Only a goal from Trevor Morley 20 minutes from the end spared First Division Reading's embarrassment and denied the non-League team an upset of proportions almost unknown in the Gloucestershire spa town. Only once in their 106- year history had they eliminated League opposition before, and that was in the 1933-34 season.
Now Cheltenham have a third-round replay next Tuesday to match that achievement, the least they deserve for a vibrant performance that gave them a lingering look at potential glory and a tie at Cardiff City after Dale Watkins had given them the lead after 22 minutes from the penalty spot.
Cheltenham, who were playing in the Dr Martens League last season, were billed as the underdogs and Reading began like they wanted to swat dangerous irritants quickly. The first attempt to play the tie had been stranded on a waterlogged pitch, and there were anxious looks from the visiting coach when they disembarked in teeming rain. As the playing surface went from bog to worse, all the ingredients seemed to be in place for an upset. Not that Reading appeared to have lived up to their name and studied the script.
Out they came as if they had a giant-killing reputation to build themselves, and they might have taken the lead twice from the opening salvoes. Steve Swales flashed a shot wide from 25 yards, then Phil Parkinson scraped the crossbar with a clever lob.
Cheltenham looked like underdogs with no teeth, and it was wholly against the run of play when they took the lead. Certainly it was a shock to the Reading centre-back, Gareth Davies, who appeared to have made a firm but innocuous challenge on the evergreen Clive Walker, only to find the referee awarding a penalty.
Nicky Hammond guessed right, went to his left and then groped helplessly as Watkins' kick passed just over his dive.
The goal transformed Cheltenham. Hammond had to scramble to stop Victory's diving header, and that effort was closely followed by Watkins scooping a volley just over the bar.
The second half also began with Cheltenham getting the better chances, most notably a lovely turn and chip from the irrepressible Watkins - a pounds 15,000 buy from Gloucester City - which almost dropped into the net. As the second goal did not come, however, Reading's stranglehold on possession became tighter, and, with Jason Bowen tearing holes in Cheltenham's left flank, the match finished with a series of skirmishes in the home area.
An equaliser seemed imminent and it arrived when Morley shrugged off two tackles, exchanged passes with Stuart Lovell and beat Steve Book from the edge of the area.
"One mistake cost us the match," Steve Cotterill, Cheltenham's manager, said. "But it was a fair result, and a fabulous night for the supporters."
Cheltenham Town (4-4-2): Book; Duff, Freeman, Banks, Victory; Knight, Howells, Bloomer, Smith (Wright, 69); Watkins, Walker. Substitutes not used: Eaton, Crisp, Milton, Benton.
Reading (4-4-2): Hammond; Booty, Davies, Bernal, Swales; Bowen, Parkinson, Hodges (Caskey, 84), Lambert; Morley, Lovell (Meaker, 80). Substitutes not used: Thorp, Glasgow, Bibbo (gk).
Referee: K Leach (Codsall, Staffs).