Eastleigh’s grip on sixth spot in the Conference Premier was loosened by a Torquay United side whose comeback victory completed a league double over the Spitfires for the Plainmoor outfit. This is a defeat that will sting for the home team, with the chance being passed up to gain some momentum after their own turnaround triumph on Tuesday night at Southport.
Richard Hill made four changes, here, to the eleven that had started the game on Merseyside four days earlier – Dean Beckwith, as skipper, Craig Stanley, Brian Howard and Deon Burton the men to come in. Ben Strevens, Jack Midson and James Constable dropped to the bench, while the injured Paul Reid was absent from the squad altogether.
Much like in their previous home outing against Telford the hosts began this encounter firmly in the ascendancy, their slick passing and combination play through the middle of the park catching the eye, in particular. Off the ball, the home side were, for the most part, pressing eagerly.
Nevertheless, with the action seven minutes old, the two players who contributed the goals when these sides met in the south west back in November were afforded the room to unzip their opponents’ backline. Toby Ajala collected possession in space on the left and rolled the ball forward into the box and the feet of Ryan Bowman, the striker then spinning and pulling a shot that missed the target past the far post.
The Spitfires’ first chance, which fell to Burton, was the product of some fantastic build-up play down the left. Howard took possession from Harry Pell before feeding Michael Green’s jet-heeled overlap. The full-back cut a pass inside to Burton whose first touch was just heavy enough to allow Ollivier Gueguen to make the initial clearance. The visitors’ let-off was complete when Jai Reason teed-up Will Evans to hit well over from distance.
Bowman called on a whole range of tools from his attacking armoury through the 90 minutes – and a quarter of an hour in the former York City striker capitalised on Louis Briscoe’s deft touch to race away from Joe Partington down the Gulls’ left. Upon hitting the byline Bowman crossed, with Beckwith first scuffing a clearance at Ajala, and then closing down the Torquay man to block a goal bound drive.
Sixty seconds later Eastleigh were ahead. Gueguen, straining to reach Reason’s free-kick lifted in from just in front of half-way on the right, could only help the delivery on to Partington at the back-post. The defender applied his bandaged head to the ball, sending it back across goal and presenting Burton with the job of nudging his team in front from a yard out.
With the Gulls seeking an instant response Ajala caught Reason cold 18 yards out and, with a short pass, found Courtney Richards, who slipped a pass forward aimed for Briscoe – so needing home Number One Ross Flitney to spring rapidly from his line to reach the ball before the burly forward could latch onto his midfielder’s slide-rule delivery.
Craig McAllister’s power and industry was making life distinctly uncomfortable for Angus MacDonald, and on 21 minutes the Torquay centre-half was bundled off the ball as he contested Craig Stanley’s clipped ball down the right with the hosts’ striker. McAllister emerged from the scrap to play a pass across the box for Howard, so allowing the midfielder to open up and bend an effort bound for the inside of the left post without Martin Rice’s smart stop.
Stanley, outstanding against the team where he spent the second half of the 2011/2012 season, was on the front-foot all afternoon, his keen anticipation often taking him to the ball in front of more flat-footed opponents. That was never more true than when Rice punched Howard’s 22nd minute corner away from under his bar.
Stanley’s antennae was up, the midfielder charging to meet the clearance with a thundering header from 18 yards that came back down off the underside of the bar before, from Rice’s perspective, taking a fortunate ricochet off the ‘keeper to bounce away from goal.
With the Spitfires in pursuit of what could have been a decisive second goal, Howard took advantage of Krystian Pearce’s rash attempt to win possession on half-way to break forward towards the edge of the Gulls’ box. With visiting bodies steaming back, the initiative appeared to have been lost.
Howard, though, cleverly held on, waiting his moment to caress a pass from the left side of the area into the onrushing Pell. The midfielder, making his second start at the Silverlake, stroked a first time effort that was saved by Rice down to his left.
The earlier enforced withdrawal of Jordan Chappell for the away team had seen Ajala switch over to operate from the right – Courtney Cameron taking over on the left – and the winger cushioned Luke Young’s sweet 40th minute pass to ghost past Green, only for the left-back to recover with a terrific sliding challenge knocking the ball out of the attacker’s feet.
Moments later, it was Green’s hurried clearance from deep that landed with Ajala for the former AFC Wimbledon man to find Cameron to his left. The substitute tried his luck from distance, dispatching a shot past Flitney’s left upright.
