Carlisle face Oldham this afternoon in the first of three games that manager Graham Kavanagh admits will ‘make or break’ the Blues’ season.
Kavanagh’s side is deep in relegation trouble, after slipping back into the bottom four of League One earlier this month.
And while Carlisle have a game in hand on their rivals, with just three games remaining for the Cumbrians, they are running out of time to escape.
Their final fixtures see them entertain 16th-placed Oldham at Brunton Park today, then visit midtable Crawley on Tuesday and round off their campaign at champions Wolves next Saturday.
Carlisle go into today’s game three points from safety, and Kavanagh knows this is a game his side cannot afford to lose.
He said: “We’re in a position at the moment where we quite clearly need a result. The next three games will make or break our season and I had a conversation with the players on Wednesday about what could happen.
“It was all based on us winning at least two of the games and that has to be our target. Hopefully we can implement the first stage of that today.
“I think this is a must-win game. We have to get at least four points from the next two games – but that’s a minimum.
“We can then go into the Wolves game, where few people will give us a chance, with everything to play for.”
With Carlisle in a perilous situation, Kavanagh’s reign has come under severe scrutiny from fans.
And the 40-year-old, who succeeded Greg Abbott as manager in September and still has another year left on his contract, admits the club will have a decision to make at the end of the season if he fails to keep in League One. But Kavanagh argues he has not yet had a close season to reshape the club in the way he would wish.
He said: “If relegation happens, the club would have a decision to make and I’m sure they would. But this is probably the first time I am going to fight my own corner. I’ve not had any opportunity to put my own stamp on this football club yet.
“I have done an awful lot of loan signings, all short-term, some have worked and some haven’t.
“When you gamble as we have had to, because the budget was spent when I took the job, you will get some failures.
“I think we have had more successes than failures but the ones I have relied on have been injured at the wrong time and I don’t think anybody could have foreseen that.
“If I’d had the full group available we wouldn’t be in this situation but they are ifs and buts and it’s too late for that. It is a case of seeing where the next three games take us. I wouldn’t like my first managerial job to have a relegation against it.
“But if it does, I’ll come back, I’ll have learned from it.” A victory against Oldham would go a long way towards easing Carlisle’s relegation fears. On-loan Sheffield Wednesday striker Gary Madine is set to play his last game for Carlisle, with a 7pm curfew imposed as a condition of his release from prison meaning he will be unavailable for the final two away games of the season.
Blues midfielder Liam Noble is a doubt with a calf injury, Paul Thirlwell (Achilles) is out for the remainder of the season, but defender Sean O’Hanlon could return from injury.
Striker Danny Cadamarteri has retired on medical grounds at the age of 34, due to the long-term knee injury that has kept him out all season.
Oldham are unbeaten in seven games, and manager Lee Johnson could name an unchanged lineup for a seventh successive match.
Captain Korey Smith (knee) and winger David Worrall (groin) are both expected to be fit to play.