Eastleigh finished their exacting opening fortnight to this campaign of great expectation with a three goal win at Boreham Wood. The victory at Meadow Park was the product of another controlled and measured performance, similar in type to those against Sutton United and Bath City earlier in the month writea Paul McNamara.
The Spitfires flew out of the traps here, looking very much like a team which had enjoyed the benefit of four clear days to recover after Monday’s grinding home stalemate against Havant & Waterlooville.
Stuart Fleetwood, who started this match in a more central role than has been the case during the embryonic stages of his Eastleigh career, was needlessly cut-down to the left of the hosts’ area by the burly Charlie O’Loughlin. Fleetwood took his time to haul himself to his feet but, having done so, whipped a venomous 25-yard free-kick which clattered back off the angle of near-post and bar.
It was an encouraging opening, especially given the Spitfires anaemic use of some promising set-piece positions during their early-term contests. The bar had been raised in that specific facet of Eastleigh’s game and, mid-way through the second half, Jai Reason struck an equally sweet effort from similar distance, which forced James Russell into his finest save of the afternoon – the home ‘keeper managing to get a touch to a ball bound for his top-right corner.
Mario Noto responded to the away team’s early surge by carrying the ball in from the left, managing to hold off Craig McAllister in the process, and snapping a shot across goal which whistled past Ross Flitney’s left upright.
Fleetwood’s scurrying, pressing, and aptitude for picking up intelligent positions to feed off McAllister – who began for the visitors in place of Yemi Odubade – was a feature of much of his team’s play throughout the contest. It was McAllister’s pressing of Sam Cox which forced the home right-back into a scuffed clearance, and subsequently spawned a sweeping away move which ended with Mark Bentley, facing his own goal, having to hack a ball clear from in front of Russell, as Fleetwood tried to latch onto Ben Strevens’ smart return pass.
Chris Dillon continued his 100% starting record for the season, today being partnered in the centre of defence by the fit again – and immaculate – Dean Beckwith. On 11 minutes, the rookie of the pair was thrust off the ball by the Wood’s powerful forward, Callum Willock, who quickly found Matthew Ball. Ball barely had time to find his bearings before Dillon was back breathing down his neck. Forced to shoot early, the attacker pulled a weak effort well beyond Flitney’s right-post.
There was a rare heart-stopping moment for the travelling support when former Eastleigh man, Graeme Montgomery, hit a free-kick from deep on his team’s right straight onto the head of O’Loughlin who was unmarked at the far post. Perhaps unsighted as the ball arrived, the defender could only apply a slight touch which sent the ball harmlessly wide.
Montgomery had the next home dig at goal, latching onto Dillon’s clearing header, and sending a speculative volley tamely into Flitney’s grasp.
Robert Hastings, a peripheral influence on the action, both in his starting berth on the left of midfield, and then up top for the second period, had one of his brighter moments when he clipped a graceful cross-field ball into the feet of his right-sided counterpart Matt Whichelow. The ex-Watford man’s gallop down the wing was brought to an abrupt end by Michael Green, who contemptuously dispossessed his adversary before striding forward and unleashing a shot which flew waywardly off target.
On one of the few occasions when Ball managed to find a pocket of space in Spitfires territory he guided a pass into Willock, who instantly switched play out to Whichelow. The wide-man’s cute ball into the area found the direct run of the player who had initiated the move, but Ball couldn’t earn any more than a corner – a set-piece which was assuredly dealt with by the visiting defence.
A few jitters were evident in the hosts’ rear-guard, – first Russell slicing needlessly into touch, and then O’Loughlin cheaply conceding a corner. From that subsequent 19th minute flag-kick, Eastleigh came close to scoring the game’s opening goal.
Jamie Collins hit his delivery to the back-post, where Beckwith was on hand to head back towards Strevens. The midfielder pulled the trigger on a thumping effort which was blocked by a home body. An untidy scramble ensued, during which the ball pinged about the area, and Spitfires appeals for a penalty, after Fleetwood looked to have his legs taken from beneath him, were dismissed by an unmoved referee.
The visitors were seeking to turn the screw, without, during this opening half-hour, being able to claim total control of the action. McAllister couldn’t get over his header when he met Green’s long throw, and after Collins and Reason had combined to provide Strevens with another half-chance, the 33 year-old couldn’t get hold of a long distance drive which Russell watched dribble tamely past his right-stick.
With 25 minutes played, Eastleigh’s centre-half duo was, one-after-the-other, called into action. The threat, in both instances, came from Cox’s right-sided crosses. Dillon saw out the first and, when the second came in, Beckwith’s head made a crucial intervention ahead of Willock who was otherwise set for a free close-range sight of goal.
