Notts County 2 Carlisle United 1: If Carlisle United could isolate all the things they put into such a positive second-half performance last night, this season would not be so frustrating, so middling. Alas, football is a game of 90 minutes and it was some poor work in the first half that ultimately cost them here, no matter how well they almost fought back.

This was a contest of dramatically changing shape, as a 2-0 half-time lead for Notts County became an intensely nervy one-goal advantage for Kevin Nolan’s promotion-chasers. By the end the hosts were clinging on, the game’s momentum having shifted almost entirely.

United, though, couldn’t turn pressure into even a point. Jamie Devitt’s goal, which set up their near-revival, was a consolation, and eventful defeats won’t get the Cumbrians anywhere, not this deep into a mid-table campaign.

From the hour mark on, it was all Carlisle. They rattled the post, got their goal, and very nearly forced more. Before then, though, they had been cut open too easily and there was simply too much to do once Jon Stead had punched in his second of two first-half goals.

That moment, in the 35th minute, was the result of poor United defending at a corner and, in the end, is the reason they lost here. There have been too many cases in 2017/18 when they have not done things consistently from beginning to end. So it was here, even if nobody could have objected had they found that second goal.

Old connections were everywhere at this ancient club as Carlisle tried to drag some relevance back into a drifting campaign. In the blue corner, as well as Keith Curle and his fellow former Notts staff, Gary Liddle captained United at the place he used to call home.

Jamal Campbell-Ryce, benched amid two changes (Mike Jones was also dropped, Hallam Hope and Reggie Lambe stepping up), also has Magpies history. Notts, meanwhile, included two former Blues in Adam Collin and Liam Noble, although Shaun Brisley did not make it.

Noble, facing United for the first time since his 2014 departure, had a freshly-shaven head for the occasion. The midfielder would be towards the bottom of the list of players who you’d imagine to be feeling trepidation about a contest like this. Carlisle’s job was to tame the 26-year-old’s better qualities and see if some of his old indiscipline could be teased back out – along with putting on a much more presentable display than they have managed recently.

Not for the first time, they began that effort in reasonable-looking shape. Not for the first time, that encouragement also didn’t last long. The first seven or eight minutes saw United on the front foot, Kris Twardek’s pace and urgency playing its part, Kelvin Etuhu having a shot blocked and Devitt swinging at fresh air from another.

A couple more corners were forced and Lambe broke into the box with another pacy dash. Notts, though, absorbed this and applied some set-piece pressure of their own before the opener came. First, Bonham punched a Dan Jones corner weakly into Noble’s path, but the midfielder couldn’t convert.

Next, Shola Ameobi held the ball up well against Clint Hill but the overlapping Matt Tootle shot wide. The next attack, though, brought a reward for Nolan’s team, as Lewis Alessandra’s threaded pass found Stead behind Hill’s attempted offside line, and although Bonham got plenty on his attempted save, the striker’s shot still spun behind him and into the net.

The hosts had found some fluency by now, even if Noble, on the right, was not yet at the heart of matters. Stead (34) and Ameobi (36) versus Hill (39) was a throwback contest and more pressure came United’s way, after Lambe and Devitt had briefly threatened a fightback.

This summed up Carlisle's half: a fair few openings, but not the decisive touch, and then a mess at the other end. On 33 minutes, Hope’s curling attempt appeared to be spinning into Lambe’s scoring path, only for Jones to flick it away at the final moment.

Carlisle then had none of that last-ditch defensive quality when failing to deal with another Jones corner. The left-back’s delivery was decent, but not so decent that it should have left the hosts having one free shot that struck another Notts player on the line, and then a further effort from Stead that hit the net without a Blues player getting in the way.

Even though there may have been a case for offside in that pinball situation (Curle also felt Bonham was fouled as he failed to get close enough to the cross), United’s work was rotten, and rendered their better work futile, such as another near miss from Hope, who was on the left of midfield. There were signs that the hosts’ defence could be opened up, but further jitters nearly cost the Blues again, when James Brown’s header back to Bonham sailed past the keeper and almost let in Stead, and the only conclusion at the break was that United, where it counted, were short from the overall quality needed to make a mark on yet another game in their dwindling campaign.

Another Mark, Ellis, was sent on at the break as Brown’s night ended early. United duly began the second half with a back four comprised entirely of centre-halves. It did not, initially, generate much other than a first 15 minutes of mostly back-foot play, with Cole Stockton isolated up front and most of the good work coming from those in black and white.

Ameobi, canny in his back-to-goal work again, twice linked brightly with Alessandra and Jones, forcing Carlisle to clear their lines. Yet a change of midfield shape, with Twardek on the right and Lambe now more central, gave them a glimmer. With Tom Parkes also pushing on, and Lambe linking well with Hope, the latter drove against the post and the resulting corner saw Collin spill, before the keeper scooped a deflected shot from sub Mike Jones from under his bar.

Notts, it was becoming clear, had lost some of their earlier confidence as they tried to protect their lead. Noble was booked for dramatically exaggerating the effects of a Devitt challenge - and then duly the United goal came. Lambe, released to the left, was denied by Collin, but after Bonham had kept out Ameobi at the other end, Devitt hit the target, aided by a deflection as he met a cross from debutant sub Ashley Nadesan.

That home defender Richard Duffy was prone with an apparent head injury before United scored made no difference. That and a few other decisions got the hosts’ temperature up, and a flurry of bookings from ref Darren Drysdale was the result.

Their state of half-time comfort was long gone. They were now holding on against a Carlisle side who deserved their belated hope. Collin got behind a Parkes curler as the Blues sought a dramatic finish to an unpredictable game, and Nadesan instigated more attacks on the right, but even in seven added minutes, it didn’t come.

They went to the very end, and it was certainly an exhausting and rather heartbreaking way to finish with nothing. But nothing, sadly, is what they got.

Notts County: Collin, Tootle, Hall, Duffy, D Jones, Hewitt (Grant 82), Husin, Noble, Alessandra, Ameobi (Forte 82), Stead. Not used: Fitzsimons, Dickinson, Virtue, Hunt, Walker.

United: Bonham, Brown (Ellis 46), Parkes, Hill, Liddle, Etuhu (M Jones 63), Lambe, Devitt, Twardek (Nadesan 74), Hope, Stockton. Not used: Gray, Campbell-Ryce, Bennett, O'Sullivan.