When Jai Reason left the Silverlake Stadium’s pitch after 80 minutes of Eastleigh’s command performance against Macclesfield Town, the Spitfires’ attacker was feted for a virtuoso display that saw him lend a heavy hand in three of his side’s goals and contribute an absolute beauty of his own.
What’s more, it wasn’t only the 4,126 souls who made up the record attendance at this ground on their feet – Richard Hill was off his seat and applauding enthusiastically with the rest.
In addition to Reason’s endeavours, the Eastleigh boss had been able to savour what was a pretty impeccable display by his team. Much of the talk prior to this match was of the incredible strides that the Spitfires have made off the field across the past twelve months. Well, the men on the pitch did their bit, here, to show that progress is coming on at a lick right throughout this club.
When they lost 2-0 at Macclesfield’s Moss Rose at the end of August, Hill’s side were every inch the Conference Premier newcomers, still finding their feet at non-league’s top table.
Six months later, and a team that showed just one change from that which started the 1-0 win at Chester a week ago – Craig McAllister coming in to partner James Constable up top, with Jack Midson dropping to the bench – turned the tables on their visitors from Cheshire, and how.
It was Macclesfield, coming into this match sitting pretty in third in the table and having collected 16 points from the eighteen available to them in 2015, who fashioned the first strike at goal.
Five minutes were on the clock when Danny Whittaker pounced on Dean Beckwith’s clearing header, before racing to the byline and cutting a ball back into the box where Paul Lewis lashed his first time shot far too high to bother Ross Flitney in the hosts’ goal.
It was a rare glimmer of encouragement for the visitors during a first period in which they struggled to get in behind Eastleigh; on virtually every occasion when the Silkmen tried to inject some forward momentum into their passing, which was all taking place in front of a disciplined, concentrated Eastleigh unit, they were undone by an overhit ball or a simple lack of runners in the final third.
Allied to their lack of offensive punch, Macclesfield were far from certain in their defensive work, Thierry Audel hinting at the hesitancy within his ranks when the centre-back dallied and waited for his goalkeeper Rhys Taylor to come and collect a long through ball from Joe Partington.
In this instance, the away Number One appeared on the scene just in time to prevent Constable from gathering – but Audel wasn’t so lucky when he lapsed again.
Dan Spence had protected his back post attentively, getting his head on Lewis’s deep cross from the right to take it out of the path of the onrushing Matthew Barnes-Homer when, ten minutes in, Harry Pell bulldozed his way free of a throng of bodies to usher play forward in the direction of McAllister.
Audel looked to have the situation under control, but a weak clearance allowed the striker to keep play alive, until the Macclesfield man wrapped his leg around him, dumping him to the turf.
Reason assumed set-piece duties, swinging over the free-kick from the left and finding Pell, whose contact on the delivery carried the ball to its final resting place, low inside Taylor’s right-post.
Danny Rowe had a half-chance to strike back on the quarter-hour, but could only sky a first time left footed dig after Barnes-Homer’s flick had guided Audel’s ball from deep into the former Barrow wideman’s run – and Eastleigh wasted little time in getting back into their visitors’ rearguard.
George Pilkington couldn’t get any distance on his header when he met Flitney’s punt upfield, enabling the Spitfires to grab hold of possession, with Ben Strevens passing left for Reason.
The on-song playmaker prodded the ball forward for Constable, only for the home striker to be met by Taylor as he raced onto his colleague’s pass. The Eastleigh man was convinced he’d been halted unfairly. Crucially, referee Robert Whitton saw nothing wrong in the ex-Wales under-21 stopper’s smothering save.
Whittaker was probably his team’s most prominent performer on the day, and the experienced Macclesfield skipper did well, persevering in a tussle with both Strevens and Pell, to win a free-kick 25 yards from goal. Andy Halls’ use of the dead ball, smashing high and out of the ground at the clubhouse end of the Silverlake, aptly summed up the Silkmen’s attacking guile up to that point in the action.
Adriano Moke did try to impose some ingenuity on proceedings with a slaloming run from right to left, the winger eventually eluding Pell to slide in Rowe on the left. When the subsequent cross came over from the Macclesfield player’s left boot, however, it was just out of the reach of a frustrated Barnes-Homer, steaming in at the far post.
Lee Bell had Macc’s final set-piece strike before the interval, this chance cropping up when the otherwise exceptional Partington rashly dived in on Alex Grant, who was making his first real raid from left-back to collect Whittaker’s square ball.
Grant, though, – whose fleeting loan spell with the Spitfires at the beginning of 2013, which included his playing in a crazy 5-3 New Year’s Day defeat at Salisbury City, seems an absolute lifetime ago – could only watch on as Bell curled his effort wastefully high of the target.
If Eastleigh’s first-half performance had been all about control, imposing themselves on their opponents and winning individual battles, then the second forty-five minutes turned into something far more expansive. That Hill’s men were able to take the handbrake off, was thanks to a pivotal piece of play not long after the 50 minute mark.
