WHEN Richard Hill took his first game in charge of Eastleigh, he oversaw a 4-2 victory over Maidenhead United in front of 506 Silverlake Stadium crowd.

On Saturday there could well be four times that number converging on Stoneham Lane as Hill marks his third anniversary as manager with a top-five showdown against Gateshead in the Vanarama National League.

Given the Spitfires’ meteoric progress under Hill, it’s wholly appropriate that his milestone day should be celebrated with one of, if not the, biggest crowd of the season as the club opens its doors for another ‘community fixture.’

When Hill was appointed successor to ex-Saint Ian Baird, Eastleigh were labouring seventh off the foot of the Conference South table with seven points from as many games.

Fast forward three years and they are riding high in second in the National League with 17 points from eight games and are well on course to better last term’s stunning fourth-placed finish which carried them into the play-offs at the first attempt.

Reflecting on his time at Eastleigh, Hill, who had spent the bulk of his career assisting the likes of John Gregory and Andy Hessenthaler in the Football League, said: “It’s flown by quite quick, but it does when you’re having fun.

“I still believe that when Stewart (Donald, chairman) appointed me, it was a brave decision. He could have gone with a ‘horses for courses’ manager, one that was fully versed with this level of football at the time.

“I’d just come back from Kazakhstan and Stew could have gone for an easy choice, but he didn’t.”

Donald’s ‘gamble’ on Hill has paid off handsomely with success on the pitch keeping pace with rapid development off it.

Eastleigh have reeled off a whole series of firsts, reaching non-League’s top flight and the second round of the FA Cup for the first time, to name but a couple, and welcoming a record 4,126 crowd through the turnstiles against Macclesfield last season.

“Our fans are always saying access to Stoneham Lane isn’t big enough now – and you wouldn’t have imagined that three years ago!” smiled Hill. “For the club to reach this level of support in such a short space of time is quite a story – and look at the squad we've got.

"A supporter said to me not long ago that he pinches himself looking at the calibre of player we've got.

“There have been one or two lows along the way, but the good times have outweighed the bad and it’s not often that happens in football.

“We've had a lot of fun in three years and we need to try and make sure it carries on that way.”

Hill can’t bank on having a full squad availabel on Saturday as Eastleigh look to bounce back from their first defeat of the season at Barrow.

Paul Reid (leg) and James Constable (ankle) haven’t trained all week, ex-Saint Dan Harding (bug) missed yesterday’s session and Jamie Turley limped out with a slight pull below the knee.

Sittingbourne-based midfielder Andy Drury missed the Barrow trip awaiting the birth of his second child and, with the baby now a week overdue, he is highly unlikely to feature against Gateshead. “There’s nothing more important than family,” said Hill.