Watching Carlisle United in most of this League One season has been like observing a tourist trying to make himself heard by shouting louder in English, while everyone else is more fluent in the native language.

Too often – very often, in fact – the rest of the division has been playing a different game to the Blues. This must, then, go down as a clear and emphatic failure to bridge a considerable gap, whatever the reasons, whatever the mitigation.

United avoided the ignominy of being relegated by Easter but could not prolong it much further. Very rarely have they looked capable of remaining in the third tier; very rarely have they looked like measuring up to the average at this level, not just in results but in style.

A host of low days have dotted the campaign before Northampton Town put the tin hat on things. In many ways one of the starkest came exactly three months earlier. On January 6, Carlisle went to Exeter City, who were themselves struggling, in no form and with the ground under their manager seeming to wobble a little.

The Blues were able to put a record signing on the park for the first time, along with other new arrivals. The “step-change” January budget was finally being flourished. Yet Exeter played a form of football which was much closer to the standard in League One. When they realised Carlisle could not match it, they played more boldly and more inventively still.

News and Star: United's defeat to Exeter in January was revealingUnited's defeat to Exeter in January was revealing (Image: Barbara Abbott)

A 2-1 defeat flattered United, since the game overall exposed them. Subsequent results also did, with an ever heavier hammer.

This, then, was the limit of Carlisle after ending a nine-year wait to return to this tier: they were, in fundamental ways, wholly unequipped for it. That is a bruising realisation for a club whose older history involves good stretches at this level and higher.

Yet the present is where we must live, and in 2023/24 the wages were taken on United, under Paul Simpson, having defied a bottom-end budget to gain a delightful promotion from League Two last May.

The minute Taylor Charters’ penalty burrowed into Stockport County’s net on that blissful Wembley day, United began looking up at a hill that was steeper than they imagined. The weeks that followed highlighted how hard they were going to find it to restock their squad for the step up.

Carlisle, however much more money their previous board found, however much they urged Simpson to spend what was needed, could not, between them, attract enough sure things for the higher level. The summer window began with the signing of some solid figures from the League Two campaign, but not enough higher-calibre players.

Some with better CVs eventually trundled in. But United did not start 2023/24 looking like a team who had greatly evolved. The biggest initial shortcoming, as they tried to ride promotion momentum in the campaign’s first weeks, was a lack of firepower, which left too many narrow games against them when a rapier finisher - a League One equivalent of Kristian Dennis - might have tilted a few their way.

As such, United were emptying themselves just to prise the odd point out of matches. In growing cases, their maximum couldn’t even deliver that. League One was mentally and physically exhausting from the outset, and with not enough to show for the exertions, pressure grew incrementally.

News and Star: A lack of firepower cost United early in the season - while uncertainty over Owen Moxon's future did not helpA lack of firepower cost United early in the season - while uncertainty over Owen Moxon's future did not help (Image: Ben Holmes)

Carlisle were not outclassed in all those early games, and indeed showed some cojones in a number of them, but the nature of the challenge was still laid on thickly. The first half of August’s encounter with Wigan Athletic offered a standard of opposition football that was so far from the recent League Two experience it was practically a different sport.

Peterborough United, in another midweek Brunton Park game in October, the same. Carlisle did very well to draw both, and when they won, superbly, at Bolton Wanderers, it did feel like they might find some comfort in League One after all; at least above certain clubs with bigger problems and not such much goodwill around them.

Yet the mean remained out of regular reach. Victories remained very sparing and this cranked up the problems when autumn melted into winter. United were publicly and privately crossing off the days until January, but their failure to defeat any bottom-end rivals towards the end of 2023 left you certain they were down there for the duration, and without the strength to pull out of it. That increasing certainty must have snaked through the building, too.

The Piatak takeover, finally sealed in November, brought about a genuinely remarkable day, when Brunton Park jiggled with foam fingers, flags and chants of ‘USA, USA’ before the 1-1 draw with Charlton Athletic. Since then the American owners have shown their impatience for structural change, a dynamism in their planning, and ambition in their bearing: just what fans had long been pining for.

What could not be quickly executed, sadly, was improvement on the pitch. Considerable money was spent – although not as much as was attempted in another trying window – yet, instead of Carlisle growing stronger, results went the other way. They appeared to have acquired players of new promise but, even after the outlay, few arrivals boasted reliable League One pedigree.

News and Star: The Piataks promise era-defining change at United - but, on the pitch, January investment has not yet paid offThe Piataks promise era-defining change at United - but, on the pitch, January investment has not yet paid off (Image: Barbara Abbott)

It is easy, in hindsight, to analyse this as a realistic attempt to restock for a better League Two effort, with relegation distinctly possible. Yet United, after New Year’s Day, were only three points from safety.

The campaign was, at that stage, nowhere near a write-off. January’s recruitment may turn out a success down the line, but in terms of strengthening United’s fist for this fight, the overhaul failed.

Individual and collective episodes have also proved symptoms of struggle. By mid-January, Carlisle were on their fourth goalkeeper of the season: the opposite of the reliability they needed in that crucial position. In other areas, there were too many uncertainties after last season’s sure things.

