“Spending more than rival clubs is no guarantee of improvement, winning or success,” said chief executive Nigel Clibbens in Carlisle United’s latest audited accounts. The Blues had indeed gained promotion from League Two in 2023 despite a lower budget than many, and because of a “different approach”.

A terrific achievement it was too. This season in League One the gap has not been so easily bridged, to say the least, and relegation could be confirmed today.

At which point, United will, we are told, be more front-foot in the summer market than last year. There will be no belated discovery of which division they will be shopping for and, under the Piataks, certainly no shortage of funds.

All good, all reassuring. Yet the idea of spending your way up the league is plainly not one of certainty. Clearly United didn’t manage it from this January window onwards, their trajectory getting worse, while certain others in the division have gone the other way.

Such as…the team they played five days ago. When Michael Skubala took charge of Lincoln City in November, the Imps were not exactly bereft. They were ninth, four points off the play-offs.

There had, though, been a sense of drift under Mark Kennedy, the previous boss – and since the turn of the year, Lincoln have been sensational, going 15 games unbeaten, winning ten of those, and right now sitting in the top six: the division’s form team, at a very good time to be such.

And they have not, strictly speaking, done this by spending. The Sincil Bank club may not be paying their players fresh air but at the same time, the recruitment and improvement of their current side does not appear one of pure largesse.

Work one’s way through Lincoln at present and it appears a case of smart development rather than out-and-out financial muscle. Their first-choice goalkeeper, Lukas Jensen, couldn’t get a game on loan at Carlisle in a dire League Two season two campaigns ago. His understudy Jordan Wright – an impressive battlefield promotion at Brunton Park on Monday – may have come through Nottingham Forest’s ranks but before signing for the Imps had played first-team football no higher than at clubs such as Alloa Athletic, Hereford and Alfreton Town.

Among others in Monday's XI, Sean Roughan, the defender, is a signing from Drogheda in the League of Ireland, while captain Paudie O’Connor’s previous club was Bradford City from the middle rump of League Two. Lasse Sorensen had only a handful of appearances with Stoke City and MK Dons before joining Lincoln, and Millwall’s Alex Mitchell had known reasonable loan spells with Bromley, Leyton Orient and St Johnstone prior to his latest switch.

Ethan Erhahon’s main previous football came at St Mirren (though he did join for a six-figure fee). Ben House signed from Eastleigh, Jack Moylan came from Shelbourne and Joe Taylor is on loan from Luton Town. Reeco Hackett was latterly with Southend United, while Teddy Bishop was previously with Ipswich Town.

News and Star: Michael Skubala is so far proving an interesting appointment at LincolnMichael Skubala is so far proving an interesting appointment at Lincoln (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Now, clearly Lincoln have not been shopping in Sunday morning football for their talent. As a more established League One club than Carlisle, and a well-supported one too, they have been able to invest.

But not, judging by some of those career paths, in a way that would blow many of their third tier peers from the water. In one area alone – the loan market – they have played an excellent recent hand. Taylor had scored goals no higher than at struggling League Two team Colchester United in the first half of this season. He is now one of the form players a division above.

Smart cookies then, Lincoln. And, like the majority of teams who have come to Brunton Park this season, footballing levels ahead of what United have managed to offer.

The reasons are evident, and include the above recruitment skills – but also the crucial stamp of coaching. Skubala has the Imps playing good, confident and inventive football, boosted with character as witnessed in their last-minute win over Leyton Orient last Friday, and then the moments of defiance they needed when United were launching a few things at them on Monday.

Skubala is an interesting appointment; a former PE teacher, university coach, futsal coach, Leeds United coach and key figure in England’s youth set-up (as, in years past, was Paul Simpson). It is too early into a managerial career to declare his touch Midas, but there is no disputing that Skubala has wrought dynamic improvement in a short space of time, made Lincoln a constructive League One side with clear ideas and patterns, got more out of players than his predecessor.

United had more of their own identity last season, which is usually the case when a side is winning, while this time it has been a failed scramble to find something that may work. Their recruitment difficulties ten months ago offered no leg up but at the same time they have fallen short in, for instance, the loan market. And, on the development front, how many of the current squad can we say have enhanced themselves?

News and Star: United have not yet reaped the benefits of increased spending powerUnited have not yet reaped the benefits of increased spending power (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Other than in certain flashes, certain brief spells, this has not been a campaign to tick that kind of box, and as much as everyone from Simpson down hopes the Blues will deploy their budget wisely in the coming weeks and months, the review and analysis of 2023/24 has to be deeper and more exacting than simply the financial when it comes to working out how United need to grow again.

The League One table, as you look at it today, does tend to reward those you’d consider the mightier: Portsmouth, Derby County, Bolton Wanderers all up there; Cheltenham Town, Port Vale and Burton Albion among those joining Carlisle down there.

Adopting a “different approach” is easier to say than do, plainly, when cash still talks loudly. But when someone manages it, it’s wise to take note – and United could not have had a better and more recent seminar.