When, a week ago, Eastleigh’s fruitful festive period was grinding to a halt with defeat by Altrincham and Lincoln City were dishing out a 4-1 thumping to league leaders Barnet, any observers predicting this outcome would have been few and far between.
No matter, the marvellous unpredictability of football and the sheer resilience and quality of this Spitfires team joined forces to produce a result for the home side that will have made the rest of the division sit up and take notice.
Nevertheless, despite scoring four goals – that’s 16 in six outings – and playing some scintillating one-touch football in the final third, Eastleigh will make the headlines for their lack of composure from 12 yards.
It was that sort of afternoon in front of another healthy Silverlake Stadium crowd. If Richard Hill’s men keep putting on days like this, the numbers coming through the turnstiles will surely continue to swell.
There was actually no real hint in the first quarter-hour of this game of what lay ahead, as two pretty evenly matched teams fought for supremacy – visiting left-back Sean Newton going closest to making the breakthrough when he curled narrowly over after working a short-corner with his skipper, Alan Power.
Newton’s fellow full-back, Jake Caprice, was another to threaten, the powerful defender’s thrust and adventure down the right posing early problems for Dan Spence – playing on the left side of the Spitfires back-four, with Michael Green suspended.
This early narrative, however, would soon be turned on its head; Spence and Will Evans, playing at right-back for the hosts, both going on to turn in stellar performances – and between them contributing significantly to three of their side’s four goals.
Brian Howard, meanwhile, was making a full-debut for Eastleigh – and the former Reading man’s vision, poise and intelligent use of the ball combined to have a positive impact on his new team.
The midfielder, taking up a narrow role on the left of midfield, was integral to much of his side’s slick passing, always looking to shift the ball about quickly and drag opponents out of position.
Howard’s movement was also creating space for his colleagues; openings that the likes of Ben Strevens were only too keen to exploit. One smart trade of passes between those two players, just past the 15 minute mark, took Strevens in on goal to slide a finish past Paul Farman in the Imps goal but, to the home man’s consternation, not beyond the hulking frame of Hamza Bencherif, back on the line and to the visitors’ rescue.
Two minutes after their escape, Lincoln well and truly shot themselves in the foot – or, more accurately, Jon Nolan let down his team and their rabid away following by committing to a ridiculous high challenge on Evans.
Referee Chris Powell has no option but to flourish his red card at the midfielder. With that rash tackle, the away team was immediately stripped of some of its attacking gusto; Power forced to drop into a deeper role in the centre of the park to partner Charlee Adams. Still, with two banks of four, and Delano Sam-Yorke’s bustling front-running a reliable outlet, Chris Moyses’ team would still present a stern test for their hosts.
Evans had the first chance to rock the ten men further, slightly snatching at a close range shot that was hacked from the line. Joe Partington, on his second Spitfires appearance, then allowed Sam-Yorke to roll him on half-way, as a result finding himself in a foot race that ended with the AFC Bournemouth loanee clipping the visiting striker to the ground fractionally outside the 18-yard box.
Partington was booked, but that was the extent of his team’s punishment, Power hitting the free-kick the wrong-side of the near-post.
On 27 minutes Eastleigh had a gilt-edged opportunity to nose in front. Newton was drawn towards Reason, and consequently under a high ball down the Imps’ left. Constable, who didn’t stand still for 90 minutes, was into the space in an instant. As the forward snaked into the area Power came across on the cover, but only succeeded in hanging out a leg that took his opponent to the floor. It was another cut-and-dried decision for the man-in-the-middle.
Howard, in the next passage of play, took on Spitfires’ penalty duties and, at once, passed them on; the debutants’ ‘Panenka’ chip drifting harmlessly into Farman’s gloves. If the Czech penalty pioneer had seen his audacious effort yield the same end result as Howard’s, he’d have probably faced a harsher reaction in then communist Czechoslovakia, than the stony faces that greeted the Eastleigh man as he turned back from the spot.
Undeterred, Howard, was right back in the thick of it, sending a ball across goal that evaded a rush of blue shirts into the box. It was Craig Stanley, though, after an adventurous burst from the centre-circle to the right byline, who stood up a cross for Jack Midson to glance narrowly wide at the front-post.
