UNITED were denied their first victory of the League 2 season by a late equaliser from Chris Zebroski, who has previously enjoyed three different spells as a Gull.
Cheltenham opened the scoring on 15 minutes with a Shaun Harrad header from close range and painful recent memories were evoked in Yellow hearts, but the players on the pitch had no time for wallowing in play-off pain.
Aaron Downes capped his home debut in the league with a strong headed equaliser on 22 minutes and Rene Howe had made it 2-1 almost before the net had time to stop rippling from the first goal.
Sadly, the path to victory was blocked by a familiar face when Zebroski pounced with ten minutes remaining.
United manager Martin Ling made one change from the battling 0-0 draw at Fleetwood and it was an attacking switch, with the dazzling skills of Lloyd Macklin preferred to the defensive prowess of Thomas Cruise on the flanks.
There was also some shuffling on the bench, where Nathan Craig and Ashley Yeoman nudged off by Niall Thompson and Daniel Leadbitter.
Cheltenham boss Mark Yates had the luxury of naming the same starting line-up and replacements from the weekend win over Dagenham & Redbridge. The names to fear included Marlon Pack and Jermaine McGlashan, both vital cogs in their play-off win over the Gulls back in May.
Added to the list of potential threats since that tie was former United favourite Zebroski, who immediately tested the awareness of Joe Oastler with a run in behind and there was mild relief when the assistant’s flag was unfurled high in the summer evening sky.
At the other end, Billy Bodin was looking particularly sharp and he left the Cheltenham defence for dead with a beautiful body swerve and Scott Brown, United’s nemesis four months ago, saved well with his legs.
The end-to-end action continued with a deep corner from the Robins finding the head of Harry Hooman and the Gulls were grateful for a combination of goalkeeper Michael Poke and Kevin Nicholson diverting the ball wide.
It was a warning for the boys in Yellow and one they failed to heed. The next corner from Billy Jones again picked out the towering leap of Hooman and his header back across goal was a gift for Harrad to nod inside the near post.
The simplicity of a set-piece goal will bring extra frustration for Ling and his coaching team. Bodin sought a quick riposte with a skidding shot from distance but the save was comfortable for Brown.
What better way to avenge an set-piece goal conceded than to do the same to your opposition, up step Nicholson with a floated free-kick to the back post and Downes showed greater desire than his marker to plant a fine header beyond the despairing right-hand of Brown.
It was a super finish, eclipsed within seconds by a stunner from Howe, darting in behind the Robins’ backline to glance a fabulous header past Brown after an excellent whipped cross by Mansell on the left wing.
The game had turned on its head and Yates signalled his frustration with a mystery rant at referee Mick Russell. Howe, meanwhile, was having a party and the big striker steered another strong header narrowly wide after a dinked cross from the impressive Bodin.
The aerial threat would not go away, however, and a Harrad flick from yet another Jones corner was punched clear by the decisive fists of Poke in front of the Family Stand.
The frantic nature of proceedings was given an unwanted break when Damon Lathrope flew into a typically committed challenge and jarred his knee, resulting in lengthy treatment from physio Damian Davey.
Sadly, the magic sponge had lost its pizzazz and Lathrope was forced to hobble off a couple of minutes before half-time. Craig Easton was the readymade replacement to help close out a satisfactory first period.
There was, however, a final scare, as McGlashan was allowed a free header at the back post and Poke was a relieved man to see the effort arrow just past his top left-hand corner.
United started the second period with another corner and the movement of Downes was again too much for the Cheltenham defence, as the Australian stooped to nod inches wide from a super Mansell delivery.
The Gulls soon fashioned another terrific opening after an exchange between Bodin and Howe engineered room down the left for the young winger to fire in a low cross, and Macklin was just a whisker off target with his steered shot.
Cheltenham, much to their credit, relieved the growing pressure with a weaving run down the right from full-back Sido Jombati, and his pass found Harrad for a low side-footer dragged beyond the far post.
Macklin was now fully involved in Yellow fun and he sauntered through the Robins’ midfield with a blistering run before teeing up Bodin, who cut inside Jombati neatly but Brown was alert enough to pounce on the ball.
The time had come for Yates to roll his dice, introducing Jeff Goulding for Sam Deering, but the flow remained in United’s favour, as a fabulous long pass from Oastler picked out Bodin. The cross was instant for Howe, who first bundled the ball against the post and then saw his backheel cleared of the line.
Unfortunately, the night was up for Macklin, who was stretchered off with a nasty knock. Cruise was brought on to the left flank, with Bodin shifting over to the right.
The pattern was slowly changing, as Cheltenham gradually committed more men forward. Jombati, in particular, was menacing, and Oastler produced a brilliant defensive header to clear one cross. The subsequent corner found a powerful effort from, which was superbly headed off the line by Easton.
Seconds later, Jombati cut inside and swung a beautiful left-footed curler and Bristow’s Bench enjoyed a spectacular view of Poke flying through the sky to tip the ball expertly over his own bar.
The pressure finally told when a long hopeful ball bounced over the retreating Oastler and he appeared to be pushed over by Zebroski, but the officials ignored Yellow claims, and the former darling of TQ1 finished neatly past Poke.
The frustration felt across Plainmoor was summed up by captain Mansell banging the ground in irritation and Ling instantly freshened up his attack by removing Howe for Ryan Jarvis.
There was now a feeling that either side could win the game and the desire to win all three points was admirable from everyone involved but a thrilling encounter was destined to end all-square.
Gulls (4-3-3): 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 6 Damon Lathrope (18 Craig Easton 42), 11 Ian Morris; 14 Lloyd Macklin (21 Thomas Cruise 68), 9 Rene Howe (8 Ryan Jarvis 81), 15 Billy Bodin. Substitutes (not used): 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 13 Martin Rice (GK), 29 Niall Thompson, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie.
Cheltenham (4-3-3): 1 Scott Brown; 22 Sido Jombati, 5 Harry Hooman, 6 Steve Elliott, 3 Billy Jones; 7 Marlon Pack (capt), 8 Sam Deering (10 Jeff Goulding 63), 16 Russell Penn; 11 Jermaine McGlashan, 14 Shaun Harrad (9 Darryl Duffy 87), 26 Chris Zebroski. Substitutes (not used): 2 Keith Lowe, 12 Connor Roberts (GK), 17 Danny Andrew, 21 Bagasan Graham, 34 Joe Hanks
Booked: Hooman 85
Referee: Mick Russell
Attendance: 2,517 (237 away).