontrunners, while Paul Raynor, their No2, tried to get around the fourth official with typical fervour. Yet none of it particularly worked against a Carlisle side who were organised and diligent, Harrison Neal enjoying the windswept battle against his former club.

He offered a strong line of midfield protection as Simpson’s defenders dealt with crosses. Then he produced the pass that opened up Stevenage for a 13th-minute goal, spotting and supplying Jack Ellis’s run, then the wing-back putting a first-timer on a plate for Butterworth, who ate it up.

News and Star: Harrison Neal wins the ball for UnitedHarrison Neal wins the ball for United (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Where had you been all this time, one-touch, crisp-passing, forward-playing United? And also: where had you been, resilient United that can carry such leads to half-time?

For the first time at home in this league season, that’s what they did. Partly the reason was Stevenage were less creative or zestful than you’d expect of a side skirting the play-offs. But also: Carlisle were good in the basics of organisation, determination, collective will.

Nothing much came their way with great thought other than the sheer volume of Stevenage corners: nine of them, by the 45-minute mark, all defended without any great concern. Evans made three changes at half-time yet by the hour mark United were still set fair…and then even fairer as, after Taylor Charters had failed to attack a great chance with conviction, Butterworth very much did: retrieving a corner, rounding his man and bending a left-footed shot away from MacGillivray and into the net via a delightful smack on the right-hand post.

Enough of a buffer, you were tempted to think. As if. Carlisle avoided any real scares until, in the 82nd minute, Jon Mellish failed to take the heat out of penalty box pressure, MacDonald went down under a Dylan McGeouch challenge that was not from the more brutal end of the scale but convinced referee Daniel Middleton, and then the substitute sent Harry Lewis the wrong way.

United’s own sub, Diamond, supplied perfectly by Charters, then couldn’t beat the visiting keeper. Two moments, then, to keep Stevenage engaged. And if you didn’t exactly know what was coming next, you certainly won’t have crossed it off the list of possibilities. More pressure, more difficulty in abating it, and then, in the 96th, Carlisle buckled and broke. The rain swept back down, and the message was clear: there will be no fun allowed this season – none at all.