As it went along, United lost identity rather than gained it. Paul Huntington, after returning from injury, was no longer relied upon by Simpson. Owen Moxon’s future was unclear even before the campaign started. Callum Guy’s role as a midfield protector was something he was carrying out admirably until November; his loss to an ACL injury was a transplant Carlisle really did not need.

News and Star: Callum Guy's ACL injury has been a major blowCallum Guy's ACL injury has been a major blow (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Few others truly stepped up and embraced the level. Jordan Gibson, in a proficient autumn, did, while Sam Lavelle’s form grew in that period. Yet in neither case did it last. Jon Mellish, as ever, gave 101 per cent of himself, but the refinement of opponents meant he and Carlisle could not outrun or outwork teams as they had before.

With other signings, the returns were not high enough. Sean Maguire looked a cultured attacking operator in his early outings but as of now he has two goals, one a penalty. Dylan McGeouch has taken until the latter stages of the campaign to impose his control on United’s midfield, and now he’s injured again.

The loan market has been a particularly hollow experience. In a shopping aisle that always had the potential to make or break an unfancied team's prospects, the Blues unearthed players who, in some cases, would have struggled to lift a side at least a division below.

Luke Plange may not have deserved to be the scapegoat he became at times, but he did not by any means enhance United in League One, nor did the goalless Fulham speedster, Terry Ablade. Fin Back never found the consistency of form (or, latterly, selection) that he did in 2022/23’s formative months – while Jokull Andersson was an immediately chaotic presence in goal who, as a result, did not vindicate Simpson’s first loss of faith in Tomas Holy, whose return to the team soon unravelled again, a big man broken.

Then there was Joshua Kayode, firstly a striker who deserves great sympathy for the physical misfortune he’s had, but also a signing Carlisle have been unable to call on for almost the entirety of his spell. That is less a matter for blame than regret. But United were still hindered along the way.

News and Star: United's use of the loan market has been far from a success this season, with Luke Plange (pictured) among a range of borrowed players who failed to impressUnited's use of the loan market has been far from a success this season, with Luke Plange (pictured) among a range of borrowed players who failed to impress (Image: Barbara Abbott)

January’s signings, from a month when it’s often harder than you’d like to revamp a struggling team’s fortunes, have offered qualified promise, but not yet in results. Harry Lewis has not been error-prone like some predecessors but United’s goals-against record has got worse. Luke Armstrong has done some trojan work up front and will surely deliver more with greater support – which, eventually, may come from Georgie Kelly, whose injury absence from deadline day until Good Friday was another biting frustration as the defeats totted up.

Jack Diamond, with the mitigation of a long spell away from football amid a personally traumatic time, has flickered but not shone. Again, he may be a slower burner, should United retain an interest in him, but they still needed immediate impact and it did not particularly come.

Harrison Neal is an honest midfield combatant, and Josh Vela can clearly handle himself, but Carlisle’s middle ground has not looked as good as it did when Moxon, however engaged he ultimately was before joining Portsmouth, and Guy were on patrol in that area, and certainly no more cultured. Seán Grehan, meanwhile, always appeared cover for future defensive moves that didn’t happen, yet the premature end of his loan points to something else that did not work as it should.

Not many, all in all, get a free pass for the events that have unfolded. Joe Garner probably deserves one, for shouldering as much as an ageing warrior could before leaving for an 18-month contract at Oldham Athletic. Gabe Breeze’s four-game cameo in goal produced a little success story from the wider failure. Guy is obviously blameless for the decline. Corey Whelan, a dependable head last season, exiled off the squad list in the second half of this, cannot have much pinned on him.

The latter, meanwhile, points to something flagged up by a number of fans the longer the season has gone on: disharmony. In one respect, a team suffering results such as United’s should not be holding hands and singing Hosanna from game one to 46. There should be unrest, should be some upheaval. The battle to rediscover what works and what needs discarding cannot be a smooth business that upsets nobody. Then again - a difficult cause still needs a bond, and that has not always been apparent this season.

Similarly, the idea that Simpson himself has not fostered the happiest ship can be seen two ways. No, making the opinion clear that the squad sorely needed help, and as a consequence was not good enough in itself, might not have built the strongest esprit de corps. Leaning so much towards January, so soon, was hardly going to make the existing players a band of brothers ready to take on the world, for the badge, with maximum belief.

News and Star: Fans have had a range of opinions on Paul Simpson during the seasonFans have had a range of opinions on Paul Simpson during the season (Image: Richard Parkes)

At the same time, would a more flattering set of managerial comments have turned a patently under-equipped team into a winning one? Would arguing, at least publicly, that Wednesday was indeed Thursday, and that this squad had most of what United needed, have pulled more players behind Simpson to the point that they shot out of trouble?

We can never know. But it feels like a reach. Simpson’s instinct has always been to say what he thinks, even if the consequences are variable in lesser times. The boss himself rowed back on one remark amid the struggle, when he “threw” a player “under the bus” over an approach to post-match running drills.

Again, see such comments from alternative angles. One: a manager giving it to us straight, shining light on areas of loose commitment. Two: a manager, in the teeth of dreadful results, urging us to look somewhere else.

