PROUD Eastleigh boss Richard Hill saluted his players after Saturday’s “proficient, professional performance” at Gateshead had kept them in the thick of the Vanarama Conference play-off chase.

The Spitfires finished off a daunting block of eight February/March fixtures with a priceless 3-2 win at the International Stadium on Tyneside, making it 16 out of 24 points collected.

That, Hill revealed, is two points better than the target he set his players when that killer sequence started against Chester on February 21.

Two James Constable goals and one from player/assistant boss Craig McAllister saw the Spitfires safely past a gutsy Gateshead side who are themselves on the fringes of the playoffs despite a crippling injury list running into double figures.

By Hill’s own admission, it was a game his side could well have lost but, with the previous week’s 2-1 defeat at Grimsby still hurting, Eastleigh again showed that an amazing capacity to clamber straight back up whenever they stumble.

“Once again we haven’t lost two on the spin and that’s the way we’ve gone about our business since I’ve had my team around me over the last two seasons,” said the boss.

“It’s the sign of a good team with a lot of resilience and a good attitude.

“This string of eight games is the hardest I’ve ever experienced in relation to the league I’ve been in. 

“Originally we were supposed to play Halifax too and I told the lads then that our target was 16 points from nine games. I moved that down to 14 from eight when Halifax was called off and, going up to Gateshead, we already had 13. But our players weren’t happy with that, they wanted 16.

“This win was probably better than Bristol Rovers away. It was a long way to go, the crowd was a lot smaller and there wasn’t a lot of atmosphere, which wasn’t Gateshead’s fault, it’s just how the stadium is.

“But Gateshead’s fans clapped us off the pitch at the end, which is a first for me. Normally we come off to a barrage of abuse!

“A mention for our fans too. I think there were 51 of them and it’s not a cheap place to go and it’s time-consuming too. We get good support and I told the players to recognise that at the end.”

Constable opened the scoring on 26 minutes after latching onto a slide rule pass by Brian Howard who, Hill felt, had his best game in an Eastleigh shirt.

The Heed hit back, rattling the woodwork, before Michael Rankine headed a 32nd-minute leveller.

Constable was in the thick of it again on 74 minutes when his diving header was superbly kept out by Gateshead’s on-loan Joel Dixon.

But Dixon was powerless to stop it running to McAllister who restored the lead with 16 minutes to play.

It got even better for Eastleigh on 83 minutes when Constable struck again from another slick Jack Midson pass and only the bar prevented him completing his hat-trick. Gateshead kept going and narrowed the deficit with a late Jon Shaw header from a corner.

Hill stuck with the same 11 throughout, admitting: “I considered a substitution at 1-1 to make us a bit more offensive, but then we scored two goals quickly.

“I knew they’d end up having a fair amount of possession towards the end and felt it was better to leave players on who were used to the tempo.

“I’m aware we played Gateshead at a good time. Phil Turnbull, John Oster and Adam Bartlett (all injured) are three big players for them and you’ve got to give (manager) Gary Mills credit, they pushed us all the way.

“But we did everything we needed to do going away to a place like Gateshead. I’m more than pleased we’ve come through this eight-game spell averaging two points a game.”

With Woking also winning, Eastleigh remain seventh and go into Easter two points outside the play-offs with a game in hand over the Cards and fifth-placed Forest Green.