Carlisle United 3-3 Wycombe

Home, sweet home? Not quite. Still not yet. This absorbing Brunton Park game saw Carlisle United get to the very brink of regaining the winning feeling at their own ground. An injury-time equaliser from Wycombe’s Paris Cowan-Hall, though, means the wait for home victory number two goes on.

As this topsy-turvy clash rolled into its tense final stages, Keith Curle’s team produced what seemed to be a quality winning goal, slotted smoothly into the far corner by Reggie Lambe. The Bermudan had also set United off with an early opener before a straightforward game got a whole lot more complicated.

Wycombe, though, were also persistent to the end, and deserve credit for that, even though it was deflating indeed when sub Cowan-Hall got to a right-wing corner before anyone else and headed it past Jack Bonham and into the net.

There was no time for either side to muster anything else, and instead of celebrating a further climb up League Two, as well as the burying of some home demons, we had to pick over the most painful way yet for the Blues to fail to win at HQ.

It had all seemed so much brighter when there were seconds to go until half-time. United were 2-0 up and in greater command than they have been here since August. By the time Sam Saunders’ free-kick sailed into their net, though, a more taxing night had started to unfold.

When Adebayo Akinfenwa then headed Wycombe level on 72 minutes, one feared a seriously deflating outcome after all their earlier good work. The Blues then showed gumption to pierce Gareth Ainsworth’s defence one more time, yet failure to handle Wycombe’s final set-pieces cost them at the death.

So on they go to Saturday, and another high-flier, as they try to get into better order at Brunton Park. Notts County are the second of two tough opponents in the space of five days, after Wycombe maintained a proud unbeaten run on the road which trails back to February.

In order to unsettle the first of these opponents, Curle brought Saturday’s matchwinner Jamie Devitt into his side. At the back, Danny Grainger was suspended, replaced at left-back by Tom Miller, with midfielder Kelvin Etuhu out through injury.

Curle anticipated a more direct visiting team than United have faced, the stout figure of Akinfenwa a familiar foe for a defence strengthened recently by Clint Hill. At the other end, most thoughts were on whether Carlisle could end a three-game scoreless run on their own turf.

They had very little time to wait, and the opener came so quickly one was tempted to wonder what all the fuss had been about. All it took was a fluent attack down the right, and then a deep Nicky Adams corner that found Lambe in acres at the back post.

For Wycombe, it was unforgivable marking. For Carlisle, an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. Lambe’s free header beat keeper Scott Brown and crossed the line as Hill followed in to make doubly sure.

That ended the Brunton Park drought at four hours and 39 minutes and now we would see whether the shackles would disappear along with that unwelcome stat.

Initially, the signs were good.

United showed confidence in some of their moves from the back, making use of space in front of them as Wycombe stood off. One such advance, in the ninth minute, saw Gary Liddle cross usefully into the box, Devitt almost returning it for the lurking Lambe. Next, Adams stepped forward and almost threaded the Bermudan through.

Carlisle had to back this up with some gritty defensive play as they got to grips with Akinfenwa. This they did in the opening stages, Eberechi Eze’s lashed finish and a Craig Mackail-Smith bobbler the best the Chairboys came up with from aiming for their big target in the No.20 shirt.

United’s supporters approved any time their players went in with appetite against Ainsworth’s players, and also when they pressed Brown into the occasional mistake. They tested the keeper’s alertness again midway through the half when retrieving possession on the left, Adams’ cross requiring Brown to tip over his bar.

Moments later, Liddle had a snapshot blocked and Shaun Miller lobbed a rebound on to the roof of the net, and while these were not necessarily gaping chances, United were certainly not beset by the tension that has accompanied some of their recent efforts at home.

Devitt’s ball-playing was also enhancing United around midfield. Another positive attack saw Miller rifle just over from the right, and when there was a scare at the other end, James Brown did sterling work to chase and then dispossess Mackail-Smith.

Any thoughts the visitors were going to barge back into things at this stage seemed remote when United came forward again. This time, Hill sent a firm pass down the left, and when Shaun Miller checked back in the box, he went down under Daniel Scarr’s challenge.

Wycombe protested at length, Sam Saunders particularly affronted – but Devitt was undeterred, sending Brown the wrong way with an emphatic low penalty.

It did not flatter United – yet the most enjoyable first half at this ground for some weeks was then checked at the last. Mike Jones was penalised as he challenged Eze, and Saunders curled the free-kick into the biggest part of unattended space to Bonham’s right.

It was a textbook set-piece – and made the second half more complex. As much as anything, it was now a mental test for Carlisle to ensure a 2-0 lead didn’t vanish completely after all their good work.

The best way of protecting against this would be to score again. That they should have done seven minutes after the restart, in a sweeping attack started by Brown’s interception and pass. Devitt glanced it to Lambe and Adams was fed on the left of the box, but the winger’s shot across goal wasn’t precise enough.

This kept Wycombe alive. They pushed bodies on to United and tried to locate Akinfenwa nearer to Bonham’s goal. From one high delivery, Tom Miller leapt to intervene and saw his defensive header skim his own crossbar.

The visitors were rumbling, but United still looked to pounce. Devitt sent a free-kick wide, then Joyce’s tackle allowed Lambe to fed Shaun Miller, a Wycombe challenge denying the striker in the box.

At Carlisle’s end, it was half-chances at best but the Blues began to give the ball away more cheaply under additional pressure and a double substitution by Curle – Hallam Hope and Steven Rigg for Shaun Miller and Devitt – did not have time to give them a new platform, for minutes later the visitors were level.

They gained too much room to manoeuvre down the right, and even before Nick Freeman’s cross had reached the back post, there was foreboding as you realised Akinfenwa was the man in wait. His strength and timing did the rest and United’s hopes were now back in the balance.

In song, Wycombe’s fans told United exactly what they had done with their lead. Yet the riposte was excellent when it came. Hope, first, turned smartly away from his man and made strong inroads down the right.

He fed Jones, who shifted it left to Lambe; his finish across Brown was clinical, and the Blues looked set for some highly welcome home comforts after all this time.

They could not, though, see it through, and after a late siege of set-pieces, seeing keeper Brown forward and Bonham unable to deal with a further delivery, Cowan-Hall rose, and United were crushed, right at the last.

Carlisle: Bonham, T.Miller, Joyce (c), Liddle, Jones, Adams (Kennedy 82), Devitt (Hope 68), Brown, Lambe, S.Miller (Rigg 68), Hill.

Carlisle unused sub: George, Nabi, Cosgrove, Salkeld.

Wycombe Wanderers: Brown, Jombati, Jacobsen, Gape, El-Abd (c), Saunders (Bloomfield 78), Akinfewa, Freeman, Mackail-Smith (Southwell 73), Eze (Cowan-Hall 68), Scarr.

Wycombe unused subs: Ma-Kalambay, Stewart, O'Nien, Williams.

Ref: Scott Duncan

Crowd: 3,562 (126 Wycombe fans)