Moke, well positioned and with time on his side, sent a delivery from the right too close to goal and past the back post, so wasting some sharp build-up play by Whittaker. Before they knew it, the Sillkmen were back under the pump, defending a left-wing Reason corner.
Bell actually stood up to the task initially, but the Burton Albion loanee’s swiped clearance was picked up by Craig Stanley, who instantly provided Reason with a second crossing chance.
The attacker didn’t disappoint, sending over an inswinging delivery that McAllister nodded back across the box where Constable was alive to the situation, diving to head low to Taylor’s right to double the Spitfires’ lead.
From there, John Askey, will surely be questioning his team’s anaemic response to falling further behind. The feelings of Macclesfield’s boss, however, won’t concern anybody of an Eastleigh persuasion, as the home side took their 2-0 advantage as the cue to turn on the style.
One sumptuous passage of play shortly after Constable’s goal ended up with the same man putting the ball in the net again, only for a linesman’s flag to deny the forward after he had cleverly run over a ball in from the right, before continuing on to collect McAllister’s incisive pass and slotting home.
By that time, Lewis, who with Paul Turnbull, sitting out this contest injured, dictated midfield terms in that early season clash between these teams, had been replaced by Waide Fairhurst. The centre of the park, this time out, was Pell and Stanley’s domain.
It is no slight on Lewis, though, that Barnes-Homer would surely have breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of Fairhurst arriving to give the nomadic attacker some support in his front-running exploits.
Nevertheless, if Askey had sent for the cavalry with a grandstand recovery in mind, his hopes were made forlorn by Reason’s delicious 61st minute goal. The move began with McAllister strongly retaining possession from Beckwith’s slightly skewed forward ball, and gathered momentum as passes went through Strevens and Constable to Reason.
Never rushed, and with the BT Sport cameras gazing down admiringly, Eastleigh’s Number Ten tricked his way clear of Halls, worked the ball onto his right foot and stroked his effort out of the reach of Taylor, straining every sinew as he dived to his left, and into the top corner of goal.
Reason would soon be on the end of a late Halls’ tackle, an infringement for which the Macclesfield right-back was booked, before Pell slid into a well-timed challenge on the edge of his own box to knock the ball out of Barnes-Homer’s feet. The striker’s run across from the left wasn’t totally wasted, as Pell’s intervention knocked play into the path of Fairhurst, whose hard-hit strike deflected off Partington on its way past Flitney’s left upright.
Nevertheless, the Macc attackers were working off scraps.
There was certainly nothing in the visitors’ ranks to rival the adventure of Spitfires’ right-back Spence, who galloped forward on 73 minutes, taking his own throw-in back from Deon Burton – on with Dan Walker; Strevens and McAllister the two men taking a well-deserved early mark with 25 minutes to play – and winning a corner out of Bell.
Reason’s delivery sparked a flurry of activity in the away team’s box, with Partington and Burton taking it in turn to have shots blocked by scrambling defenders.
There was nothing stopping Burton on 78 minutes, however. Audel was the defender culpable in the first instance, only directing a header into Walker. Play was moved to the left, through Stanley, for Reason to continue his personal demonstration of attacking flair.
Resisting the urge to have a pop at repeating his goalscoring feats, Reason instead stabbed a perfectly weighted ball inside Halls and into Constable’s run. The former Oxford United man was similarly composed, squaring for Burton to finish from six yards.
Flitney, plunging down to his left, had to field an optimistic Whittaker strike, before Moke betrayed the pervading discontent now plaguing the Macc troops by letting his displeasure be known to his management team when he was hauled off with seven minutes left on the clock.
Moke was replaced by Theo Bailey-Jones, but it was another Macclesfield substitute that drew a foul from Pell that saw the Eastleigh midfielder cautioned late on. Chris Holroyd cushioned Bell’s diagonal ball out to the right into his path, then sprang into the space ahead of him, only to go over with Pell at his back 20 yards out. Whittaker slipped the resultant free-kick past a three-man wall – and past the right post.
The visitors had one last chance to bag a consolation, Barnes-Homer finally getting on the end of a ball into the box – delivered by Fairhurst from the right – but, jabbing out his left foot, the centre-forward’s connection took the ball wide of the far post.
A magnificently drilled, cohesive Eastleigh back-four deserved its clean sheet – and the Spitfires were full-value for their 4-0 victory.
The majority of the hosts’ fellow play-off chasers took up the gauntlet set down for them, here, by recording wins of their own later in the day, but this triumph – in every sense of the word for Eastleigh FC – keeps Hill’s team right in the mix for a top-five spot.
It doesn’t get any easier in seven days’ time, with a trip to Bristol Rovers next on the agenda.
For now, though, this is a victory to revel in for a team who sounded out the perfect riposte, with this comprehensive beating of one of the league’s strongest outfits, to anybody wondering if their home form was on the wane.
Full gallery of today’s match pictures can be found at Eastleigh (4) v Macclesfield Town (0) 28.2.2015 – 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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