Another 60 seconds had elapsed when Cox – who impressed with his displays in the middle of the park against Eastleigh for his previous employers at Hayes & Yeading last season – tried his luck again. A near post cross was met by the crouching Ball who, despite his improvised effort to lift a header goal-wards, couldn’t exercise the necessary control to keep the attempt low enough to test Flitney.
With Eastleigh employing a narrow midfield three – Collins holding, with Strevens and Southam operating either side of the ex-Forest Green Rovers player, and Reason marauding behind McAllister and Fleetwood – the onus fell on the full-backs to provide a good deal of their side’s width.
It is a challenge which Dan Spence rose to. The right-back is becoming increasingly adventurous in his forward raids, and consistently exhibits a great degree of calm and acumen when he is in the final third. When Spence’s low cross, destined for Reason, was cut out by a defensive boot, Fleetwood picked up the pieces and floated a ball to the far-post and the waiting McAllister. The striker planted a firm header on- target, but without the direction to extend Russell.
The muscular Willock was causing Dillon some discomfort and, just past the 30 minute mark, the attacker made capital on a terrific first touch by barging his way past the defender, only to be met by Flitney racing from his area to snuff out the danger – the Eastleigh keeper’s excellent sweeping is an underrated attribute, and one he consistently employs for his side’s good.
At the other end, Reason was inexplicably penalised as he sought to be first, ahead of O’Loughlin, to Green’s fizzed cross. It was a decision which induced a public show of dissatisfaction from Richard Hill – his water bottle sent cartwheeling across the floor.
Eastleigh’s prodding and probing was taking on a progressively more threatening tone. Strevens, in a central position, killed a fierce ball into his feet and moved play on to Reason. When the Number 10 found Fleetwood to his left, the attacker shrewdly used as a shield the three home bodies which were impeding his sight of goal, and curled a right-footed shot beyond the furthermost defender, but also a yard past the far post.
After Dillon’s turn of pace had prevented Willock from being able to stride onto another astute Ball pass, play was quickly back in the hosts’ defensive third, with Reason swiping a 30-yard effort over Russell’s bar following some good work by Strevens and Southam.
When, in the 41st minute, McAllister completed the even improvement on his heading ventures for the day – off target, ‘keeper save, goal – it came at the end of a passage of play which demonstrated all that is good about this Eastleigh team.
Dillon, Strevens, and Collins – once more absolutely terrific with both his aptitude for sensing and curbing danger, and his economical and intelligent use of the ball – won a series of fiercely contested aerial duels around half-way. Southam collected the scraps and went forward to Reason, who, having picked up a gap behind the holding Mario Noto, was free to run at the Wood rear-guard. The playmaker drove forward and slipped a pass right to the over-lapping Spence. McAllister beat Mark Bentley to the full-back’s front-post delivery, and guided his effort inside Russell’s left upright.
The striker’s subsequent celebrations with his jubilant supporters, and exuberant kick of an advertising hoarding, while not having the intense ferocity of Temuri Ketsbaia’s famous barmy reaction to a goal he scored for Newcastle United, – a cursory Google search will direct you to footage of that bizarre incident – spoke volumes for a player determined to be a central part of this Spitfires unit.
The most notable action of the half’s remaining minutes, with the exception of Southam’s rising 20-yard half-volley which cleared the bar by inches, was a scuffle in close proximity to the away dug-out.
With play halted by a referee’s whistle, Ball fired the ball in the direction of Eastleigh’s management and substitutes. That was an act which followed seconds on from O’Loughlin’s verbal dig at the Spitfires boss. With players from both teams congregating, Cox invited himself right up to the visitors’ bench, seemingly het up by something which had been said in his direction. The melee eventually petered out, with no individual, other than the yellow-carded Ball, receiving any punishment stronger than a word in their ear from man-in-the-middle, Mr Ross.
There was an implicit acceptance of Eastleigh’s first-period ascendancy in Ian Allinson’s double half-time change, and tactical re-shuffling. Whichelow and Willock – the latter looked to have suffered a knock with the interval looming – were replaced by Lee Close and Raheem Sterling-Parker.
Close slotted in at right-back, with Cox switching to his preferred central role. Sterling-Parker joined Hastings in a new look front-two, Montgomery went out one to the left, and Ball continued to work from a deeper position to that in which he’d started proceedings.
Sterling-Parker was at once involved in the action, taking Montgomery’s pass and going inside to Noto. The winger slammed his dig at goal into the body of Green, but it was a bright move from back-to-front, started after O’Loughlin had headed Spence’s driven cross clear of his team’s box.
