Needing at least a point from this final day clash with Kidderminster Harriers, Eastleigh had a mixed start before gathering themselves and eventually crossing the line with something to spare.
Exactly the same could be said of the club’s first ever regular season in the Conference Premier, which Richard Hill’s side have finished with five straight wins to secure the division’s fourth spot.
The away team, regardless of the fact that they had nothing of consequence at stake, were plainly in no mood to coast through this early evening kick-off. Indeed, Kiddy relayed the message that they weren’t going to be compliant visitors in the very first minute of the game – albeit Danny Wright’s goal soon after kick-off would ultimately be overturned by Ben Strevens and James Constable’s second-half strikes.
Wright’s opener came when the forward latched onto Jamie Grimes’ header out from defence. Ross Flitney, who had sent the initial kick upfield, charged from his area but, as the hosts’ keeper went to ground, Wright slipped past and sent the ball rolling inside the left post – with Will Evans’ desperate attempts to clear proving to no avail.
The Spitfires showed signs of stirring to life a couple of minutes after falling behind, when Jack Midson popped up in a pocket of space to release Constable down the right. The forward’s ensuing centre flashed across the face of goal, just evading the looming Craig McAllister on its way.
Flitney, recipient of the home supporters’ Player of the Year award prior to kick-off, was back in action on seven minutes, needing to palm Kevin Nicholson’s free-kick from deep on the left over his bar.
The full-back hadn’t actually intended to trouble the ‘keeper with that set-piece, given for Craig Stanley’s trip on Josh O’Keefe, but Nicholson was immediately presenting a fresh threat with his corner from the right.
A combination of Flitney and Reason could only get the ball away as far as Callum Gittings, who returned it with interest, leaving Eastleigh grateful for the presence of mind of Joe Partington, diving to head behind his own goal at the back-post.
A leaping McAllister couldn’t direct Midson’s right-wing cross on target, before Craig Stanley – replacing Harry Pell in Hill’s line-up, in the only change to the Eastleigh eleven that started seven days ago at Lincoln – was handily positioned to tidy up at the other end.
Gittings had collected Nicholson’s fantastic cross-field ball and wrestled free of Dan Spence in one movement, but Wright’s heavy touch on the wideman’s centre was fatal, allowing Stanley to nip in and snuff out the danger.
Kidderminster were impressing with their hunger for the battle, but Grimes lapsed ten minutes in when he was caught napping by Strevens’ burst into the box – the defender allowing a high ball to travel over him and into the Eastleigh player’s run. Daniel Lewis in the Kiddy goal was wide awake, though, dashing out to smother at Strevens’ feet.
The home side’s more promising early work was coming down the right, with Stanley and Partington’s determination and craft to the fore. Nevertheless, it was Midson who was really shining, the attacker’s balance, easy style and composure on the ball all steadily exerting a compelling influence on proceedings.
That home trio were all in the thick of it as the Spitfires forged a 13th minute opportunity. Stanley clipped a crisp first time ball for Partington, with the defender then hanging up a high cross into the box. McAllister rose to plant the ball back across goal, but an inch in front of Midson as the former Oxford United man closed in at the back-post.
It was Partington who was excelling again as the Spitfires put together their first genuinely eye-catching passage of play. The AFC Bournemouth loanee found Midson, before ploughing on into the box to take a pass from Jai Reason. Partington looked to lift a delicate ball towards the front-post, only for Jared Hodgkiss to steam across from his right back-berth and put it behind at the cost of a corner.
Perhaps encouraged by the manner of their earlier breakthrough, the visitors were keen to continue putting Flitney to the test. The stopper needed two goes before he could grab hold of Jack Byrne’s optimistic 29thminute dig from range, after the midfielder had received Nicholson’s throw on the left and broken through Stanley’s challenge to get his shot away.
Strevens was in familiar combative mode throughout the contest. It was the home skipper’s shooting prowess on display, however, when Nicholson’s half-clearance on a Flitney punt sat up invitingly.
The midfielder’s volleyed strike from over 20 yards out was true – but straight down Lewis’s throat. Strevens’ opportunistic 32nd minute effort was indicative of a side that was progressively imposing itself on the game. That impression had already begun to take hold on the half-hour, when Partington’s vision and skill had enabled him to feed another Strevens’ run at the heart of the box.
As the former Barnet man knocked the ball forward when it landed with him, it hit the tracking O’Keefe’s hand. For all the home appeals, referee Lee Swabey hadn’t seen enough to point for anything more than a corner.
It was more sharp thinking, this time on the part of Stanley, taking a quick free-kick after he had been flattened by Wright as the pair contested an aerial ball, which led to Lewis having to dirty his kit once more.
Reason was alive to his colleague’s thinking, taking advantage of an away side that had temporarily switched off. The Eastleigh man collected the ball from Stanley, took a couple of steps and rapped a strike on target that Lewis had to plunge down to his right to keep out.
With the interval approaching the hosts were continuing to try and turn the screw. Midson had a shot from the left corner of the box deflected wide of Lewis’s left-hand post, with McAllister then seeing his header on Reason’s subsequent corner hit another red-shirted body en route past the opposite upright.
