Cheltenham Town showed they are more than just a team of technically gifted footballers.
This was a gritty team performance against a Carlisle United side who had won five out of five at home this term and started the day one place above their visitors.
But it was very much Scott Flinders’ day as the experienced goalkeeper made his first League Two start for more than 10 months and reached 500 career league appearances in the process.
With young loanee from West Brom Josh Griffiths away with the England Under-20s squad, Flinders returned after two EFL Trophy appearances and he pulled off one outstanding save in the second half to preserve Cheltenham’s lead.
It was a vast improvement on their efforts at Port Vale and Oldham Athletic in the previous two away games, when they allowed leads to slip away during worryingly flimsy spells.
It is a major misconception to label Conor Thomas, Ellis Chapman and Liam Sercombe as midfield players not prepared to roll their sleeves up when they need to.
Chapman, on his first League Two start for the Robins, was on the receiving end of an elbow to the face, drawing blood.
But the 19-year-old cleaned himself up, dusted himself down, changed his shirt and continued to deliver another mature performance in the centre of the pitch, continuing his impressive start to life at his new club.
Cheltenham’s first goal came in the 15th minute from a Ben Tozer throw-in, which continues to be a far more potent weapon for them this season.
Will Boyle, who was outstanding throughout at the other end, leapt highest to nod in his second of the season, both of which have come after missiles into the box from his captain.
After setting up the opener, Tozer was tripped by Jon Mellish in the box 10 minutes before the break and Thomas stepped up to convert calmly from the spot.
It was Thomas’ first penalty of the campaign, but he maintained his 100 per cent success rate, not including one shoot-out miss against Oxford United in the EFL Trophy in January 2019.
Cheltenham had never previously scored twice in a league match at Brunton Park and it put them in a commanding position as half-time approached.
But Mellish scored his 11th goal in as many games to half the deficit in first-half stoppage time.
Alfie May forced Paul Farman into a good stop and also sent another effort just over the bar as Cheltenham looked for a third.
But they were reliant on Flinders’ brilliance in the 83rd minute when Nick Anderson’s low ball reached ex-Robins loanee Gavin Reilly, who looked certain to equalise.
Flinders pulled off a superb block to make the long months of solitary work in the gym worthwhile as Cheltenham became the first team to leave Brunton Park with points this term.
Since suffering a double fracture of his lower leg against Oldham Athletic on January 4, Flinders has suffered setbacks with his recovery, including having to overcome a vitamin D deficiency which hampered the bone regrowth.
At one stage he was expected to be out until January, but his performance during the first half against Plymouth Argyle in the Trophy on October 6 suggested he was ahead of schedule, even if he was not at full match sharpness during that 45-minute cameo.
Flinders is a calming presence between the posts and Duff now has a big call to make ahead of next Saturday’s home match against Walsall.
Griffiths has acquitted himself extremely well this season and at 19, looks to have an extremely exciting future in the game.
With both of them now available for selection, Max Harris is likely to be sent out on loan for some senior experience in the coming weeks.
For now, it seems the starting shirt will be Flinders’ to lose.
Cheltenham’s players can look forward to three days off before they return to work on Wednesday.
It has been a punishing schedule, but to have progressed in two cup competitions and moved back into the top three means they have certainly earned their mini break.
Cheltenham Town: S Flinders; C Raglan, B Tozer, W Boyle; M Blair, C Thomas, L Sercombe, E Chapman, C Hussey; A Williams, A May (G Lloyd 84). Subs not used: M Harris, C Clements, R Reid, A Addai, L Freestone, T Sang.
Carlisle United: P Farman, G Tanner, N Anderton, A Hayden, R McDonald, C Guy, J Riley (M Obiero 74), J Mellish, O Patrick, L Alessandra (R Bennett 84), G Reilly. Subs not used: M Dewhurst, D Devine, M Hunt, T Charters, C Malley.
Referee: Andy Haines.
Star Man: Will Boyle.