‘4-0 and you f***ed it up, 4-0 and you f***ed it up’ chant the handful of Hayes & Yeading’s travelling supporters congregated behind the home sides goal; referring to the last meeting between the two sides in 2009 for the Conference South Play off semi-final when Eastleigh having won the first leg at Hayes & Yeading’s Church Road ground 4-2 – at one point leading 4-0 – contrived to lose the return leg 4-0 after extra time, 6-4 on aggregate. On that sunny May afternoon a game which many of the 1445 assembled spectators who turned up expected to be a victory parade for an Eastleigh side which had only suffered two home defeats all season turned into the ultimate comeback tale thanks, in no small part, to the Hayes & Yeading 2nd choice ‘keeper Delroy Preddie whose heroics kept Eastleigh at bay and whose penalty save late in the first period of added time finally extinguished any lingering hopes that the home side may yet stage a rally.
Hayes & Yeading would then go on to defeat Hampton & Richmond in the play-off final, and manage somewhat impressively to cling on for three seasons in the Conference, whilst Eastleigh never quite re-captured the form which got them to the play-offs finishing the subsequent seasons in 11th, 8th and 12th place respectively. It seemed that Eastleigh were destined to be a mid-table side – which is what looking at attendance figures for the division they should be however, towards the end of last season they were taken-over by new owners, Bridle insurance, who seemed to have big ambitions for the club and a willingness to provide the financial backing to achieve it.
It was these great expectations which led to the downfall of the manager Ian Baird, who had led Eastleigh when the two clubs last met. Over the summer Baird, with Bridles backing, assembled an entirely new, and expensive looking, first team squad many of whom, such as striker Craig McAllister who helped Crawley to promotion from the Conference, had experience at a higher level. Eastleigh were duly installed as favourites to win the Conference South and duly failed to live up to the hype, losing four of their first seven games. The final straw it seems was a 4-0 defeat to newly promoted Billericay Town and the new owners wasted little time in appointing former Stevenage Town boss Richard Hill as manager – a move which so far seems to have paid off as Eastleigh look to be back on track winning their first two games under Hill.
At this point I should mention that I’ve been coming to Eastleigh for a while – since the Wessex League days when ‘Ten Acres’, as it was then known, consisted of little but a small stand, clubhouse and a huge row of leylandii along the far-side of the pitch from whose clutches you would often have to retrieve the ball. For the past few seasons I’ve visited fairly regularly until last season when work, family and writing a dissertation meant I had few opportunities to get along to football and only managed to show up for one game, the match against Truro.
I still followed the club, checking into the forum from time-to-time, but our relationship had changed; Easleigh became like one of those Facebook friends who even though you may view their profile, wish a happy birthday, or comment on the occasional status update you wouldn’t say hello if you ever came face-to-face in a supermarket aisle. I also began to feel uncomfortable about what I was seeing and hearing about the take-over, not just because of the suspicions aired in various quarters that it will all end in tears as has happened elsewhere where clubs with modest attendances start spending big amounts on transfer fees and wages, buying success in the short term at the price of, in some cases, their very future. It was more something about the ambition, the talk of League football and 7 500 all-seater stadiums, that troubled me.
James Goldsmith once famously remarked ‘when a man marries his mistress it creates a job vacancy’ – The problem was what I liked about Eastleigh was the fact that it was a non-league club and now it seemed this was going to be changing – things would be getting more professional. I’ll also admit I’ve been wandering. For the final match of last season I went to Westleigh Park and I liked it, a cardinal sin for any Eastleigh fan. This season I’ve been ground-hopping around the likes of Horndean, Portchester and Locks Heath, not to mention drooling over pics of Gosport’s Privett Park ground with it’s characterful old stand.
The only thing to do I decided is to go along in person and have a face to face with Eastleigh. Could our relationship be rekindled, or should we both now go our seperate ways?
