Paul Buckle’s search for his first win as Cheltenham Town manager continues after this narrow defeat at Exeter City’s St James Park ground.
A second half goal by the game’s outstanding performer, Tom Nichols, was enough to hand the Grecians all the points on a dank Boxing Day afternoon in Devon although in fairness, his strike took a significant deflection off Jack Deaman.
The result ended the former Exeter City man’s unbeaten start to his career at Whaddon Road, and handed the Grecians a first ever league win against Cheltenham at the 11th attempt.
The manager's plans were left in tatters by the half-hour mark, losing Joe Hanks and skipper Matt Taylor to injury.
Buckle, a popular former central midfielder with almost 150 appearances in these parts, named an unchanged side for this Boxing Day visit to Devon. He had tweaked his formation for this one, using a 4-5-1 shape, but the manager was forced into the early changes, first when Hanks took an early blow to the face and was withdrawn in a dazed and confused state.
Zack Kotwica was therefore sent on in the seventh minute and pressed into action on the left of a four-man midfield, with Omari Sterling-James sitting behind lone striker Terry Gornell.
Taylor, who himself made almost 150 appearances for the Grecians, was also withdrawn through injury in the 33rd minute and replaced by Jack Deaman.
Gornell had registered the first real chance of the game with 13 minutes on the clock, although his effort travelled wide.
But that, along with a half-chance for Matt Richards, amounted to the Robins total threat in front of goal before the break although there were some flashes of real promise by Kotwica after his introduction.
At the other end Trevor Carson was largely untested before the break but was called into early action to gather Liam Sercombe’s low drive from 20 yards.
The Northern Irish shotstopper was called into decisive action on the half-hour, producing the best save of the half to deny Nichols.
The Exeter striker made a fine run down the left, cut inside Matt Taylor and Matt Richards before he was allowed to shoot from 10 yards.
The home side finished the first half the stronger of the two sides, enjoying the majority of possession without really creating enough to trouble Carson although Ryan Harley did go close from distance.
There was a lively start to the second half when chances for Terry Gornell and Sterling-James sandwiched Harley’s curler from 20 yards, but all three were wide of the target.
But Nichols’ winner arrived in the 62nd minute after more patient build-up play by Paul Tisdale’s side.
Their passing had been neat throughout, but it had not really hurt the Robins up to this point.
On this occasion the striker picked up play from 20 yards and drove low, an effort that skidded beyond the reach of Carson and skidded inside the left upright.
David Wheeler had only been on the pitch a matter of minutes before bringing about a good save from Carson from 20 yards moments later.
Next Nichols was the width of a post away from doubling his tally 20 minutes from time after he spotted Carson advanced, attempting a well-executed chip from 25 yards but he was unlucky to see it come back off the woodwork.
Cheltenham did find themselves in some good positions down the flanks through Kotwica, Braham-Barrett and Vaughan but time and again the final ball was poor.
Harry Williams was handed a ten-minute cameo at the ground on which he made his senior debut last term, but he was unable to make a difference.
EXETER CITY (4-4-2): Hamon; Bennett, Butterfeld, Oakley (c), Woodman; Nicholls (Ribeiro 73), Sercombe, Harley (Davies 81), Grimes; Nichols, Morrison (Wheeler 61). Subs not used: Ply (Gk), Koehane, Davies, Moore-Taylor, Cummins.
CHELTENHAM TOWN (4-5-1): Carson; Vaughan, Brown, Taylor (c) (Deaman 33), Braham-Barrett; De Vita (Williams 80), Ferdinand, Hanks (Kotwica 7), Richards, Sterling-James; Gornell. Subs not used: Gould (Gk), Harrison, Haworth, Bowen.
REFEREE: B Malone
ATTENDANCE: 4,591 (153 from Cheltenham)