The formbook was thrown emphatically out of the window at the Silverlake Stadium on Saturday, as Barnet, with one win from four in the run-up to this fixture, edged a competitive encounter with an Eastleigh side that had won its last four games.
It was a result that lifted the Bees, who sealed the three points after the home side could only muster a Ben Strevens penalty in response to goals from Curtis Weston and John Akinde, back to the top of the table.
While visiting boss Martin Allen, seeking to rediscover the winning formula after his team’s home defeat at the hands of Forest Green Rovers last week, made four changes to his starting eleven, Richard Hill reverted to the side that he sent out to victory at Bristol Rovers seven days ago – Strevens returning after his substitutes’ role in the midweek fixture at Kidderminster, with Dan Walker dropping back to the bench.
It was Hill who would have been the more contented boss after the opening exchanges, a period that Allen spent becoming progressively more worked up with the day’s officials.
It took only two minutes for Strevens to have the game’s first effort on goal. Michael Green made amends for selling Jai Reason short with his pass at a short corner by taking the ensuing throw-in, collecting possession back from Harry Pell and rolling a pass in from the left for Strevens to shoot first time, low past the right post.
Graham Stack may have been able to wave that particular strike behind, but the Barnet stopper was soon right in the thick of it.
The former Arsenal youngster’s first involvement was efficient rather than remarkable; the ‘keeper being alert to prevent Conor Clifford’s underhit backpass turning into anything more damaging by racing out to swipe clear ahead of Jack Midson – but Stack would go on to produce a catalogue of wonderful saves.
It wasn’t all one way traffic early on, however, Andy Yiadom’s near post flick on Clifford’s fourth minute left-wing corner had beaten Spitfires’ Number One Ross Flitney, but not Yiadom’s opposite number Dan Spence, who hacked away from inside his left upright.
The Barnet right-back’s header was matched in its quality by Midson’s effort on six minutes, sent towards goal after Reason had worked a crossing opportunity on the left to whip an inswinging ball into the area. Stack was equal to the task, however, flinging himself away to his left to tip around his left-hand post at full-stretch.
Green’s resultant corner was hit deep and met by Joe Partington, whose header was blocked, the same fate to befall Strevens’ follow up effort.
The danger wasn’t over for the away side, though. Eastleigh kept the attack alive, the ball being fed back out to Green on the right.
When the left-back returned play into the box it was Strevens eventually having an improvised dig at goal, sending a scissors kick too high to bother Stack.
Akinde ultimately scored what proved to be the afternoon’s decisive goal, but the striker, leading scorer in this Conference Premier season, to date, offered much more to his team’s cause than just his 46th minute strike.
The ex-Crawley Town player expertly utilised his considerable physique, looking after the ball to provide the Bees with a consistently reliable outlet and winning a whole host of aerial battles.
One Akinde flick onto a Stack punt was pounced on by Weston, with the visiting skipper then somehow managing to squeeze his way free of Partington. Off-balance, however, Weston could only prod a weak finish into the smothering Flitney.
Partington got the better of Weston on the ground to instigate a terrific 17th minute Eastleigh break. The centre-half nipped in front of his opponent on half-way, with Craig Stanley and Reason then taking it in turns to shuffle the ball forward for Midson on the left.
When the striker shifted play inside, James Constable’s scruffy finish past Stack’s right-hand post was an ill-fitting conclusion to an enterprising passage of play.
Barnet were plainly relishing their defensive work. After one determined effort when the Bees, with all hands to the pump, eventually nipped a Spitfires’ attack in the bud, a number of the men clad in amber and black were clashing fists and geeing each other up.
Meanwhile, Allen’s team were steadily growing as an offensive force. More strong forward play by Akinde in the 19th minute saw the forward spread play wide for Mauro Vilhete, who escaped the attentions of Stanley and drilled a yard or two over the bar.
The frantic pace, inevitably, relented, but not for long. When things stepped up again the away side promptly snatched a 28th minute lead.
Constable felt hard done by to concede a free-kick out on the Bees’ left, that Elliot Johnson hung up into the box. The home side couldn’t get a decisive boot or head on the ball to clear, with Akinde in particular making a nuisance of himself to sustain the pressure.
When the ball fell for Weston at the edge of the area, the Barnet player didn’t hesitate, chancing his arm with a volleyed effort.
It required a deflection on the way, which left Flitney without a hope of keeping the ball out, but Weston’s ambition was rewarded as his drive ended up going by the stopper on his left side and into the back of the net.
Flitney couldn’t dwell on his misfortune for long. Eight minutes after the goal Johnson was lining up a free-kick, won by Akinde after the tireless frontrunner had retrieved a left wing corner cleared by Strevens, on the right side of the box.
The midfielder’s dead-ball strike was well-hit and on target, needing Flitney to punch beyond the far post. Eastleigh were momentarily rattled, allowing Sam Muggleton to gather Clifford’s short-corner and send a cross to the back post that Akinde nodded wide.
As the first period neared its climax, the Spitfires were on the hunt for something to take them into the break all-square. It was through two Green corners, both delivered from the right that they might have prospered.
Johnson dealt with the first, defending strongly to get in front of Strevens and head back behind. Green’s second dead ball in quick succession flashed across the six-yard box.
The talking point in that incident, however, came with Harry Pell’s bundling to the turf – with home players and manager alike convinced that their man had been unfairly impeded.
Referee Brian Huxtable, who had been getting the backs of both teams up equally throughout the preceding forty-five minutes, wasn’t impressed by the penalty shouts – meaning that Barnet took their refreshments with their lead intact. And whatever was in the visitors’ tea, it worked.