That brief spell of sustained Eastleigh pressure, with the home team pinning Gary Whild’s men back in the closing minutes of the first-period, was a portent of what would come on the restart.
Reason was instantly at the cutting edge of second-half events, chasing Evans’ ball down the left. Despite his initial hesitation, Reason caught his prey at the byline, from where he cutely back-heeled for Midson to send in a cross that was met by Constable, heading at goal and forcing a fine diving save to his left from Lewis.
Kidderminster, meanwhile, were losing nothing of their purpose and intent when they sensed any opportunity to pounce. Luke Maxwell was on the front foot to seize on Partington’s slightly loose touch on Lewis’s long kick. The left-sided midfielder found Lee Hughes, who swiftly turned the ball forward for Wright. The robust former Gateshead striker nudged his effort past Flitney, but was denied a second goal by Spence, covering assiduously and smashing clear as the last man.
Stanley was probing again with a perfectly weighted 52nd minute ball, which handed Constable the chance to race into the right of the box. The forward chopped back onto his left foot, before dispatching a low shot which Lewis comfortably collected at his feet.
An expectant Silverlake Stadium, housing 4,024 spectators and with an incessant din emanating from the clubhouse end of the ground to accompany the day’s action, would soon have the equaliser that the majority of its onlookers craved. As is so often the case when Eastleigh are faced with having to dig themselves out of a hole, it was Reason who was instrumental in them scaling the heights.
The home Number 10 first played an astute ball around the corner for McAllister in his own half, before carrying on with a run down the left touchline. It was Stanley who provided the final pass for Reason to drive at the visitors’ area and win a corner – even if substitute Jake Green, on for the injured Hodgkiss since the 32nd minute, was furious that he wasn’t awarded a free-kick for the attacker tugging at his shirt.
Reason ignored the away team’s complaints to deliver a wickedly hit inswinging corner that caused pandemonium among the defensive bodies in the box. As a swarm of blue shirts sought to apply a decisive touch, it was Strevens who took the honours, prodding in from close range.
Green was still fizzing sixty seconds later when he slid in late on Reason, an offence for which the defender was booked.
As he considered how his side might reclaim the initiative, Whild chose to keep Grimes on the pitch, regardless of the fact that the big centre-half had been operating on one leg from the moment he suffered a knock early in the second period; the Kiddy boss instead opting to withdraw Hughes and Maxwell in quick succession to get Ahmed Obeng and Nat Kelly into the fray.
By now, though, it was largely one-way traffic. McAllister and Reason indulged in a rapid exchange of passes 18 yards out, with the former then teeing up Constable to unleash an effort from the left of the box that flew past the near post. The striker was soon trying to connect with a Reason corner from the right, but couldn’t make firm enough contact to prevent the ball from slipping away beyond the left upright.
On 74 minutes, however, Eastleigh had their lead. Reason had only just been moved into a central midfield positon – to allow Brian Howard to take up a role on the left, after the former Barnsley man had come on for Stanley – when he snapped into a tackle on half-way. That challenge set the Spitfires in motion, Midson eventually finding Partington, who had made up acres on the right. The full-back was stopped in his tracks by Kelly – unfairly in the eyes of the referee.
Howard’s set piece was only sent back out as far as Reason, who then steered the ball back into the free-kick taker’s path. Howard steered play into Midson, with the game’s standout performer then taking responsibility for delivering some real urgency into this latest phase of the attack – not that it seemed that would be the case as the man on the ball sized up his options. Then, with a barely discernible backlift, Midson cracked a shot from range that flew back out off the inside of Lewis’s right-hand-post. The Spitfires were not to be denied. Constable was characteristically alive and first to the rebound to slide home.
It would be the goal that clinched not only the fourth place that sets up an intriguing two-legged play-off tie with Grimsby Town for Constable’s current employers, but one that ensured Eastleigh had secured a hat-trick of victories over one of the centre-forward’s former clubs this term. That achievement, in itself, against a club that was playing in the Football League a decade ago, is yet another measure of the staggering progress that has been made in a little over two years at the Silverlake.
There was never any real suggestion, here, that Kidderminster would be able to summon a reply once they had fallen behind. In fact, if any of the game’s remaining scoring opportunities had been grasped then the hosts’ winning margin would have been greater.
Constable was narrowly off-beam with a 20 yard drive soon after he has found the net, while Deon Burton, a late replacement for McAllister, also saw an effort skip wide of the target. Those near misses sandwiched a run in-field by Spence, following Reason’s ball spread out to the left, which ended with the defender bringing a low, scrambling save out of the busy away keeper, with Constable unable to find the same success on the follow-up as he had 14 minutes previously.
It mattered not. Three added minutes brought the worrying sight of Constable hobbling off after he had sunk to the deck with nobody near him in order to receive treatment. Anybody with Eastleigh at heart will be fervently hoping that their match-winner on yet another colossal day in the club’s history is fit and raring to go on Thursday night, when Grimsby arrive to get the play-offs underway.
Match Gallery: Eastleigh (2) v Kidderminster (1) 25.4.2015 – 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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