There is plainly something in the chemistry between these two sides that, whenever they collide, ignites a blur of goals, electrifying football, mistakes and unpredictability.
Nevertheless, when a slick, imaginative Spitfires attack paid dividends in rather unconventional fashion just seven minutes into this encounter, few of the 1,219 paying punters inside the Silverlake Stadium would have been expecting the game to unfold in comparable style to the seven-goal thriller won by Eastleigh at the New Bucks Head in December.
Indeed, as the hosts began the match at breakneck speed, passing forward at the earliest opportunity and linking brightly throughout the team, Telford were pinned firmly onto the back foot. The opening exchanges produced a flurry of activity around the visitors’ box, with a first home shooting chance coming five minutes in. Jack Midson was sent down the left by Jai Reason to cross for James Constable, who drew a stop from Freddy Hall down at the away stopper’s near-post.
Midson and Constable were operating as the Spitfires’ front-two, in a home starting eleven that included Harry Pell, making his debut in the centre of midfield, and Michael Green, back in action for the first time in over a month after serving a two game ban. Craig Stanley and Dan Spence were the players to make way from the side that took on Grimsby ten days ago.
Pell was quick to provide a glimpse of what he has in his locker, collecting possession in the middle of the park after good work by Reason to nick the ball in front of his back-four, before driving adventurously up the right where he was ultimately held up by Sean Clancy’s recovering tackle.
It was the home team’s next foray up the same side of the pitch that brought the day’s breakthrough strike. Will Evans – along with Green, an absolutely integral cog in this current Eastleigh machine with its onus on the full-backs to offer width and attacking verve – made an enterprising underlapping run into the Bucks’ box that was expertly picked out by Reason. The right-back clipped a low ball into the middle that took a couple of deflections, the last being off Hall and into the net.
Reason was soon threading another delightful forward ball, this one for Midson, who just couldn’t gather to get a shot away on target. Within minutes Midson did manage to get a dig on goal, the attacker benefiting from some more pacey Spitfires’ build-up play. Brian Howard cushioned Reason’s driven ball into the path of Pell, who eased play out left to Green. The defender’s cross eventually found its way back out to the edge of the hosts’ area, from where Midson dragged his effort wide of the left upright.
There was finally some relief for Telford when Adam Farrell won a free-kick on the right. Ross Flitney punched Danny Ventre’s delivery away from the scrum in the Spitfires’ six-yard box, with Godfrey Poku quickest off the mark to snaffle possession in front of Reason and find Tony Gray to his left. The livewire striker drifted back inside and rattled a shot at goal that cannoned back out off Joe Partington’s legs.
When Midson and Pell combined slickly for the former to cross from the right but just out of Constable’s reach it seemed as if normal service had been resumed, an impression afforded extra credence as Constable pounced on a weak clearance to drill an effort at goal that was deflected off target by John Disney’s terrific block.
Gray, though, scorer of a ruthlessly taken hat-trick in these teams’ previous meeting, was steadily becoming a more prominent force; the ex-Southport attacker showing his nose for a chance by reacting to steer Farrell’s first-time volleyed cross towards goal, but without the necessary control to keep his header on target.
With the action becoming slightly more stretched, Constable kept play alive from Flitney’s punt forward with a typically tireless chase across to the left that enabled Howard to take over and deliver a cross which Hall finger-tipped over the frame of his goal. After his first subsequent corner had been headed behind, Reason saw his second flag-kick in quick succession cleared out as far as Howard, who was bundled over by Ventre 20 yards from goal. Reason kept his hegemony over the home side’s set-piece duties to hit a free-kick that nicked off the top of a Bucks’ defensive wall and behind.
Ventre’s next infringement on Howard, as the former Barnsley man drifted infield onto Reason’s lay-off, resulted in the Telford midfielder collecting the day’s first yellow card. Reason’s consequent dead-ball strike, however, went the same way as his last, only this time without any deflection as it plotted its course high of Hall’s goal.
With Poku having, very slightly, adjusted his midfield position, dropping a few yards deeper to sit alongside Ventre, the Bucks were looking a tighter unit and, accordingly, were beginning to stitch together some more purposeful football of their own. Reason had forced Hall to claw away a 25 yard strike down to his left, when Clancy raced onto Gray’s flick at the other end to slot home. A linesman’s flag, indicating that the attacker had gone early, had long since been raised as he found the net, though.
A Midson run had met the same fate sixty seconds earlier when Constable, after a sublime turn deep on the right that sent three red shirts veering off in different directions, had charged forward and slipped a pass through for his strike partner.
There was no flag to save the day for the hosts, however, when, with four minutes of the half to play, the away team struck to level matters. Dan Spence, on at right-back – with Evans shifting into the middle – after Jamie Turley had been forced off with what appeared to be a hamstring twinge, was caught forward after a futile attempt to reach Howard’s loose pass. Reason failed to react as Ben McLaughlin took a quick throw to send Clancy haring away down the left to find Gray. The striker cut inside, threw a dummy that was bought by Partington, and hammered a crisp finish that Flitney, despite getting a touch, could do nothing to keep out.
With Telford instantly back on the attack Midson dived in on McLaughlin to halt the visitors’ momentum, a challenge that evidently stoked Neill Byrne’s ire, the big defender wading in and pushing Midson to the floor, earning him a caution to go along with the one awarded to the Eastleigh man.
