Ball 2, 45
EVERY season has four or five absolute barnstorming encounters that leave fans from both sides purring with enjoyment.
United’s enthralling 4-2 win over Cheltenham is the first definite contender from this season and the action started straight from the kick-off, as Callum Ball gave the Gulls a second-minute lead.
The Robins were soon level, Byron Harrison profiting from a hesitant moment in the home defence, but Ball was on target again to restore the Yellow lead on the verge of half-time.
Three minutes after the restart, Karl Hawley made it 3-1 with a low drive. Cheltenham came back again with a goal from Terry Gornell but United’s victory was confirmed by a super goal from Jordan Chapell in the final minute.
United manager Alan Knill made just one change from the side beaten by a late goal at Rochdale last weekend, with Thomas Cruise preferred to Kevin Nicholson at left-back.
On the bench, striker Elliot Benyon and goalkeeper Conor Thompson returned from injury to bump Ashley Yeoman and youth-team stopper Daniel Lavercombe out of the match-day squad.
Cheltenham boss Mark Yates stuck to the same 11 that started their battling 2-2 draw with high-flying Oxford seven days ago. The one change saw Jamie Cureton return to the bench, ousting Steven Gillespie, although the Robins only named six replacements from a possible seven allowed.
A sizzling start from the Gulls had right-back Dale Tonge cutting inside to feed Ben Harding for a terrific strike that fizzed inches over Scott Brown’s net on just 28 seconds.
Ball had better luck 60 seconds later, as Chapell pounced on a sloppy back-pass to burst through the Cheltenham defence and the winger showed excellent composure to slide a pass to his right for the man on loan from Derby to notch his first goal in Yellow.
Huge credit to Ball for being in the right place and an equal portion of praise was dished out to Chapell in showing the awareness to unselfishly set up that crucial first goal.
The Gulls maintained their terrific start by specifically targeting Cheltenham's left-side, where Jermaine McGlashan and Sido Jombati are both dangerous going forward, but the questions being asked were of a defensive nature.
Plainmoor was then silenced by the softest possible equaliser. Keith Lowe picked up the ball on the right after a quickly-taken free-kick and the Gulls failed to switch on as a floated cross to the far post found Harrison in acres of space to cushion a simple header past the stranded Martin Rice.
Accusing glances were sent in the direction of assistant referee Paul Rees but the real culprit was sleepy defending from United, and that precious early lead had disappeared within 10 minutes.
The Yellow response was a magnificent block-tackle from Aaron Downes to deny a certain goal for Gornell after he latched on to a flicked header from strike-partner Harrison.
Cheltenham were growing in stature, with the searing pace of McGlashan a constant concern, although the majority inside TQ1 were too busy grumping at referee Darren Deadman, who has an unfortunate habit of wanting to be at the centre of things. Like a restaurant waiter, the best refs are the ones you don’t notice.
There was, however, no official in the next spate of action, as Steve Elliott rose highest from a corner and Rice produced a brilliant save to keep out the header. Lowe was in the right place for the rebound but his volley cannoned clear off the bar.
The reprieve allowed United to flood forward through an incisive run down the middle by Chapell, who then guided the ball wide for Bodin. The Welsh winger dropped a shoulder and delivered a low cross to Hawley at the near-post, but Jombati had sneaked in behind his ‘keeper to clear off the line.
Lee Mansell was the next protagonist in what was developing into a pulsating encounter, as the Yellow captain crashed a thunderous volley goalwards and Brown could only parry the effort clear.
The Robins came back with a terrific move down the right; David Noble slipped a pass inside Tonge for McGlashan to chase and fire across for Harrison, who opened his foot a fraction too much in steering the first-time shot wide.
A fantastic first half came to a breathless close, as United restored their lead. An innocuous pass wide to Hawley was swiftly turned into a chance, as the experienced forward whipped over a cross for Ball to take a swing with his left-foot.
The swipe had enough purchase to deflect off the leg of Elliott and that ricochet took the ball past the desperate outstretched hand of a scrambling Brown.
The Yellow Army had barely digested their satisfying half-time cuppa when Hawley made the score 3-1. The graft of Chapell won the ball for United on the left edge of the area and Hawley delayed his shot a couple of times before lashing a low shot past the flat-footed Brown.
Despite the understandable euphoria, everybody inside Plainmoor was fully aware of how important the next goal would be, hence the collective gasp of relief when Elliott headed wide after finding space from a corner.
Yates then made his first change of the afternoon, removing Matt Richards for the tricky skills of Ashley Vincent but it was a pass from Russell Penn that swung the game back in Cheltenham’s favour.
The ball was slid through the heart of United's defence and, despite a lunging toe from Krystian Pearce, Gornell was able to nip in behind to side-foot a neat shot through the legs of the advancing Rice.
It was a goal from nothing and the Yellows were suddenly under pressure, but the excellent Harding restored the momentum with a fierce drive that would have capped his best performance for the Gulls, but Brown just managed to tip over the bar.
Elliot Benyon was introduced for Hawley on 71 minutes, as Knill decided to maintain the attacking impetus with some fresh legs in the front-line. Billy Bodin attempted to continue the script with a cheeky effort through a defender’s legs that Brown was alert enough to snaffle.
The action refused to let-up, with Ball nodding down a deep cross for Downes to volley wide via a deflection. Cheltenham were able to clear the set-piece and promptly removed Gornell and Noble for Jason Taylor and veteran striker Jamie Cureton.
United ignored the change with a superb flowing move, all started by Harding breaking up play once again. Bodin then clipped a lovely pass into the right channel for Benyon, who slipped the ball inside for a first-time shot by Chapell that was deflected a fraction wide.
The winger would not be denied, however, and he finished off a sensational afternoon with the best goal of the match. The original pass was sent wide to Ball, who quickly shifted it inside for Chapell to take one quick touch and then dink a beautiful finish over the advancing Brown.
Great end to a great game.
Gulls [4-4-2]: 13 Martin Rice; 2 Dale Tonge, 5 Krystian Pearce, 4 Aaron Downes, 21 Thomas Cruise; 12 Jordan Chapell, 7 Lee Mansell [capt], 8 Ben Harding, 15 Billy Bodin; 9 Karl Hawley [26 Elliot Benyon 71], 16 Callum Ball. Substitutes [not used]: 3 Kevin Nicholson, 6 Damon Lathrope, 11 Courtney Cameron, 20 Nathan Craig, 31 Daniel Sullivan, 33 Conor Thompson.
Booked: Downes 49
Robins [4-4-2]: 1 Scott Brown; 2 Keith Lowe, 6 Steve Elliott, 26 James Wilson, 20 Sido Jombati; 11 Jermaine McGlashan, 16 Russell Penn [capt], 25 David Noble [4 Jason Taylor 79], 14 Matt Richards [21 Ashley Vincent 60]; 9 Byron Harrison, 10 Terry Gornell [7 Jamie Cureton 79]. Substitutes [not used]: 8 Sam Deering, 12 Connor Roberts [GK], 19 Zack Kotwica.
Booked: Noble 45
Referee: Darren Deadman
Attendance: 2,407 [247 away].