Eastleigh back in the title hunt

Eastleigh’s Ben Strevens picked up a booking for this challenge on Weston’s Kane Ingram.

Eastleigh’s Ben Strevens picked up a booking for this challenge on Weston’s Kane Ingram.

First published in Sport Daily Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Non-league football reporter

EASTLEIGH boss Richard Hill resisted the temptation to get carried away after guiding his side to within six points of the Skrill Conference South summit on Saturday.

With league leaders Bromley conceding ground in a 2-2 home draw with Bath City, the Spitfires cranked up the pressure on Mark Goldberg’s men by beating Weston-super-Mare 3-1 at the Silverlake.

But Hill, whose side have two games in hand and a trip to Bromley to come on April 8, would not be drawn into title talk after second-half goals from Ben Wright, Jai Reason and substitute Craig McAllister had avenged January’s 3-2 set-back at The Seagulls’ Woodspring Park HQ. For weeks the Spitfires were treading water, quite literally, unable to put any pressure on Bromley as time and time again games were called off due to heavy rain.

But having seemingly spent an eternity stuck 11 points behind the Kent table-toppers, two priceless home wins in the space of five days have finally got the swingometer moving in Eastleigh’s direction.

And, suddenly, the title – and automatic promotion – looks more than just a distant dream.

Asked his thoughts on the title race, Hill was unforthcoming, shrugging: “It is what it is. We have 42 games and we’ll finish where we finish.

“But we’ve seen once again today the character of this team.

“From the very start Weston were looking to take the tempo out of the game and I had a word with the referee at half-time about their goalkeeper (Lloyd Irish) who was taking an age on restarts. “In the second half the ref put a bit of pressure on him to hurry up and, once we got that tempo going, it was a different game of football.” Eastleigh’s willing band of staff and volunteers were out in force again on Saturday morning, this time removing ice off the Silverlake surface.

As usual Hill rolled up his sleeves to join them, even finding time to nip into the kitchen and make everyone a bacon sandwich!

By the 38th minute of the first half, however, his good mood had deteriorated.

Having already seen one big chance go begging when Reece Connolly’s shot clattered off the inside of the woodwork, he chucked his water bottle away in frustration when, for the second Saturday running, Jai Reason was foiled from the penalty spot after Weston’s Callum Laird had wrestled Stuart Fleetwood to the ground.

Just as at Farnborough the previous week, Reason struck his shot low to Irish’s left and, once again, the ’keeper read it correctly and dived to parry it away. Connolly was first to the loose ball, but skied it over.

Apart from a dipping shot from distance by Ashley Kington in the 43rd minute, Eastleigh ’keeper Ross Flitney was seldom tested in the first half.

He had even less to do after the break as the Spitfires – superbly spearheaded by on-loan Salisbury City striker Ben Wright – laid siege to the Seagulls’ goal.

Wright so nearly broke the deadlock on 49 minutes, turning inside the area and thundering a ferocious right-foot shot against the crossbar. Reason who, at that stage, was having an unusually wretched game, then dithered too long with only the ’keeper to beat, and was snuffed out by a posse of defenders.

The talented playmaker atoned with a great pass out to the right to Dan Spence whose accurate cross was met with a downward header by Wright which Irish smothered on the line.

Clearly, it was going to take something special to break the deadlock and Wright duly delivered in 59th minute when, following great work by Fleetwood, he weaved in from the right of the area, wrong-footing a succession of defenders, before lashing a close-range shot into the roof of the net. Five minutes later it was 2-0. Reason’s earlier penalty miss became a distant memory as he started and finished a superb passage of play which culminated in him collecting Wright’s return pass on the left of the area and firing left-footed across Irish into the far top corner.

Weston threw a spanner in the works on 71 minutes taking advantage of Flitney’s weak kick. The ball was worked out to Dayle Grubb on the left and his cross was met with a firm back-post header by Chas Hemmings.

McAllister replaced Connolly in the aftermath and it was the substitute who restored Eastleigh’s deserved two-goal advantage, latching onto skipper Glen Southam’s lofted pass and lifting the ball over the stranded Irish from the edge of the area.

Eastleigh centre-back Chris Todd said: “To let Weston score was upsetting for the defenders especially, but we came again and got another goal which showed a lot of character.

“We’re in the business end of the season now and this win was massive.

“We go to Eastbourne on Tuesday and it’s going to be another tough game, we know that. It would be stupid to think any differently.” Tomorrow’s game marks the last of Wright’s one-month loan. Asked if he would seek to prolong it, Hill said: “I’ve not had that conversation with Salisbury yet, but Ben’s a good player – that’s why he’s here.”

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