RICHARD Hill went into Saturday’s ill-fated FA Cup tie against Oxford City urging his Eastleigh players to be more clinical in front of goal.
But as he emerged from the wreckage of a 3-2 third qualifying round exit, it was the Spitfires’ defensive shortcomings that were giving him cause for concern.
Ever since Hill addressed Eastleigh’s rearguard problems at the beginning of the year, the Stoneham Lane club have gone from strength to strength in 2013.
They turned a potential relegation scrap into a positive play-off push last season and set their stall out as Skrill Conference South leaders this term.
But the defensive bedrock upon which that success has been built showed signs of crumbling on Saturday as, unbelievably, the Spitfires found themselves 2-0 down inside ten minutes against an Oxford outfit labouring second-to-bottom of the Conference North. With little more than a minute gone, Darren Pond – who had scored twice in City’s 3-1 victory at the Silverlake at the same stage of the competition two years ago – set Tom Winters away down the left.
Benefiting from a ricochet off right-back Damian Batt, the former Brackley wideman centred for Marvin Robinson to thunder a first-time strike into the roof of the Eastleigh net. Within seconds the shell-shocked Spitfires were almost caught again when Jamie Cook’s through ball too easily dissected the back line, leaving goalkeeper Ross Flitney to sweep up the danger as Robinson burst through one-on-one.
Eastleigh responded positively but, just when they appeared to have settled, they were punished again with another Winters-inspired goal.
With Batt out of position and no one getting across to cover, the Oxford dangerman was given the freedom of the Silverlake to deliver another dangerous ball from the left which was buried by Cook at the far post.
Back came Eastleigh on 18 minutes when Batt ventured forward and crossed from the right. Defender Declan Benjamin could only clear as far as the edge of the box where Jamie Collins was waiting to rifle home his first ever Spitfires goal with the aid of a slight deflection. From there the game followed a familiar pattern with Eastleigh dominating possession and playing an easy-on-the-eye brand of football that is fast becoming their trademark.
And it was arguably two of their silkiest players, Jai Reason and Stuart Fleetwood, who combined to haul them back on terms with five second-half minutes gone.
Having worked tirelessly to earn his side a corner, Reason delivered from the right. Collins headed it into the danger zone where the ball broke for Fleetwood to fire home from close range.
That should have been the signal for Eastleigh to stamp their table-topping class on the contest, but Oxford had other ideas.
Mike Ford’s men, who had not won a game all season until knocking out Maidenhead in the last round, were awarded a free-kick deep on the right when Michael Green was penalised for fouling substitute Michael Symonds.
Pond delivered for 35-year-old former Wimbledon, Northampton and Oxford United centre-back Chris Willmott to break Eastleigh hearts by heading his side into today’s fourth qualifying round draw.
“We’ve gone from becoming a very good, hard-working team that’s hard to break down to giving away three very poor goals,” lamented Eastleigh boss Hill, who felt his team were guilty of some “horrible” defending.
“We’re not defending as a unit, we’re defending as individuals and we’ve lost that ‘over my dead body’ attitude that was evident when we played Sutton and Bath,” he added.
“Yes, we had possession, but there was no tempo to it. It was all very laboured and predictable and possession doesn’t equate to goals.
“We’ve been beaten today by a team that’s worked harder than we have and good luck to Oxford in the next round.
“If they (Oxford) played like that regularly they’d be top-six in their league, but they’re another team that I would say don’t play like that every week.
“It doesn’t matter who the teams that come here are playing next, nothing means as much to them as trying to beat Eastleigh.
And he warned: “Our lads have got to get used to that if they want to win anything.
“If they can’t, I’ll have to do something about it.”