A smart Russell stop on 51 minutes prevented Strevens from giving his team a two-goal cushion. The midfielder had reacted first to O’Loughlin’s block on Southam’s shot, to swivel and snap a first-time eight-yard dig which looked set to nestle low in the net, until the ‘keeper’s plunging intervention to his left.
As space was opening up in the midfield areas, Reason was seeing more of the ball. The playmaker cleverly stepped over Green’s left-sided pass and, from Southam’s precise forward ball into his path, hit a left-footed shot on the run which flew past the right-post.
As the clock ticked onto the hour, and with the home side having produced little more of note other than a Montgomery cross which Dillon forced away from in front of Hastings, the second strike which killed the game as a contest came via the right-boot of Fleetwood.
It was a curious goal. Reason applied a deft touch to Spence’s throw, before his fellow forward took over and burst into the right side of the area. Fleetwood appeared to have relinquished control, as he fought his way by Ball, when he flicked out his foot and sent the ball spinning towards the far corner and snugly inside the post.
To Wood’s credit they strove for an instant riposte. Sterling-Parker seized on Dillon’s misjudgement of a forward ball and cut inside from where, under pressure from the recovering defender, the striker’s left-footed stab drifted across goal and wide.
Greg Morgan’s 40-yard pass down the left into the penalty-area charge of Hastings allowed Sterling-Parker’s attacking partner to take the ball on his chest, and unload a well-hit half-volleyed strike at goal which Flitney clasped to his chest.
Spence’s composure in opposition territory was integral to a fluid Eastleigh move, which began with Strevens’ pass out to Southam on the right. The visitors’ captain rolled the ball in-field to Spence, and was the beneficiary of a fantastic return pass which was played inside a defender and gave him time to lift his head and roll an inviting ball across the hosts’ six-yard box. There was no blue shirt ready to provide the finishing touch which the imaginative build-up deserved.
Reason’s beautifully struck free-kick on 67 minutes was earned after more cohesive Spitfires work. Fleetwood raced onto the eventual dead-ball taker’s flick and, from the right-wing, laid off for Collins to expertly manoeuvre the ball on the 18-yard line before being obstructed by O’Loughlin.
Reason had another, ultimately unsuccessful, pop at goal after Fleetwood’s persistent high-pressing saw him steal possession on the left and canter to the by-line, before coming back out and finding his Number 10 to shoot right-footed and over.
Boreham Wood lacked nothing in their willingness to compete, but displayed a complete absence of guile in the final-third. The prospect of a home goal, therefore, was looking distinctly unlikely when, with 16 minutes to play, and Eastleigh struggling to clear a corner, Ball made a sweet connection with a half-volley at the edge of the visitors’ area and saw his strike rattle the underside of the bar before bouncing down onto the goal-line and agonisingly, for the home side, out of harm’s way.
That brief scare wasn’t enough to dissuade Richard Hill from giving the inspirational Southam a breather, withdrawing his skipper with 15 minutes to play and introducing Romone Rose into the fray. Odubade soon followed Rose onto the field – McAllister making way to protect a slight knock picked up in the course of his combative battle with Bentley and O’Loughlin.
Eight minutes remained when Reason was afforded the chance to apply his team’s coup de grace. The attacker earned the opportunity by hunting down Green’s searching ball, struck high towards the Eastleigh right. Morgan hesitated unnecessarily, and had a good personal performance marred, when Reason out-muscled the left-back and sent a low ball into the heart of the Wood’s area. With Strevens advancing, and ready to slide home, Noto bundled the Spitfires player to the floor.
There was no disputing the consequent penalty award. Equally sure, was the manner in which Reason thumped his low spot-kick down the middle of the goal and rendered Russell’s dive, away to his left, redundant.
Richard Hill urged and implored his men to retain their intensity and focus through the closing stages. One casual Strevens touch, in particular, drew his manager’s wrath.
There would be no further scrapes as Eastleigh were content to work the clock down on a thoroughly satisfying afternoon’s work. Not so enamoured with the 90 minutes were the home stand denizens.
‘We’ve brought in all these players, and none of them are really any good are they’, was one of the more generous appraisals offered.
This was a classic away performance from Richard Hill’s side. Eastleigh matched their opponents for work-rate and physicality, before applying their superior ability to secure the vital breakthrough. Having gained their advantage, the Spitfires were gradually more expansive without ever leaving themselves exposed to the possibility of a sucker-punch.
Three goals scored, and a fourth clean sheet in five, both achieved under a blue sky and shining sun. This is what an away day is all about.