EX-SAINT Dan Harding has opened his heart about his decision to retire from professional football at the age of 31 and join Eastleigh’s quest for promotion from the Vanarama National League.

Harding, who is expected to make his league debut for the Spitfires at Southport on Saturday, has over 350 Football League appearances to his credit with Brighton & Hove Albion, Leeds United, Ipswich Town, Southend United, Reading and Southampton on his impressive CV.

He ended last season on loan at Millwall from Nottingham Forest before becoming a free agent this summer.

Portsmouth were one of several Football League clubs to come in for him, but Harding is still a Saints fan and admitted: "I just couldn't bring myself to do it." 

The Gloucestershire-born left-back openly admits that some aspects of professional football have “grated” on him over time and he is looking forward to getting the enjoyment factor back with Eastleigh.

In a frank interview released by the club, Harding said: “At the end of last season if you would have asked me, I would never have thought I would be retiring from full professional football at age 31.

“Early on I had a few offers from different clubs, one being Portsmouth. Don't get me wrong, Portsmouth is a big club and I would imagine they are going to do very well this season, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

“I had the best three years of my life at Saints and I still consider myself a fan. It would not have felt right for me to sign for them.

“Richard (Hill, Eastleigh boss) said he was happy for me to come and train with him and the lads until I found the right club for me.

“If I am honest I never expected to enjoy it as much as I did.

“The facilities are very good and all the staff, manager and players were amazing and made me feel very welcome.

“During this time I was approached by four Championship managers.

“On more than one occasion I had talked for great lengths of time with these managers about signing, been ready to go and sign for them only for them to disappear off the radar and never answer a call again.

“There is no honesty or respect in football and that’s something that grates on you over time. “I guess as the summer went on I started to realise what I already knew deep down that I wasn't happy anymore.

“I just wanted to play and enjoy it and I hadn't done that for a good few years.

“I want a manager to decide if I am good enough. The one who watches me train week in week out not a chairman.

“I had some more offers from league one clubs and I am sure some people will think I am crazy not staying in the leagues as long as possible and it wasn't a decision I took lightly.

“But the truth is I have a young family who have supported me and followed me around the country for the last ten years and this year we have had to deal with an incredibly tough time after being told one of our twin girls wouldn't make it to birth. “Unfortunately she passed away when my wife was 26 weeks pregnant and we are waiting for both our girls to be born in the next four weeks.

“It makes you reflect even more on what's important. And if I was asking everyone to move five hours from home it would need to be for my love of football and not money and unfortunately that has been drained out of me.

“Again it didn't seem right. I will never forget the career I have had and I am really proud of it.

“My memories of two promotions with Southampton were the stuff dreams are made of.

“Not only for the whole experience but the squad of players we had over those years.

“As a player you couldn't have asked for more and I am still close with lots of them now. “Although I consider myself retiring from league football that doesn't mean I am not fully committed to Eastleigh.

“I will continue to give them 100% week in week out and remain focused on the task in hand, which is as it's been at every club I have been at, promotion.

“It just means now I get a bit more time to focus on other projects which I have never had time to do before.

“I am also going to be doing some coaching at the academy so that is another challenge I am really excited about.

“If you have never been to Eastleigh before I would recommend it to any fan of football, young or old.

“It is a fantastic club that is run properly from top to bottom.

“I cannot speak highly enough of Richard and Stewart (Donald, chairman/owner) and how they have treated me during my time here so far.

“The honesty of both of them is worth its weight in gold.

“I am really looking forward to the next chapter in my life and getting back to enjoying playing football again.”