EASTLEIGH’s Wembley dream was cruelly shattered at the Silverlake stadium this afternoon as they fell to a slender 1-0 defeat in the FA Trophy quarter-final.
Despite out-classing higher league visitors Cambridge United in the first-half, they were beaten by a 68th minute Luke Berry penalty in front of a 757 crowd. Although manager Richard Hill was disappointed with the result, he was encouraged by the performance from his Conference South promotion chasers and said “if we play like that from now until the end of the season, we will win more than we lose in the league.”
The Spitfires lined-up without striker Craig McAllister but welcomed Stuart Fleetwood back from a four-match ban.
They began the game by forcing two early corners on a boggy surface which passed an early morning inspection thanks to pitch covers and the hard work of club staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly to get the tie on.
Fleetwood gave a first glimpse of his skills on nine minutes, driving towards the left of the area and unleashing a shot which bounced up off a defender and was safely gathered by keeper Will Norris.
A minute later Cambridge’s Kevin Roberts delivered a free-kick from the right which defender Josh Coulson headed well off target.
The first flashpoint of the game came on 11 minutes when Us’ when Tom Champion caught Ben Strevens with a nasty-looking high challenge, provoking anger among the Eastleigh players who were instantly on the scene. After calming things down, Somerset referee Kevin Johnson showed Champion a yellow card.
Eastleigh then enjoyed a purple patch and, but for the ball holding up in the muddy, far end penalty area Yemi Adubade would surely have made more of Jai Reason’s neat assist.
A succession of Michael Green deliveries followed from throw-ins and one cross from the left, which was blocked, prompted cries of hand-ball from the home fans.
By now the Spitfires were all over their lofty Conference Premier visitors. On 25 minutes Fleetwood again made progress down the left and drilled in a decent low ball which Norris was sharply down to gather. The Spitfires continued to look by far the better side with the movement of Reason, Odubade, Strevens and Fleetwood causing Cambridge all sorts of problems.
On 28 minutes right-back Dan Spence sent Odubade scampering off down the right and, having beaten Champion for pace, the razor-sharp winger had a cross headed away at the near post by Coulson.
Fleetwood then dragged a shot wide from distance before the Spitfires produced their best chance of the match so far with 32 minutes gone.
Odubade sent Spence away on the overlap down the right and his cross fell enticingly for Reason in the centre of the six-yard box. But the normally lethal No. 10 failed to get the desired connection amid the mud.
Cambridge made a rare foray into the home half two minutes later but, after good work by Ashley Chamber had forced a corner, they made a total hash of the flag-kick.
Eastleigh were on the front foot again and it took a superb interception by Us skipper Ian Miller to prevent Reason latching onto Odubade’s great curled pass.
On-loan Portsmouth frontman Ryan Bird had the sight of goal for Cambridge on 40 minutes but pulled his shot horribly wide.
Strevens then dug-out an 18-yard shot at the other end after busy play by skipper Glen Southam but Norris was right behind that and a further attempt by Reason as the half entered stoppage time. Cambridge, no doubt fresh from a half-time dressing-down by manager Richard Money, had far more about them at the start of the second half.
Ashley Chambers featured early, delivering a cross which Bird swung a boot at and missed, and then forced a corner.
But his contribution was ended when he was substituted, making way for Us’ top scorer Luke Berry.
Eastleigh’s first two attempts of the half were well off-target – Southam firing wide after a driving run and Strevens heading Fleetwood’s cross over.
On 61 minutes Cambridge’s Mason Arnold got a shot away, but it was too weak to worry Spitfires keeper Ross Flitney who, thus far, had had an untroubled afternoon in the Eastleigh goal.
After Green’s rhythm cross had just evaded Odubade, Eastleigh made a change, withdrawing the winger and throwing on Reece Connolly.
Disaster struck for the Spitfires a minute later when Bird got a free run at goal and was brought down by the exposed Flitney inside the area.
LUKE BERRY stepped-up and slammed the penalty to Flitney’s left for his 12th goal of the season.
The Spitfires responded positively to that 68th minute setback with Spence driving on and picking out Connolly on the right edge of the area, but Norris got across to snuff out the danger. A misplaced pass by Spence gave Cambridge the chance to put Bird through again but this time Flitney stopped him legitimately. No-one looked more determined to try and drag Eastleigh back on terms than skipper Southam, who tested Norris with a fierce, low blast that initially looked like it would squirm away from the keeper.
The next chance came at the other end with Flitney saving Coulson’s firm header from a corner which might have squeezed under the bar. Eastleigh kept pressing, but Connolly was unable to get a shot away on the muddy surface when played in by Reason, and then Reason forced Norris to save at his near post.
The final chance fell to Bird, who again found himself one-on-one with Flitney, but he looked heavy legged as he shot straight at the keeper.