THE narrow margins of football were perfectly illustrated on a balmy night for the Gulls at Swindon Town in the Capital One Cup.
United were looking to end a miserable recent record in the first round of this competition but will probably look back on a first half where the Yellows dominated as a missed opportunity.
Swindon took advantage of the blank score-line to wrestle control after the break and, despite being denied by a superb penalty save from Martin Rice, the Robins booked their passage into round two with a late goal from Andy Williams.
United boss Alan Knill made two changes from the weekend draw with Wimbledon and both came in attacking positions. Jordan Chapell was preferred to Courtney Cameron and Karl Hawley replaced Elliot Benyon.
Swindon caretaker-manager Mark Cooper was slightly more ruthless after his side started the season with a 1-0 loss at Peterborough. Nathan Thompson, Alex Smith, Massimo Luongo and Ryan Harley came out, to be replaced by Jack Barthram, Nathan Byrne, Louis Thompson and Yaser Kasim.
The first to shine for United was Billy Bodin, a youngster who came through the ranks at Swindon, and his lashed cross was excellently fielded by Wes Foderingham in the home goal. The Gulls continued their positive start with Hawley creating some room for Kevin Nicholson to clip a pass forward for Bodin, but the former Robin was unable to bring the ball under his spell.
At the other end of the pitch, United’s defensive duo of Krystian Pearce and Aaron Downes were looking strong at the back, although the bright opening on a fabulous surface was briefly marred by some careless passing by both sides.
Another shining light in Yellow was Hawley, clearly enjoying his full debut for the club and determined to show the guile that has been a feature of his terrific career to date. If there was one early scare for the Gulls, it came from a shoddy clearance by Rice but the danger was quickly snuffed out.
United’s custodian swiftly made amends with a fine save in narrowing the angles to deny Alex Pritchard from scoring on 23 minutes after the forward had found space in the penalty area. There was some real controversy moments later, as Pearce escaped a barge on Pritchard, which could have easily led to a spot-kick.
Referee Andy D’Urso waved away the home shouts and the Gulls sought to milk their reprieve with a sweeping pass wide from Callum Ball, and recipient Chapell was unlucky to see his cross snaffled by Foderingham.
After the intensity of United’s opening day draw with Wimbledon, it was hugely impressive to see the Gulls working so hard to stifle their League 1 hosts and generally enjoy the better passages of play in a fascinating first half.
The best chance of the opening 45 minutes fell to Ball on the verge of the interval. The man on loan from Derby was teed up by Hawley and his instinctive drive was brilliantly turned wide by Foderingham.
The subsequent corner picked out the head of Downes, who was denied by his own man, as the effort cannoned away off the body of Hawley and Ball was unable to pick up the rebound.
United were getting closer and closer, and a swinging cross from Dale Tonge picked out Chapell, who, in turn, found Ben Harding for a shot that flashed narrowly past the upright of a stranded Foderingham.
The only negative for the Gulls as the second half begun was the lack of score-line recognition for a dominant performance, and that was reflected by Cooper making two changes at the interval, introducing Miles Storey and Luongo for Mason and Tijane Freitas-Reis.
Swindon were quickly enthused by the reshuffle and Rice was soon called into action, denying substitute Storey with a strong save, and the Gulls were able to hack clear. Pearce then took the plaudits with a fabulous challenge on the dangerous Pritchard, who was about to shoot on goal.
United responded with more good work by Hawley in releasing Bodin but the young winger was hesitant at the wrong moment, and Swindon recovered to storm up the other end for a decisive incident.
The outstanding Pritchard was the problem for the Yellows, sneaking into the box, where he was hauled down for a clear penalty. Pritchard stepped up and hammered the penalty, but Rice kept the scores level with a truly fantastic save.
Swindon had a sniff from the rebound but the Yellow defenders were sharp enough to clear, and a resounding pat on the back for Rice, who was somehow surpassing his man of the match performance against Wimbledon on the weekend.
The first Yellow change was one with Swindon connections, as the impressive Hawley was replaced by Benyon, who was sold to the Robins from his first stint as a Gull in January 2011.
The new man had no time to even get his boots green before the Yellow Army were again gasping in disbelief at a miraculous save from Rice. After blocking the first shot from Pritchard, Rice immediately got to his feet to brilliantly thwart Andy Williams from the rebound.
Sadly for Benyon, his evening at the County Ground was all too brief, as a nasty looking head injury forced the forward out of proceedings. After lengthy treatment, Benyon was removed for Courtney Cameron.
Within seconds of the game getting back under way, the Robins were in front. Storey was the catalyst, driving forward with incredible pace and forcing another fine save from Rice, but the rebound fell for Williams to tap home the easiest possible finish.
Swindon sought to protect their late advantage by replacing Pritchard with Alex Smith and there was a feeling the boys in Yellow were struggling to muster another big push forward after working so hard over the 90 minutes.
Knill made one last twist, removing Tonge for the lightning legs of Niall Thompson, but the new man unfortunately gave the ball away and was grateful to Rice for another super save in denying Williams his second of the night.
Eight minutes of injury time was a source of hope but United were able to re-galvanise for a final push.
Swindon [4-3-3]: 1 Wes Foderingham; 23 Jack Barthram, 5 Grant Hall, 22 Darren Ward [capt], 3 Nathan Byrne; 15 Yaser Kasim, 19 Louis Thompson, 8 Ryan Mason [4 Massimo Luongo H-T]; 6 Tijane Freitas-Reis [20 Miles Storey H-T], 10 Andy Williams, 11 Alex Pritchard [21 Alex Smith 87]. Substitutes [not used]: 2 Nathan Thompson, 14 Jay McEveley, 30 Leigh Bedwell [GK], 41 Troy Archibald-Henville.
United [4-4-2]: 13 Martin Rice; 2 Dale Tonge [15 Niall Thompson 88], 5 Krystian Pearce, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 12 Jordan Chapell, 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 8 Ben Harding, 10 Billy Bodin; 9 Karl Hawley [26 Elliot Benyon 70][ 11 Courtney Cameron 81], 16 Callum Ball. Substitutes [not used]: 6 Damon Lathrope, 21 Thomas Cruise, 31 Daniel Sullivan, 33 Conor Thompson [GK].
Referee: Andy D’Urso