HONOURS even on a saturated Boxing Day encounter at Home Park left the Gulls travelling home from Plymouth Argyle with dreams of what might have been.
On the balance of play, even the most ardent Yellow would struggle to claim United deserved to win this Devon derby but hope was abundant when the outstanding Aaron Downes smashed the ball into the top corner on 78 minutes.
Argyle had toiled without much luck afternoon and looked like being thwarted by a terrific defensive and goalkeeping performance from the Gulls until Tyler Harvey swept in a dramatic equaliser in the final minute.
United boss Martin Ling made just one change from the 1-1 draw with Northampton 10 days ago, with the unexpected break from the postponed Devon derby with Exeter allowing extra time for Billy Bodin to recover from a knock to the ankle.
He returned to the side to replace Ryan Jarvis, who suffered fractured ribs and a partially punctured lung in the closing minutes of the Northampton draw. Elsewhere, Joe Oastler recovered from a twisted ankle in training to take his place at right-back but hamstring trouble took Niall Thompson off the bench.
Plymouth manager Carl Fletcher made three changes from the side that battled to a 1-1 long-distance draw at muddy Accrington on Saturday. Young striker Harvey was handed his debut at the expense of Rhys Griffiths, Paris Cowan-Hall was preferred to Joe Lennox in midfield and Maxine Blanchard returned from suspension to oust Durrell Berry at the back.
The Pilgrims started brightly on a wind-swept afternoon, with Nick Chadwick seizing on the ball 20 yards from goal but his ambitious half-volley screwed well wide.
A strike from Harvey moments later was heading for the same area until a ricochet off Lee Mansell forced Michael Poke into a smart save, preventing his skipper from notching an unfortunate own goal in front of the 1,500 travelling United fans.
The advantage of a strong wind combined with home backing had Argyle bossing the first 10 minutes, and left-back Robbie Williams came within a whisker of crowning the pressure with a fierce drive from the angle that flew inches past Poke’s top corner.
The Green end of Home Park rose in unison to celebrate on 18 minutes, as a dazzling run into the left channel from Zimbabwean Onimsor Bhasera ended with a rifled drive across goal that somehow was scooped over his own bar by Kevin Nicholson to dampen Argyle joy.
Downes was the next Yellow hero, producing a superb block to deny Paris Cowan-Hall a certain goal after a long throw from Curtis Nelson had caused momentary mayhem in the United defence.
There was no other way of describing the pattern of proceedings: the Gulls were taking a pummelling and it needed another fine save from Poke to turn wide a deflected long-range strike from Luke Young.
United were grateful for a 10-minute period of midfield scrapping to stem the Green flow and a delightful cross from Nicholson forced Williams into conceding the first corner of the afternoon, but the first chance to test Argyle ‘keeper Rene Gilmartin came to nothing.
The game continued to descend in quality as half-time approached. The conditions hardly helped but Ling went into the interval knowing his side would need to find some semblance of passing rhythm after the break.
Within two minutes of the second half, United created their first genuine opening of the match as a deep Nicholson corner found Stevens at the back post, who controlled the ball neatly before driving a goal-bound effort into the midriff of a brave block from Chadwick.
The Gulls suddenly looked a different side and a twisting run from the unusually quiet Rene Howe culminated in a close-range pile-driver that the massive Gilmartin could only beat away with his fists.
Argyle attempted to reassert their previous authority but Bodin then came to the fore with a sharp turn and shot from 20 yards which scuttled narrowly past the near post.
Plymouth responded by spurning a glorious chance to score the vital first goal, as Chadwick headed horribly wide after being picked out by a superb sweeping cross from Conor Hourihane. It was a poor miss from the former Everton forward and the festive home crowd quickly voiced their displeasure.
Young Harvey was the next Pilgrim to have a pop and it was a terrific strike from distance that fizzed across the surface, requiring a decent low save by Poke.
United came back with a fine cross from Nathan Craig prompting outright panic in the Argyle defence. When the initial ball was cleared, Craig delivered again and both Stevens and Bodin had shots blocked before the ball bobbled to Mansell, who blasted his shot over from six yards.
The first change of the afternoon arrived on 70 minutes, when Bodin was withdrawn for Ashley Yeoman, who immediately took his place in the attacking hole behind Howe.
The new man soon won a free-kick on the left corner of the area and Nicholson stepped up for a ferocious drive that Gilmartin only just managed to parry wide for a corner.
Nicholson took the set-piece and picked out the head of Downes, who saw his first attempt blocked but the rebound fell perfectly for the Australian to stab home and send the Yellow Army wild. It was a decent finisher from the fearless defender, who had again been imperious at the back.
Fletcher swiftly turned to his bench, introducing Rhys Griffiths for Chadwick. Home Park was howling seconds later, as Hourihane was booked for simulation after tumbling under an innocuous Craig Easton challenge in the box.
The rain started hammering down for the final minutes and Poke almost ensured the points travelled home to the Bay with an amazing double-save to thwart a Young shot and then the follow-up from Griffiths.
It was a marvellous save and summed up a determined defensive display from the men in Yellow. Poke was pulling out all the stops again to turn away a Williams free-kick in the final minute.
Argyle, however, would not be denied, and the equaliser finally arrived with an excellent shot on the spin from Harvey. The youngster connected perfectly from 20 yards and the brilliant Poke was beaten by the ball flashing into his bottom left-hand corner.
The worrying footnote to an intriguing afternoon was the sight of Mansell being carted away on a stretcher after a tackle with Hourihane. Game over, and a welcome point in the end.
Argyle (4-4-1-1): 20 Rene Gilmartin; 17 Curtis Nelson, 5 Darren Purse (capt), 4 Max Blanchard, 3 Robbie Williams; 7 Paris Cowan-Hall, 6 Conor Hourihane, 8 Luke Young, 14 Onismor Bhasera; 29 Tyler Harvey, 9 Nick Chadwick (10 Rhys Griffiths 81). Substitutes (not used): 1 Jake Cole (GK), 2 Durrell Berry, 11 Warren Feeney, 16 Jamie Lowry, 19 Joe Lennox, 27 Andres Gurrieri.
Booked: Hourihane 82
Gulls (4-4-1-1): 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 16 Angus MacDonald, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 20 Nathan Craig, 18 Craig Easton, 7 Lee Mansell (capt) (6 Damon Lathrope 90), 19 Danny Stevens; 15 Billy Bodin (23 Ashley Yeoman 70); 9 Rene Howe. Substitutes (not used): 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 13 Martin Rice (GK), 17 Saul Halpin, 21 Thomas Cruise, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie.
Referee: Graham Salisbury
Attendance: 10,003 (1,525 away).