The 2002/3 season, like many others in that era, was one of struggle for Carlisle United in the fourth tier of English football. They actually started it, though, in impressive defensive form.

After losing on the opening day, they then went on a stingy run of three league games without conceding, and an overall shut-out spell of five hours and 45 minutes.

Being solid and stubborn may not be how the United of Roddy Collins is remembered but, with a central defence tightly marshalled by Stuart Whitehead and Lee Andrews, a certain foundation was there that August.

It was a partnership that should have lasted longer, yet after spending £100,000 on countryman Darren Kelly, Collins was itching to get his latest signing into the side. That he did, in a trip to Darlington. After Andrews had been replaced by the new boy at half-time, Carlisle conceded for the first time since the curtain-raiser against Hartlepool.

Eventually losing 2-0, they were seldom so miserly again. They ended the campaign third bottom, having conceded 78 goals, and both that and their goal difference of -26 were the second-worst records in the division. While it might be a stretch to put this all onto one decision, it was hardly a good reflection of the manager's sense of timing.

Collins' error was to attempt to fix something that was not broken - indeed it could hardly have been working better. This seems a particular crime in the area of the team that rewards stability. Not always is it this clear-cut, though, and there are still times when a manager must anticipate the need for improvement before many others have caught on.

At United right now there is a strong case for saying Keith Curle got it right regarding Clint Hill. In his ninth Carlisle game against Oldham last weekend the 39-year-old drew some old pro's praise from Steve Soley, commentating on BBC Radio Cumbria , as United turfed a League One team out of the FA Cup.

Curle drafted the veteran in during September despite centre-half being a position that few, at the time, were lambasting. Tom Parkes was bedding in well after his summer move and Mark Ellis had shown character, and good performance, to regain his place ahead of Gary Liddle. No opinion is universal but there was perhaps a stronger argument for other parts of the team to receive emergency attention.

Improvement since Hill's arrival has, though, been measurable. In their first eight league games of the season, Carlisle conceded 15 goals, kept one clean sheet and took just eight points.

In the eight since, all involving the former Rangers man, they have shipped nine, kept three clean sheets and gained 12 points.

It is not a huge period on which to form judgments, but all the same, the uplift is clear. Pre-Hill, United were letting in almost two goals a game. Now it is just a fraction over one. Small wonder this has given them, on balance, more opportunities to win or draw games.

Their points per game ratio with Hill, if extended for 46 games, would be that of a play-off contender. Pre-Hill, it is the record of a struggler. There may be much still to be done, since Carlisle are 16th in League Two and a point nearer the drop zone than the top seven, but it surely cannot be too soon to make the case for Hill, currently on a short-term contract, to be retained for the rest of the season.

Beyond that? Who knows? A player in his condition can be viewed outside the normal parameters and, although 39, there has been nothing yet in his performances to suggest this campaign ought to be his last.

The remainder of this one will do for now, though. A long-term strategy to strengthen United's defence may not involve Hill for many years, but there is much to be said for getting the short-term right. A philosophy or a vision can be a very fine thing but so can a veteran signing at the back who generally knows where to put himself and who doesn't mind sending the ball into touch if it helps United avoid precarious moments early or late in a game.

We will never know how the 2013/14 season would have panned out had different decisions been made, but United did not improve for Graham Kavanagh's decision to ease Danny Livesey out of the first-team picture and involve, among others, the much younger Courtney Meppen-Walter.

Meppen-Walter could play, that much was obvious. Kavanagh wanted a more progressive style and felt the former Manchester City youngster could eventually assist in this. The problem was that United, from late winter onwards, started losing games at an uncontrollable rate and were there not times when you wished someone like Livesey, although not the most cultured centre-half, was there to defend with a little more grit and understanding than Meppen-Walter, and a subsequent handful of loanees, could muster in a crisis?

So, even if Hill is Mr Right Now, so be it - and Carlisle should make the most of him. The untrained eye says Liddle has improved alongside him, right-back James Brown (another excellent addition) has spoke glowingly of his presence, while Parkes, last weekend, paid Hill the ultimate compliment of saying he tries to copy everything he does. "I know if he's doing something, it must be something I need to be doing in my game," Parkes said.

It is no slight on the others to observe that Hill has brought qualities that were not necessarily there before - or not, at least, with the same amount of experience and know-how. It might be overstating it to call it the Kevin Gray effect, since that great defensive figure influenced a transformation of Carlisle United that few have ever emulated.

But are there not traces, at least, of what can happen to a team's sense of self-worth when some hard reliability is added, by a statesman of the back four who has not so much been around the block as designed the block, built the block and lived in the block for most of his life?

"I still have something to prove every day," Hill said at Rangers, a time that saw cult status conferred on a player better known for his stint with another club of that name in west London. QPR did not, in the end, need Hill for another spell this season, but his hunger has so far been Carlisle's gain.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine the Blues doing any better in the January window. If age is a number, Hill is also making United's figures better. So let us pray he is retained.