Nic Ciardini’s thumping 10th minute free-kick settled this local skirmish, contested by two sides plainly labouring under the exertions of their recent punishing schedule writes Paul McNamara.
Richard Hill sought to freshen up his newly crowned Conference South champions by handing full-debuts to a trio of Eastleigh’s youngsters. Lewis Noice replaced Ross Flitney in goal, Jack Smith came in for Chris Todd at centre-half, and Jamie Bulpitt started in midfield. The introduction of Bulpitt saw Glen Southam fill in for Dan Spence, the right-back being rested to the bench.
A sedate, scrappy contest sprang into life when Havant & Waterlooville captain Ryan Woodford was caught beneath Will Evans’ ball down the left. Ben Wright capitalised on the centre-back’s misjudgement to steal in at the by-line and shift the ball across to Jai Reason at the cusp of the hosts’ box. Reason tried to jink past Ed Harris, but the defender stood strong, with the Eastleigh man eventually penalised for jostling him while attempting to regain control of the ball.
It was then Evans’ turn to be the defender outfoxed by a long ball forward, Harris launching the subsequent free-kick and finding Sahr Kabba dashing away from the former Hereford United player. Evans tugged back at Kabba, so conceding a set-piece at the right corner of the box.
Ciardini rifled the dead-ball past Noice’s three man wall, and high into the net; the ‘keeper diving to his right unable to get any touch on the fierce strike.
One mistake followed another when Bulpitt initially surrendered possession to Nigel Atangana in the centre of the park, before Woodford returned the favour, hitting a sloppy ball looking for Harris to his left, but only locating Wright. The striker guided a pass right for Yemi Odubade, whose low cross was smashed clear of the near post.
Scott Donnelly was somewhat more precise with a ball lofted from deep that picked out Kabba’s intuitive run between Smith and Evans. The slippery forward tricked his way outside Evans and fired a ball across the face of the box that went untouched on its way beyond the back post.
Shortly after, Strevens brought some order to a round of aerial ping pong in the middle of the park, nodding to his right where he found Wright, 35 yards out and attempting to reproduce his stunning strike at Bromley a fortnight ago. The Spitfires’ loanee didn’t hesitate, striking the ball at the top of its bounce to unleash a dipping effort that Hawks’ stopper Benjamin Buchel held underneath his crossbar.
Bulpitt applied similar headed guile to that of Strevens, when steering Harris’ clearance left for Daniel Wishart. The attacker bustled away from Ciardini to stab a rising left-footed shot from 18 yards that Buchel finger-tipped over the bar. Perry Ryan won the header, amid a cluster of bodies, on Reason’s ensuing left-wing corner, doing enough to send the ball skywards and safely into Buchel’s grasp.
Smith’s rare lapse – the debutant was admirably sure-footed during his time on the field, defending strongly and typically being composed on the ball until he made way for Chris Dillon late on – presented the ball to Aristide Bassele. The Havant & Waterlooville attacker drifted in from the left, taking Atangana’s flicked return, before laying a pass right to Donnelly. The ex-Farnborough midfielder’s finish didn’t match the smooth build-up, his 25 yard dig flying wildly high of the target.
The home team’s next sortie came down the opposite flank. Ciardini out-muscled Green as the duo battled for Buchel’s kick forward. The winger drove into the box and, with the left-back on his wrong-side so unable to tackle, was free to slide a pass across for Atangana. The Frenchman struck low at goal but was denied by Green, who had recovered sufficiently to be across on the cover and blocking with his legs.
Eastleigh were grateful for a linesman’s flag when Kabba looked to break off the back of Smith and onto Ciardini’s through ball, but the visitors were soon at the other end pursuing a leveller.
Dan Strugnell, facing his own goal and with Wishart at his back, glanced Noice’s long punt behind for a corner. Reason sent over a flag-kick from the left that Buchel, coming from his line to collect, completely missed. The ball ran for Strevens who, at the back-post, instinctively chested it goal-wards and onto the upright. Smith was first to the rebound, but couldn’t keep his follow-up effort the right side of the post.
The Spitfires were caught napping when Ryan rolled a quick free-kick to Ciardini on half-way. The day’s goal-scorer powered his way forward unchecked, executing a smart, penetrating one-two with Kabba on his way to the dead-ball line. Ciardini drilled his centre at the front-stick, but found Strevens racing back to plug the gap and divert behind.
The corner was slid by Ryan towards Donnelly at the edge of the visitors’ box, but the midfielder couldn’t gather. Ciardini picked up and switched play back left to Ryan, only for the set-piece taker to be sent spinning into the air by Wright’s rash challenge. The striker was cautioned, before Eastleigh countered at the ensuing free-kick.
Southam headed away, with Bulpitt then improvising acrobatically to help the ball on for Wishart, who prodded left for Odubade. Eastleigh’s first -goal hero in their title clinching match against Basingstoke on Good Friday, dribbled forward and slung a cross into the Hawks’ box, sparking a melee for possession.
Ciardini eventually, conclusively, hammered away, and inadvertently found Kabba looking to streak onto the clearance. Just as he was set to wrestle clear of Evans, however, the striker was pulled up for grabbing at the Eastleigh player’s back.