Both, to some degree, can be true at the same time. The banishing of Whelan from the squad, United having failed to negotiate an early exit for the defender, has been a regrettable position for someone who had contributed well to the 2022-2023 turnaround. Again, a more harmonious set of events here would not particularly have kept United from the trapdoor. Also again: it comes down to how much friction you think is right, and how much is unnecessary, at a place whose need for another shake-up is beyond argument.

The demise of Huntington, last season’s defensive totem and eventual captain, from first-team regularity has been curious, especially given how United’s record at the back (and set-piece defending) has gone from bad to terrible. Having said last year he wanted three years from the big Cumbrian, Simpson appears to have moved on from the idea of late-career longevity for Huntington, who is 37 in September but still wants to be part of Carlisle's future. From the outside, this cannot have been a happy chapter.

Further forward, Gibson has been the season’s enigma: more natural ability in his little toe than many in the squad, and the man responsible for Carlisle’s best attacking moments of the season. His hat-trick at Bolton looked like the work of a man on the rise, vindicating his talent, finding his place, relishing the level.

News and Star: Jordan Gibson shone in the autumn...but it's been a less happy story sinceJordan Gibson shone in the autumn...but it's been a less happy story since (Image: Richard Parkes)

Yet it has not had staying power bearing in mind Simpson’s waning faith in the midfielder from winter onwards, the value of Gibson’s skill offset against other parts of his game and, it seems, off-field approach in the manager’s eyes, and the sums not adding up. Gibson’s alleged involvement in last Saturday’s illicit night out, which remains the subject of disciplinary procedures, may put a red line under something which threatened to be very good, but has resulted in frayed edges.

One thing we can declare with conviction about 2023/24 – other than the fact it has seen quite magnificent, loyal and indeed remarkable support from United’s fans all the way through – is that it has disabused us of the idea of a "gaffer" as Merlin. Simpson himself said that he wasn’t a great manager last season and isn’t a terrible one this campaign. There was greatness in last May’s crescendo, and the journey up to it, yet this campaign Carlisle have discovered that they cannot simply put everything on Simpson to make right, and hope other circumstances, other needs and shortcomings, fade away.

League One has been too harsh an environment for that. The manager has long had a vision that involves United lifting its sights in many broad areas: hence his hitting the drum for a new training ground, now in the workings thanks to the Piataks, and his keen expanding of the backroom staff, with a host of new figures in a range of positions, while some from the recent past depart (Colin Nixon, Chris Brunskill) and others from the more distant past return (Billy Barr).

Principles like this have always made Simpson valuable, given him gravitas which remains in the eyes of many fans and certainly the owners, who continue to back him. He is right when he says few if any managers out there have his sort of feel for United, its ways and its workings. His ambition to professionalise the Blues, finally to make it the match of other, more modern clubs, is genuine, focused and necessary.

The questions at his door concern the right-now: can Carlisle recruit much better in a more forgiving League Two market, and can Simpson and his colleagues coach the team back into a style of play which is reliable and looks progressive? Also – can he do enough, in terms of close-season overhaul, to get rid of the losing culture which, after so many defeats this season, must be in the marrow?

It can’t be assumed that one summer with the Piataks’ credit card will sort that. There is no precedent for a Carlisle team being relegated in vertical form then recovering straight away. Simpson retains the admiration and backing, it seems, of a majority – happenings like Blackpool’s fan-boss "abuse" episode a rarity, thankfully – but don’t expect the increased minority to take a vow of silence that would survive a bad start to 2024/25.

The foundations are genuinely improving, to levels unseen at Brunton Park. The Piataks are overhauling the stadium, building a training ground, investing in other improvements, being forthright with the player budget: all aspects designed to uplift the entire club. This ought to make United more attractive on business and football footings, should set the stage for good growth, ambition feeding ambition.

News and Star: Gabe Breeze was one of the squad's few success stories in 2023/24 after his mature displays in a brief winter run in the teamGabe Breeze was one of the squad's few success stories in 2023/24 after his mature displays in a brief winter run in the team (Image: Ben Holmes)

And this, one hopes, is also the great difference to past relegations, which have tended to be followed by more of the same, structure-wise. Now the Blues are taking different shape, swimming in different seas. The transformation could be major.

It must, though, see above all a gritty and pitiless handle on improving Carlisle United as a footballing operation, day to day, Saturday to Tuesday to Saturday. Recruitment this time must be better, more dynamic, more polished and must demonstrate imagination and acumen in the use of data, not just the acquisition and deployment of it through software like StatsBomb.

This, and other departments, should also see a bigger looming shadow of accountability from United’s owners when the Blues return to a level where they will no longer be financial small fry or up against the clock. How the Piataks deal with shortcomings and failures, as well as reward improvements and loyalties – and how they mould the club’s executive structure over time, too – will define their tenure as much as the literal building work we’re about to see.

You look at their plans, and the potential for Carlisle United pours from the page. Yet people will only see that with HD clarity when the team isn’t losing every week. If the Blues have arguably been victims of their recent success this season, what they have to rage against now, with all their might, is the risk of being victims of 2023/24’s failure.