Carlisle United 1 Lincoln City 3: On retro shirt day, a throwback to that distant era before, er, Good Friday, when Carlisle United were well adrift of the higher-quality majority of League One, and stepping assuredly towards relegation as a result.

It’s not yet final, but we’re nearly there, and the rotund lady is certainly unscrewing the cap on the Listerine bottle. After the fun of Peterborough, we had the reality of Lincoln: a comfortably superior side and, in focus and invention, levels above Paul Simpson’s strugglers, whose many deficiencies were back on show here.

United escaped the ignominy of going down before the end of Easter weekend, but the mercies are small. The final kill will come soon, perhaps at Northampton Town on Saturday, and the reasons why the Blues are heading that way were clear once again, instead of temporarily shelved as they’d been on that afternoon of Mellish merriment three days sooner.

Lincoln, in their defining spells, were the things Carlisle too often are not, in terms of the confidence and clarity of their passing and movement. United, having defended dismally for the Imps’ first two goals, found an amount of spirit in the second half, but Michael Skubala’s side never looked likely to give up their points. They are where they are on potent merit and form – as, for the opposite reasons, are the Blues.

News and Star: Dan Butterworth attacks for CarlisleDan Butterworth attacks for Carlisle (Image: Barbara Abbott)

A still, cool day at Brunton Park brought fans in their kits of yesteryear, part of a CUOSC initiative, nostalgia colliding with the daunting present. Paul Simpson was forced into two changes, due to injuries to Taylor Charters and Dylan McGeouch. The loss of the latter in particular was felt early, as Carlisle were now without at least one player at the heart of their team with some composure and acumen on the ball.

Jordan Gibson and Jack Robinson were the replacements, both playing wide as Dan Butterworth floated behind Luke Armstrong, but Carlisle’s first half display was largely one of drift. Lincoln lost Lukas Jensen, their ex-United goalkeeper, in the warm-up, but there was no disruption to their poise, their play, their chest-out body language.

Lincoln, it quickly transpired, were confident, sharp and fluent with the breeze of a 14-game unbeaten run at their backs, and if the Blues had been feeling better about themselves since Friday, the opening half-hour returned some harsh realities to Brunton Park. Inside the first 30 seconds, Ted Bishop tested them with a shot, and by the first minute a couple of other attempts had needed to be weathered.

News and Star: Luke Armstrong is closed downLuke Armstrong is closed down (Image: Barbara Abbott)

There was an immediate relentlessness about Lincoln and, though United responded with a Jon Mellish cross and a Butterworth shot, it proved a brief interlude. For back bit the Imps, Bishop almost feeding Joe Taylor, then Skubala’s side pulling Carlisle to pieces for the opener: Ben House receiving Taylor's lay-off between the lines, Lasse Sorensen crossing deep, Taylor pulling away to head back, House arriving to bury the chance.

“That’s why we’re going up,” the away fans sang. Carlisle had not even got close to the Lincoln shadows at each stage of the smooth move, having given the ball away in its infancy. The construction of the goal was an exhibition of reactive defending, and barely even that.

The visitors’ assurance on the ball and fluidity of their movement grew further, with the enviably creative Bishop almost setting up a second, House denied from a volley, Jack Ellis blocking Taylor’s curler, then Harry Lewis holding a header from the latter.

Twenty minutes had gone, and United were plainly missing the composure and ball-retention of McGeouch, and any pace about their work or ideas from back to middle to front against such an evidently well-stocked, well-coached opponent. They did improve from the half-hour, more aggressive in their press and their running, but nothing of conviction resulted: a Mellish shot from wide, a Robinson miss following a corner, another shot from the latter, who was on the left of midfield, and a justifiable degree of frustration among home fans as Carlisle passed at the back without any dynamism that might have led to holes being punched in Skubala’s side.

News and Star: Ben House steers home the Lincoln openerBen House steers home the Lincoln opener (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Without the one-off heroism of Friday, United did not have a basis of consistent creativity to fall back upon. Gibson, dynamic at Peterborough, was marginal here, as were others. A Harrison Neal clearance prevented Paudie O’Connor from setting up a Lincoln second, Lewis denied Taylor with the last kick of the half and, by the interval, scores elsewhere were pointing United towards the fourth tier beyond argument.

Some urgency to dispute this outcome then appeared right at the beginning of the second half, and twice they could have levelled through Mellish, who was denied by Jensen’s deputy Jordan Wright, then Butterworth, who skipped beyond the defence, curled his low shot away from Wright but struck the right-hand post.

Carlisle, emboldened, came on Lincoln further…just enough to, er, concede again, rather shambolically. The next chance, from Robinson’s corner, wouldn’t fall for Sam Lavelle via Ben Barclay’s header, and in a trice, the visitors were sweeping up the pitch, benefiting from a slapstick ricochet on halfway, outnumbering the brittle, retreating Blues, a House pass, a Taylor finish…cold-blooded, ruthless, all those things United seldom are. Carlisle's barrier against the Lincoln break would not have impeded a thrown marshmallow.

News and Star: Georgie Kelly in the thick of things in the Lincoln boxGeorgie Kelly in the thick of things in the Lincoln box (Image: Barbara Abbott)

There felt little hope now. Butterworth, with a powerful volley, drew a fine save from Wright and was promptly withdrawn by Simpson – not to everyone’s agreement in Brunton Park, it’s fair to say – as Georgie Kelly was applauded on for his home debut, Josh Emmanuel also replacing Ellis.

United now had the front two they hope will carry them to better times, yet Luke Armstrong was still a stranger to the ball for too long. Kelly saw more of it – the big striker attacking a pair of Robinson crosses, the second resulting in a powerful header which Lincoln blocked in front of the line – and he certainly offered a grain or two of hope as the rain fell on this gloomy Easter Monday.

Carlisle had to maintain the supply, even if the cause was forlorn. Armstrong was denied from a half-chance, but then the Blues’ persistence did at last unlock the door, as sub Sean Maguire leapt well to head a Robinson cross into the mouth of the box and Lavelle blasted it home.

News and Star: Lincoln celebrate their third goalLincoln celebrate their third goal (Image: Barbara Abbott)

That kept them afloat, just about, while second-half goals in other games were serving to keep their heads above relegation for the day. The post denied O’Connor a late Lincoln clincher, but then Emmanuel tripped the raiding Bishop and the visiting No10 – the kind of schemer Carlisle have long lacked at this level, frankly – eyed up the thinly-protected top right corner of Lewis’s net and curled the free-kick perfectly there.

“The Imps are going up,” the away hundreds sang again. As for United…well, we know where they’re going. Not on this day, in the end. But comprehensively, and deservedly, soon.