Midson, operating up top alongside Constable, with Craig McAllister dropping to the bench, was another in the home ranks to deliver a display full of verve and imagination. The striker’s exceptional first-touch and awareness mark him out as a constant threat in opposing boxes and those twin-attributes, allied to Midson’s willingness to show for the ball, brought Eastleigh their coveted deadlock breaking 39th minute strike.
Evans, a growing force down the right, whipped an inviting delivery to the near-post where Midson did the rest, casually flicking the ball beyond Farman and into the net.
Minutes later Farman, plunging down to his left, prevented Reason from doubling his side’s lead after the Spitfires man had linked cutely with Constable on the left of the Lincoln box.
Moyses waited until just the fifth minute of the second period to withdraw wide-man Marcus Marshall, in favour of precocious young forward Conner Robinson. The Imps boss, then, would have watched on in horror as Eastleigh promptly carved his team open and, in the process, effectively settled the destination of the three points
Goal number two came on 54 minutes. Evans glided contemptuously – and from a visiting perspective, far too easily – past Ben Tomlinson, before sending his latest terrific ball across the face of goal. Bencherif, his side’s best defender before the break, made a mess of his attempted clearance, so enabling Constable, on his toes again, to steal in and crash a six-yard finish emphatically past Farman.
The home team had to wait only until their next attack, on 56 minutes, to make it three. Lincoln were unquestionably rattled. That fact was epitomised by the needless confusion between Farman and Nat Brown as the pair attempted to deal with a ball into their own box. Farman’s ensuing hurried clearance landed with Constable, who eschewed the temptation to try and capitalise on the ‘keeper being caught out of his goal.
The Spitfires’ 12 goal top-scorer instead waited his moment, eventually picking a perfectly timed and perfectly weighted pass into the overlapping Spence. Spence was no less assured, squaring for Midson who, despite Brown’s frantic efforts to clear from the line, prodded home.
From there, the only question remaining was: how many? That’s not to suggest that the Imps chucked the towel in on their attacking endeavours.
Flitney had to save late on at the feet of Tomlinson, albeit the linesman’s flag was up by the time the visiting forward was smashing the rebound high of the target. Then, right at the death, and with substitute McAllister having by now added a fourth home goal, Burrow, under considerable pressure from Partington, somehow contrived to hit over from under the bar.
Game over. Craig McAllister (No 11) has just made it 4 – 0
That it was only 4-0 by the end of the contest is a story in itself. Shortly after Midson’s second goal of the afternoon Reason drew a sharp save from Farman with a well-struck 20 yard free-kick, while Stanley’s subsequent hit from distance dipped just too late to trouble the Lincoln stopper.
It was Evans breezing beyond another tame Tomlinson challenge and making for the area that won Hill’s side their second penalty of the afternoon. The rampant right-back’s progress was only thwarted by Newton’s lazy tackle, leaving Mr Powell with another simple decision.
Midson’s wish to claim the match-ball took precedence over Evans’ desire to get on the score-sheet, the forward resuming penalty responsibilities from Howard, who had been replaced on 57 minutes by the impressive Yemi Odubade.
Midson opted to send his effort low to Farman’s left – the same route selected by the striker when he took a spot-kick in the Spitfires’ early season game at Macclesfield. On that occasion in Cheshire, Midson was denied by a diving goalkeeper. The end result, here, was exactly the same.
Barely credibly, Evans’ chance from the spot would come. Odubade, benefitting from McAllister’s strong hold-up play, dashed into the area and over another poor visiting tackle, this one proffered by the tired mind and equally tired legs of Adams. Evans stepped up and sent his strike careering wildly over the top of goal. It was the only blemish on a dynamic display from the excellent former Hereford United man.
It was the two Eastleigh substitutes who joined together to give the afternoon the finish it deserved. Odubade, marauding in from the right, knocked a pass forward for McAllister. With his back to goal the target-man took a deft touch and swivelled to hit a left-foot effort that Farman, despite applying a faint touch as he leapt to his right, couldn’t prevent from nestling low into the corner of his goal.
Nobody expected that. Not many more people will have predicted that Eastleigh would be sitting pretty in 5th spot at this stage of their debut Conference Premier season. What happens at fellow play-off aspirants FC Halifax next week, then? Who knows?
(Date of the match: 10th January 2015)
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.