UNITED had to settle for an exhausting point and the third successive draw after a Bank Holiday stalemate with Aldershot at Plainmoor.
Just two days after the long trip to Dartford, the Gulls were straight back into Conference action and the ideal start arrived when Courtney Cameron scored direct from a free-kick on three minutes.
The lead was maintained for well over an hour but home legs were running out of steam when substitute Joseph N’Guessan grabbed an equaliser for Aldershot and it turned out to be a decent point in the end.
United manager Chris Hargreaves made two changes from the side held 0-0 at Dartford on Saturday and it was a big gamble at left-back, where Tom Cruise was replaced by 17 year-old youth-team scholar Levi Ives, giving the young Northern Irishman his full professional debut.
Louis Briscoe dropped down to the bench, presenting Jordan Chapell with his first outing of the season on the wing. Slight knocks for Ashley Yeoman and Elliot Benyon bumped them out of the squad, opening up a place among the replacements for striker Daniel Sullivan.
Aldershot lined up with two very familiar faces through the spine of their team. Damon Lathrope, who left Plainmoor for a new adventure in the Shots’ midfield this summer, and also Joe Oastler at centre-back, a year after he had been a Yellow regular at right-back.
The dream start for United was one of those unavoidable nightmares for visiting goalkeeper Phil Smith, as a swerving free-kick delivery from Cameron missed out the crowded penalty area and bounced wickedly off the slick surface before flying into the top corner.
Relentless Bank Holiday rain had finally subsided 30 minutes before kick-off but the pitch still had more than enough moisture to deceive Smith with a fizzing bounce and the perfect opening for Hargreaves and his young team.
Aldershot responded with a decent spell of pressure, testing the home defence with a number of inviting crosses and United needed strong work in the air from both Aaron Downes and Angus MacDonald to repel the danger.
Brett Williams did manage to find space at the near-post from a Sam Hatton set-piece on 13 minutes and Martin Rice was very relieved to see the deft volley fly wide of his left-hand post.
United relieved the pressure with a fabulous break that saw Chapell run onto a clever pass inside the left channel from Cameron and when Smith came scampering off his line, the young winger cut back on his right foot to float a cross to the back post.
It looked perfect for the onrushing Duane Ofori-Acheampong to slam into the empty net but massive credit to Hatton for tracking the run to produce a superb block on the goal-bound volley.
It had developed into a very open game and with both sides looking dangerous on the counter, United were grateful to Ives and Downes for a brace of excellent defensive headers to keep the scores level.
A determined run from Toby Ajala created the next opportunity, as he shrugged off a Glenn Wilson challenge from a Dale Tonge throw and the ball found a way to Ofori-Acheampong, who saw his low shot on the turn blocked by the legs of Smith.
A lively first period took a breather in the minutes approaching half-time and the Gulls could enjoy their cup of tea feeling mightily satisfied with a slim advantage in such a tight encounter.
The gentler pace continued at the start of the second half, although a clever pass inside the right-back from Cameron sent Ofori-Acheampong scampering down the channel but Aldershot recovered quickly to break down the attack.
It took a couple dodgy offside decisions to get the Popside roaring with derision on the far side, while those in Bristow’s Bench were enjoying a tremendously assured display from Ives at full-back.
A weaving run from Cameron presented Chapell with an opening on the hour but his shot from 20 yards arrowed well wide. Aldershot responded by freshening up their attack with Dan Fitchett and N’Guessan replacing Williams and Anthony Tonkin.
United turned to Briscoe for the tiring legs of Ajala on 64 minutes and the new man went straight up front to partner Ofori-Acheampong, and give the Shots defence a different kind of problem.
Josh Scott was causing his own sort of trouble at the other end, neatly controlling a long punt forward from Smith before unleashing a 35-yard blockbuster that Rice could only beat away with his fists.
The Gulls were then almost undone by a long throw glancing off the head of Scott and Rice needed quick feet to shuffle across and snaffle the ball at the far post.
The faster rhythm had returned and a sweet ball down the line from Tonge gave Cameron the room to drop his shoulder and release Briscoe, who fired low and hard across Smith but beyond the far post.
Aldershot immediately came back with the equaliser, with N’Guessan latching onto a pass down the right to bear down on the advancing Rice and slot a tidy finish through the legs of United’s stranded custodian.
The Gulls were suddenly facing a barrage from the greatly enthused visitors and MacDonald needed all of his sizeable frame to head clear a dangerous ball from the right. Hargreaves turned to new loan signing Josh Wakefield for Courtney Richards in a bid to halt the worrying flow.
Aldershot’s final change saw Mark Molesley replace Scott for the last 10 minutes but he could only watch in hope as Smith parried clear a fizzing free-kick from the impressive United skipper, Luke Young.
Both sides were starting to look very weary and Ofori-Acheampong had to hobble off with a sore hamstring, giving Sullivan his first taste of Conference football.
United enjoyed a huge stroke of luck to conjure a marvellous chance to win the game, as the corner flag kept the ball in play, allowing Chapell to skip past his man and fire in a low cross for Cameron, but the left-winger was unable to make a clean contact from 15 yards.
Chapell had another half-chance when a sloppy punch clear from Smith presented him with an open goal, but from 35 yards and taking the shot first time, it was a very difficult skill and the ball sailed wide.
Neither team had anything left in the tank and a draw was probably the fairest outcome, but still frustrating after leading the game for so long.
United (4-4-2): 1 Martin Rice; 2 Dale Tonge, 21 Angus MacDonald, 4 Aaron Downes; 25 Levi Ives; 12 Jordan Chapell, 8 Luke Young (capt), 16 Courtney Richards (22 Josh Wakefield 79), 11 Courtney Cameron; 10 Toby Ajala (7 Louis Briscoe 64), 24 Duane Ofori-Acheampong (26 Daniel Sullivan 87). Substitutes (not used): 5 Krystian Pearce, 23 Jordan Seabright (GK).
Booked: Downes 13
Aldershot (4-4-2): 1 Phil Smith; 12 Jaydon Gibbs, 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Glenn Wilson (capt), 3 Anthony Tonkin (18 Joseph N’Guessan 60); 7 Sam Hatton, 4 Damon Lathrope, 16 Kieran Forbes, 14 Jordan Roberts; 9 Brett Williams (10 Dan Fitchett 60), 11 Josh Scott (8 Mark Molesley 80). Substitutes (not used): 13 Dan Thomas (GK), 19 Tom Derry.
Booked: Lathrope 26
Referee: Justin Amey
Attendance: 2,135 (293 away).