Arriving at the Silverlake Stadium I find there is a new VIP entrance, which I briefly cause an issue by trying to use, there being none of this sort of thing last time I showed up. After a brief moment of hesitation from the man on the turnstile my £12 is taken and I’m allowed to pass where I’m accosted by two girls selling programmes. The programme too has changed, it’s much glossier and better presented with graphics and nicely laid out pages, more like the ‘matchday magazines’ of league clubs, or a corporate sales brochure. Gone are the idiosyncratic rambling descriptions of that days opponents history which stretched over far more pages than the average attention span, but then their enthusiastic anorakiness had something endearing about it.
Having been at work all morning I’m starving so waste no time in heading over to the food trailer. I order some chips expecting, as one of the first customers of the afternoon, to be told to wait as the chips have just been put on, but instead a meagre handful of chips are scooped from the bottom of the fryer where they’ve been festering for God knows how long by a frowning girl and shoved into a paper cone which she appears to have some trouble assembling. The chips are the worst I have ever tasted, and that’s saying something for a football ground. They have the hue of a perma-tanned wag after a two week beach holiday in Marbella and half are inedible. I want to take them back and demand a fresh batch, but in my hungry state I’ve already wolfed down a load. For my stomach though it’s a case of out of the frying pan and into the deep-fat fryer – the hunger has been temporarily sated, but it doesn’t feel good.
I walk back round to my usual spot on the far side of the pitch, past the new executive members club with its be-suited dignitaries and ladies in their finery, past some wags and past supporters in replica shirts. The matchday Compere is doing a quiz where a home fan is competing with a visiting fan to win a voucher for a meal. The away fan wins. Music plays from the P.A system and as I reach my spot a bunch of kids on the pitch manoveure into position flanking the players entrance holding aloft their Eastleigh F.C flags. It all seems a world away from Locks Heath and my recent travels.
According to the programme notes many of the players have had a fair amount of pro-experience and it shows as the game gets underway with plenty of skill and athleticism on display. The football is good – There’s jinking runs, crisp passing and solid tackling from both sides, but it’s Eastleigh who get the first goal after 29 minutes and who hold out until half time despite coming under increased pressure. In the second half the pressure continues, but Hayes & Yeading’s attacks become noticably less potent and a superbly worked goal puts Eastleigh two ahead on 69 minutes. Now chasing the draw the visitors seem to loose heart and the game loses some of its lustre which isn’t regained even when a Hayes & Yeading goal does come on 84 minutes to reduce the deficit.
I wander over behind the goal on the far-side to take some pictures from a different vantage point and to try to get some of the Hayes and Yeading goalkeeper James Beasant, nephew of former Wimbledon and Southampton ‘keeper Dave Beasant. From the distance I am there seems to be quite a resemblance between the two and I’m struck by a vision of a witty caption for my write-up.
I briefly pause, just for a moment, among the die-hard fans behind the goal. A drum beats and the fans take turns to sing their songs and heckle the younger member of the Beasant goalkeeping clan. I recognise a few faces poking out of the Dickensian fug of smoke emanating from one of fans roll-up cigarette; they’re the sort who show up to every game for years on end whatever the weather or the results – this is their team. I feel like an interloper.
Suddenly Eastleigh surge forward, Jai Reason, scorer of the first goal, is bearing down on a superbly weighted ball played into the box. Beasant sees the danger and races out. There is a moment of tension as fate decides who will reach the ball first. Its Reason. He cooly chips the ball over Beasant sending it arcing into the centre of the goal. The die-hards are delirious as the Eastleigh players, for the third time, rush over to them.
On the basis of this performance Eastleigh look certain contenders for promotion to the Conference, and then who knows? Maybe even the football league and that 7 500 all-seater stadium will all become a reality. If so I can only wish the club and its supporters all the best.
I walk back towards to the exit. Halfway round I notice that the scarves worn by the Eastleigh fans have changed colour. The scarf I am wearing is dark blue and white – the old colours, but the new scarves sported by fans around the pitch are sky blue. Things change.