The second period was barely a minute old when Johnson sneaked in behind Spence to keep a long ball in play. The defender was convinced that it had run behind – but Johnson was bent on making capital of his smart work, sliding a pass back into Akinde, who still had plenty to do if he was going to add a 27th league goal to his prolific campaign.
He did it in the style that you would expect of a forward enjoying the season of his life, crashing a low left footed shot across Flitney and inside the far post.
With the cushion of a second goal, Barnet were happy to sit slightly deeper and look quickly for Akinde when the opportunity arose. The striker had embarked on one marauding run which was cut off by Beckwith, when Spence brought the next stellar piece of glove work from Stack.
The right-back drifted forward unopposed, Stanley’s run outside his colleague distracting a number of his opponents, and aimed a strike at the bottom right corner, only being denied a goal by the ‘keeper’s plunging save which diverted the ball past his post.
Sixty seconds after Spence’s effort, Stack was on call again – although the stopper wasn’t overly exerted on this occasion, as he collected Green’s deflected free-kick down to his left.
The Barnet Number One had earned his subsequent breather – and he spent it watching Flitney show that he is no slouch between the posts, either.
The ex-Barnet man’s point blank save from Vilhete’s header on the hour was easier than it should have been; the Portuguese born midfielder was totally unattended as he met Johnson’s free-kick from the left but could only plant his effort directly at the ‘keeper.
Two minutes on, however, Flitney’s reaction stop to prevent Weston from scoring his second of the afternoon, when the Bees player drove at goal from ten yards after being picked out by Yiadom’s cut-back, was right from the top drawer. The home custodian couldn’t afford to rest on his laurels, hurrying to his feet to thwart Akinde after Clifford’s initial follow up had been blocked.
Stack’s latest turn to dirty his kit quickly came around. Midson clipped a delightful ball round the corner in the box, perfectly weighted for Stanley to take in his stride and clip a shot at goal that the 33 year-old saved with his legs.
Stanley was soon departing, along with Pell, to make way for Brian Howard and Dan Walker – but the visitors could soon have been out of sight if Flitney hadn’t proved a match for Akinde, once more, when the striker burst through onto Weston’s shrewd through ball.
With the clock ticking down and the Spitfires desperate for a way back into the contest, the responsibility for halving the deficit would fall on Strevens’ shoulders.
Operating in the middle of the park to enable Walker to enjoy the run of the right flank since the double switch, the midfielder got his chance from the penalty spot when Muggleton clumsily barged into the back of Reason on the right of the box.
Strevens was made to wait an age before he could take his spot-kick; Johnson slumping to the ground after the referee’s whistle to receive treatment.
The aftermath to Strevens’ confidently taken penalty, hit out of Stack’s reach into the bottom left corner, was similarly prolonged, due to a melee in the back of the net instigated by the visiting players trying to stop their Eastleigh counterparts from retrieving the ball for a quick restart.
The expected home cavalry charge in search of a point didn’t truly arrive, but a Barnet side that retreated further to protect its lead – Weston dropped back into an authentic midfield role and late substitute Jack Saville, on for Johnson, went into a newly formed three-man central defence – still had to ride their luck to get over the line with their noses in front.
That’s not to say that the north Londoners didn’t have chances to extend their lead. Just a minute after Strevens had struck, Clifford thumped a shot from the left of the box across the goal and a yard past the post – an opportunity that came about after Akinde’s power and perseverance had won a free-kick down the left.
It was Eastleigh’s own imposing centre-forward Craig McAllister – on for Midson, as Hill played his final hand from the bench – who came agonisingly close to levelling matters on 81 minutes. When Reason crossed from the right, McAllister rose imperiously to steer a pure striker’s header towards the left of goal. With the Silverlake anticipating the sight of a bulging net, Stack was at it again, diving to claw the ball out at the foot of his right-hand post.
When McAllister did beat Stack from open play with a minute remaining, Saville was on hand to bail his ‘keeper out. The forward had broken onto Green’s ball down the left and had his mind made up about what to do next by the Barnet stopper’s charge from goal.
McAllister accepted the invitation, hoisting the ball over Stack’s head, with the necessary direction to usher it en route to goal.
The ball’s rotation almost seemed to slow with every turn as it advanced towards the line, and Saville duly arrived in the nick of time to scramble it away from inside his left post, clattering into the woodwork as he did so.
There remained time for Strevens to calmly nod Walker’s ensuing cross from the right into Constable but, by now, Stack had recovered and was positioned to make his final intervention of the day when the striker shot at goal.
Barnet’s players and supporters could celebrate three points that nudged them back ahead of Bristol Rovers in the title race. Eastleigh’s winning run is over. The chance to start another arrives as soon as Tuesday, when Wrexham are the latest big gun in town.
Match Gallery: Eastleigh (1) v Barnet (2) 14.3.2015 – Tony Smith
The More We Win, The Better It Will Be by Paul McNamara
Eastleigh Football Club is an ambitious semi-professional club that in 2013/2014 competed in the Football Conference South.
Ten years earlier, they were a much smaller club, playing in their local regional league.
Progress from that lowly status saw the team spend the 2013/2014 campaign challenging for the Conference South league title and promotion into the Conference Premier Division.
This is the story of Eastleigh’s momentous 2013/14 season. The book provides a compelling insight into the day to day life of the club, on and off the pitch. It recounts the events of the season as experienced by all those involved.
This is a limited edition first book from Paul McNamara.
This book costs £13.99.
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