The Bucks kept their foot down right through until the interval. That Pell’s clearing header on a McLaughlin corner from the left went past the post rather than inside it, owed more to luck than judgement. A flag-kick on the opposite side then caused some panic in the home ranks. Green switched off, allowing the set-piece to be taken short and requiring Flitney to punch clear the ensuing cross from Gray. The ball fell kindly for Clancy, whose left foot drive had the Eastleigh ‘keeper saving down to his left, but only able to palm into the path of Sam Smith. Yards out and with a gilt-edged opportunity to nudge his team ahead, though, Smith’s composure deserted him as he spooned over.
The break allowed temperatures to cool, both on and off the pitch, and the second period was five minutes old before the Spitfires, steadily regaining the upper-hand, forced a strike on goal – Ben Strevens blazing over after a Howard free-kick had only been partially cleared.
Fierce pressing by Howard and Strevens on Poku was the catalyst for the next home chance, Reason eventually taking possession from Strevens and spreading a pass right for Midson who, from just wide of the target in the box, fired into the side-netting.
That instance of Poku erring was a rare lapse in the midst of a manful performance by the visiting skipper, the ex-Luton Town midfielder’s energy and covering in front of his full-backs being absolutely pivotal to the Bucks’ increasingly bold display.
Indeed, on 56 minutes Telford’s attacking pep had turned the game on its head. A swift counter saw the ball worked first left and then back across the face of the Spitfires’ box, with Gray supplying the final pass for Farrell to crack a fierce drive unerringly towards the left corner of goal. Flitney, once more, got a touch, this time with an outstretched right arm, but the shot simply had too much on it for the ‘keeper.
The same probably wasn’t true three minutes later when the industrious Clancy tried his luck from 18 yards. Flitney made the stop, but only succeeded in slapping the ball down into the feet of Smith. The big striker wasn’t going to turn down a second invite to ram home, completing his task emphatically.
Seeing his team fall two behind was the trigger for Richard Hill to introduce Dan Walker from the bench, the winger brought in from Braintree coming on for his maiden Eastleigh appearance in place of Howard. Walker took up a berth on the right and was promptly running at, and by, McLaughlin and Grogan – eventually winning a corner off the former and, in the process, demonstrating a blinding turn of pace. It is to McLaughlin’s credit that the young Bucks’ full-back, on loan in Shropshire from Everton, heeded his warning, going on to get tight to Walker wherever possible, seeking to pinch the ball before the winger could get it out of his feet and utilise his fleet of foot.
Just seven minutes later, and with his side still not making any serious impression on a resolute visiting rearguard, Hill made Deon Burton the next home debutant – Midson the man to make way this time. The 38 year-old was swiftly into the fray, showing fine touch and strength in his hold up play, but the Spitfires’ lifeline, when it came, required an element of fortune.
Without Reason being on his toes, however, that stroke of luck would never have materialised. Grogan actually defended his near post well, only to see his attempted clearance slam into his own player and run loose. Reason was first on the scene, collecting and driving at the heart of the box before letting go of a shot that took a decisive deflection off Grogan that totally wrong-footed Hall and sent the ball drifting lazily into the net.
A speculative Clancy strike comfortably gathered by Flitney aside, Telford progressively found themselves penned back as they strove to hold onto their slim advantage. Support for the front-running Smith, who would be substituted alongside the similarly spent Clancy with ten minutes to play, was dwindling, as the visitors, perhaps involuntarily, began to drop deeper and deeper.
And it was minutes after the Bucks’ double change that Eastleigh drew level. Byrne needlessly clattered into the back of Constable, giving Reason the chance to lift another dead ball into the box. The Eastleigh man flighted his delivery for Strevens to head left to right across goal and pick out Constable, perfectly placed to prod home from yards out.
From there, the expectation was for Telford to spend the remainder of the afternoon clinging on desperately for their point. The topsy-turvy nature of the battles played out between these teams, though, meant that was never going to be the case.
Gray was continually plugging away, seeking to operate right on the shoulder of the hosts’ last man in order to engineer one last chance for his team. Strevens, meanwhile, an influential force in his team’s recovery, exchanged passes with Constable as he marauded into the Telford area before being denied the chance to shoot by a magnificent saving Disney tackle.
Even before that smartly worked opportunity Eastleigh had seen a few half-chances to restore their early lead come and go. Walker opted against playing Constable back in when the striker looked well set to capitalise on Grogan’s slip and run clear, the winger instead carrying the ball forward and winning a corner. Constable was next to see the whites of the posts but, unable to adjust his body to get over the ball, the straining home Number 9 could only nod over when free in the middle of the box.
Burton just missed out on a dream start to life at the Silverlake when, at a set-piece and amid a packed Telford area, he read Pell’s towering header but couldn’t quite apply a finish from close-in, before Strevens was back in the thick of it at the other end during four frantic minutes of stoppage time. Flitney came for and missed one of a glut of late visiting corners, leaving Byrne with what would have been a glorious opening at the back-post without Strevens being on hand to make a nuisance of himself and scramble the ball behind.
Such a dramatic contest should, by rights, have heralded a pervading feel-good factor at the final whistle. Instead, there was a strange air of deflation all-around. Telford were left reflecting on a handy point earned, but knowing the opportunity had been there to grab all three – a haul that would have been priceless as the Bucks strive to pull off an unlikely survival act. Eastleigh, for all the relief of coming away with something for their endeavours, will be left wondering how they lost their way after such an authoritative start to the game.
For the Spitfires, however, with their next game on Tuesday night, there will be little time to dwell on this curious, harum-scarum clash. If Eastleigh and Telford meet again next season, though, it might be advisable to keep a calculator handy.
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.