With the first period moving towards its close, Woodford’s clumsy aerial challenge on Reason enabled Wright to have a free hit at goal from 25 yards out. The forward, though, was thwarted at his dead ball strike by Buchel springing away low to his right to push around the post.
The Hawks were swiftly on the hunt for a second goal, and it was Kabba once more on his toes to sniff out an opening. Strugnell received Atangana’s pass to deliver from the right. Evans, at the near post, appeared to have the situation under control, but reckoned without Kabba nipping in front to steal possession. The ex-Weston-super-Mare player turned to whip the ball back into the danger zone where Wishart, alive to the threat, was haring over to knock behind at the cost of a home corner.
Noice was in the thick of the half’s final piece of action. Harris returned Smith’s headed clearance in similar fashion, Donnelly then pushing play on to Atangana. Spying Kabba on the prowl, Atangana slid an intricate pass into the visitors’ area, with Noice hurriedly off the mark to smother at the forward’s feet.
Minutes after the resumption, referee Nigel Lugg flashed a harsh yellow card in Strevens’ direction. The Eastleigh man, looking to make amends after being dispossessed seconds previously, went in strongly on Ryan, but a free-kick would have been adequate punishment.
Smith’s one-on-one defending was soon being put to the test by Blanchett’s ball, hoiked down the left, which initially found Kabba goal-side of the teenager. Smith coolly recovered his position, before completing an exquisite piece of play by staying on his feet and waiting his moment to swipe the ball from the attacker’s path. Evans did the rest, tidying up and clearing away from his area.
Odubade being penalised, for his challenge on Buchel at Green’s right-wing corner, prompted Reason to talk his way into becoming the third visiting player booked. Nevertheless, the hosts’ ‘keeper didn’t rely on the referee’s whistle to save him when the visitors’ next broke.
The keeper’s original kick up-field found its way to Strevens, via Ciardini’s thigh, in the centre of the park. Strevens fed Wishart wide on the right, the attacker then shaking off Blanchett before embarking on what is fast becoming a trademark run inside. With the goal hoving into view, Wishart unleashed a left footed shot that had Buchel scrambling down to his right to hold.
That was Wishart’s last involvement before he departed. Bulpitt – who had grown into the game, snapping into a couple of spicy tackles and demonstrating a sound football brain through his smart positioning – was the other visiting player to make way in a double switch; Spence and Lee Peacock the men summoned from the bench.
Spence went straight into his customary right-back berth; Southam moving from that spot, where he hadn’t afforded Bassele any breathing space, into the heart of midfield. Peacock operated up top, in what rapidly became a front three, alongside Wright and Odubade.
Peacock wasted no time in announcing his presence, popping up behind Woodford after Green had skilfully manoeuvred away from Donnelly and clipped a ball down the left. The former Hawks’ man held play up, before opting to roll a pass back for Odubade. Reason took over to drill a shot that the speedily closing Blanchett diverted past the left post.
Home hearts were briefly in mouths when Buchel spilled Reason’s consequent corner, but Atangana was first to react and emphatically clear his lines.
Lee Bradbury looked to pep up his forward ranks, introducing both Christian Nanetti and Scott Jones into the fray, with Bassele and Kabba knocking off for the day.
Jones wasted little time in posting notice of his power in the air, leaping above Strevens to glance Buchel’s kick out left for Alex Przespolewski – recently on for the always eager and threatening Ciardini. Przespolewski was allowed time to lift his head and assess his options, before hitting an in-swinging ball at the far post that had just too much pace for the advancing Jones and ran behind.
As the game entered its final throes the away side was seeing plenty of the ball, but without constructing any decisive incursion into Havant & Waterlooville territory – or appearing as if likely to. For all the desire to get forward and examine the nerve of a home team desperate to cling on for a full three point haul, a collection of patently fatigued Spitfires’ bodies simply weren’t willing or able to muster a charge.
Indeed, the Hawks are running perilously close to empty themselves, as they continue to defy the odds and plough fruitfully through a backlog of fixtures. Content to see out their lead, here, the hosts’ attacking ambition dwindled as the minutes ticked by. A tame Harris effort, the defender taking Donnelly’s chipped free-kick on his chest at the 18 yard-line and striking beyond the right-post, was the lone late threat on the Spitfires’ goal.
For the visitors’ part, Green over-hit one delivery from the left, before finding his range when skating past Przespolewski and aiming for Peacock in the middle of the box. Buchel, though, rose to claim the centre off the striker’s head. It was enough to see his team over the line, in what had been a derby encounter shorn by tired legs and weary minds of its usual bite.
The victors on the day have little more than 48 hours to recover before, in their determined chase of a play-off spot, they must cross the white line again to take on Maidenhead United. After being treated to a guard-of-honour for their title winning players, and receiving warm applause from all four sides of the ground in acknowledgment of that achievement, Eastleigh will wish their Hampshire rivals well.
All that is left for the Spitfires in this history making season is to welcome Boreham Wood for their forty-second and final match. Then – a party.