Both wide players for Torquay were growing in influence and stature by the minute and on the cusp of the break it was Ajala, again drifting in from his line and taking up a great position to poke a pass through for Bowman. The visiting player’s first touch took him past Flitney, but the covering Partington was immaculately placed to divert the subsequent effort behind for a corner.
If the Spitfires thought that let-off would see them into the interval with their lead intact then they were mistaken. Richards met Cameron’s dead ball with a header that found Gueguen at the back stick. The Frenchman, making his first start for Chris Hargreaves’ team, took a touch and turned to rifle home from close range.
Howard had time for one more pop at goal before the whistle, the ex-Barnsley man trading passes with Reason in a central area, before stabbing a strike at goal that was easily scooped up by Rice.
Dan Walker was introduced onto the Spitfires’ right for the second 45 minutes – Reason the player giving way – but the first real chance for the day’s third goal went to Torquay.
Pell’s pass intended for Walker was intercepted by Levi Ives, the left back then embarking on a bold run across the park to find Richards who, in turn, quickly moved the ball on for Ajala. Flitney pushed the winger’s subsequent centre out as far as Briscoe, with Beckwith the player on hand to thwart the visiting forward on the follow up.
Pell’s next pass into the right channel was of the more sumptuous variety, being directed inside Ives and weighted perfectly for Walker’s run. The Braintree loanee found McAllister to lay off for Howard, whose shot cannoned back out off the fast closing Pearce. Green was swiftly putting the ball back in to the 18 yard box from the left, the defender’s low delivery locating Burton. The evergreen front-runner engaged in a sharp exchange of passes with Howard, before falling at the final hurdle, his strike from 12 yards out travelling far too high to bother Rice.
Ajala and Pearce had found their way into the referee’s notebook for fouls on Howard and Stanley, respectively – adding their names to the already cautioned Pell and Briscoe – when Briscoe tricked his way past Green and rode Pell’s covering tackle to provide Young with a shooting chance. The visiting captain opted for a subtle effort, but couldn’t keep his chip underneath Flitney’s bar.
Young’s 72nd minute half-chance was in keeping with much of what had already passed in the second period – neither side having been able to carve out a genuine clear-cut opportunity. All that changed with fourteen minutes to play, however.
Torquay broke out through Cameron on the left, the ball going through the impressive Richards to Ajala. The 23 year-old had the ball on a string as he jinked away from Green and found Cameron, now stationed just outside the hosts’ area. The ex-Aston Villa youngster unleashed a strike that, possibly via Flitney’s outstretched glove, came back off the inside of the left post.
From there, the Spitfires’ keeper didn’t enjoy the luck earlier savoured by his opposite number when Stanley had hit the woodwork. On this occasion, the ball ran apologetically into the wide open space in front an unprotected net. Bowman was on it in a flash, tapping in what will go down as one of the more straightforward goals of his career.
The rampant Ajala was immediately running at Green once more, the wideman this time opting to jab a pass a couple of yards ahead of him for Briscoe. With the former Mansfield man ready to swoop, Beckwith got a toe on the ball to force it behind – albeit, Briscoe was convinced that the defender had tagged him before making contact on the ball.
With Constable on for Burton and Midson having replaced Howard, all three Eastleigh substitutes combined to fashion an equalising chance with ten minutes left on the clock. Walker’s delivery was consistently on the button during his time on the field, and here was no exception as he found Midson at the back-stick to guide the cross back into Constable. The waiting striker, however, missed his kick and the chance was gone.
Ajala had escaped a second booking for upending Green when the home side chiselled out the first of two late chances. Walker popped up on the left, from where the accuracy of his crossing didn’t suffer by comparison with his endeavours on the opposite wing. Midson latched onto the delivery at the far post, heading goalwards but being denied by a deflection that carried the ball wide of Rice’s right stick.
It was Constable’s hustling high on the right that brought about the Spitfires’ last chance; the striker bundling Ives off the ball to make good Evans’ pass down the wing. After a change of passes with McAllister, Constable pulled back for Pell, who walloped wildly over from inside the box.
That moment sealed the deal for Torquay. The home players had long disappeared – beginning the process of picking over where this one had got away and preparing for next Saturday’s trip to in-form Chester – when the away team congregated in front of a vociferously celebrating travelling throng from Devon to celebrate what was only their second league victory since beating Eastleigh two-and-a-half months ago.
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.