Chesterfield threw away the chance of moving out of the bottom four for the first time since mid-October.
Having held the lead for the best part of an hour following Drew Talbot’s first goal in just over a year, the Spireites succumbed to two sucker-punches from a previously lack-lustre Carlisle side that went into the game without several key men.
Ben Parker, whose only previous senior goal was for parent club Leeds United in an FA Cup win at Northampton over three years ago, powerfully headed the equaliser from ex-Owl John-Paul McGovern’s left-wing corner. Questions need to be asked about the marking.
Worse was to follow for the in-form visitors when a long punt up field from keeper Adam Collin was headed on. Spireites right-back James Hurst gathered comfortably but he then under-hit a back-pass as the surface gathered water, allowing Francois Zoko to nip in, round Tommy Lee and slot home an 84th-minute winner.
The goal marked Chesterfield’s first loss at Brunton Park since 1993 and it meant that John Sheridan’s side returned to the foot of the table having been, at 4.30pm, provisionally fifth bottom and set to celebrate a major turnaround in fortunes.
As expected, the cup-tied duo of Neal Trotman and Liam Ridehalgh returned after the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win at Oldham. Simon Ford, whose knee needs plenty of rest plus Jamie Lowry, on the bench, missed out. New signing Nicky Ajose was also held in reserve. He did make his debut in the second half and had two chances to have made it 2-0.
The first, from a pass by David Davis, saw the ball roll inches wide and the second, a left footed angled shot, was blocked on the line by Peter Murphy. His time will come.
The play-off-chasing Cumbrians were without the suspended Lee Miller and James Berrett, top scorer and pla-maker respectively, plus injured defender Matty Robson and striker Rory Loy. All four are automatic starters when available.
Greg Abbott’s side saw a fair bit of the early ball but they didn’t turn their first few corners into gilt-edged chances while Zoko and Liam Noble saw long-range shots blocked.
Former Blade Paul Thirlwell was United’s most effective player in the centre of a three-man midfield but he was unable to conjure up too much threatening pressure from the hosts.
Just past the quarter-of-an-hour mark, the visitors got a vital breakthrough.
Mark Allott’s shot was blocked, Ridehalgh delivered in the rebound, Scott Boden headed on and Talbot gathered. He had to control, turn and then see Collin fail to get a proper hand on his low eight-yard shot.
With the precipitation falling virtually non-stop, rain and sleet following on from the pre-match snow, the surface was never easy.
Thirlwell and Noble forced Lee to work, but such outside-the-box shots were hardly likely to test the keeper as Chesterfield’s rearguard looked solid and ready to keep a third straight clean sheet.
Striker Paddy Madden came on at half-time. Carlisle switched Zoko more to the left and he became a key player, Trotman had to hack one of his crosses away ahead of a run of home corners.
Ajose’s introduction gave a fresh look to the visitors’ play and they looked the more likely scorers. Murphy headed wide from another home flag-kick before they introduced Andy Welsh to the game. The left-winger’s influence was instant as Zoko, back in the centre, saw Lee foil his effort. That lifted Carlisle and Parker levelled.
Davis had his head in his hands after a tackle halted his run on goal but a bit more awareness from the midfielder and he’d have realised that the block had only been partial and the ball was still adjacent to his feet just six yards out.
With just six minutes remaining, Zoko hit the winner for the reigning JPT holders and, in stoppage time, a low shot from him went just wide as the home side finished the stronger.
Late concessions at Wycombe, Scunthorpe and now Carlisle have dogged the Spireites this season. All three of those games should have been won but only one point came from them.
How costly will they be come May?