Friday 2nd April 2021, 1500 Kick Off
Eastleigh FC vs Chesterfield FC
The Build Up
The start of the Easter Bank Holiday weekend thankfully for the return of a strange and almost forgotten golden orb to the sun, and for the first time it really felt like summer was in the air. With the relaxation of (some) COVID restrictions on Monday, and promises of further deregulation to come, finally things were looking up. As such, I joined the crowds on the now very much un-locked down M3, and headed south to Hampshire for a National League match.
Eastleigh, formed in 1946, have been an ever present in the top flight of nonleague since they were first promoted to this level in 2014 after winning the Conference South, and have been consistently looking upwards ever since they came into being. When Derik Brooks and his mates formed Swaythling Athletic at the Fleming Arms, I doubt they envisaged that 75 years later the club would have risen through the Wessex and Southern Leagues to be challenging for the National League Play Offs. Under manager Ben Strevens the club made history in 2019 when they became the first club ever to qualify for the Play Offs with a negative goal difference, and after a disappointing (and abridged) 2019/20 campaign saw them finish 17th, they have been back in contention this season. Sitting in 9th place ahead of the visit of Chesterfield, a disappointing run of form has returned only one victory in the last six, though they were boosted today by the return of Ryan Hill from an ankle ligament injury.
The visiting Spireites, by contrast, are one of the division’s form sides, with 4 wins from their last six. That run of form under new manager James Rowe has propelled them up the league into 7th, which is of course the hotly contested final Play Off spot. They were only two points above the Spitfires at start of play though, so a loss to Eastleigh would seem them drop down the league and be replaced by their hosts. Buoyed by Akwasi Asante’s hot streak (which has now lasted about three years…) Chesterfield will be feeling confident of continuing their rise up the table, especially given the recent difficulties being experienced by Torquay, and the rumbles of discontent emanating from Nottingham just down the M1. Due to the bizarre vagaries of this COVID-disrupted season, the return fixture was only a month ago, with Asante (of course) bagging the winner in Derbyshire.
Eastleigh started life at Walnut Avenue before moving to Ten Acres in 1957, and then the ground was further developed with floodlights in 1976 and the new Silverlake Stand in 2004, from which the stadium now takes its name. Over time, the stadium has been expanded to its current capacity of 5,500, which more than accommodates last season’s average crowd of 1,832.
It’s an easily accessible ground, being just two minutes off the M27, and has decent parking – half of which is currently taken up with a COVID rapid testing facility, such is the nature of the world at the moment. Across the road, a quaint church is in contrast to the modern Premier Telecom Stand which bears the club’s spitfire crest and houses the impressively stocked club shop.
In the glorious sunshine (though it was still deceptively cold in the shade) it was galling to think of the thousands of people who should have been enjoying the sun in a bumper Bank Holiday crowd. The shuttered pie and burger stands served as yet another reminder of just how empty things feel without fans.
The match was preceded with a minute’s silence for Lee Collins, who tragically passed away on the 31st of March. The Yeovil Town captain, who was 32 years old, had enjoyed a long career in the Football League and National League, and his passing was marked at a number of his former clubs up and down the country.
When the game kicked off there was a frenetic opening few minutes, as Eastleigh had Grant Smith under pressure in the Chesterfield goal almost immediately. The former Boreham Wood and Lincoln stopper uncharacteristically fumbled an early Eastleigh free kick, and Pierce Bird headed the loose ball back towards goal. Smith recovered well from the mistake though and was in position to save the shot.
A minute later, Asante was through on goal, but Andrew Boyce showed good pace to get across and shut him out. After that, the match settled into a somewhat more sedate (some, less kind, observers may have used the word turgid) pace, and the only action of note in the first half was Haydn Hollis being substituted through injury, and Ryan Hill being absolutely poleaxed by a full blooded clearance straight into his face.
Hill, Dan Smith, Sam Smart and Abdulai Baggie did their best to occupy the Chesterfield defence, but there wasn’t a huge amount of supply coming from midfield, yet Eastleigh definitely had the upper hand. On 42 minutes, an Alfie Payne free kick made its way to Ryan Hill who flicked an effort goalwards, but Curtis Weston was well placed to clear off the goal line. This is a good chance to talk about Weston, who is in the running for being the most complete midfielder in this division. Good on the ball, solid defensively, and master of the uncardable foul, he is a real asset to Chesterfield, and especially the system that James Rowe likes to play.
In stoppage time of the first half, Dan Smith battled well against Josef Yarney to secure the knock down, and Baggie recycled possession to Hill. The former Beaver struck from around 25 yards, but Smith made a comfortable stop.
That pretty much brought the half to a close, and it was another typical Chesterfield performance. They didn’t seem to be working particularly hard, and were content to let Eastleigh have more of the ball (just as they had at home to Yeovil a few weeks ago), but had restricted the hosts to half chances in the main. At the other end, with the quality of Tom Whelan, Liam Mandeville (who had come on for Hollis) and Akwasi Asante they probably wouldn’t need many chances of their own to score.
Straight after the half time break, Eastleigh came within an acrobatic goal line clearance of taking the lead, and this time it was centre back Boyce who was denied. When Payne swung the corner in, Boyce got a solid volley on target, but it was blocked by the foot of the post by (I think) Alex Whittle. That, along with the introduction of Nathan Tyson for Joe Rowley, seemed to give the visitors a bit of impetus, and Joe McDonnell soon became the busier ‘keeper.
A good ball into the box came to Whelan at the back post, and Eastleigh’s summer signing from Notts County was forced into a flying save to tip over the crossbar. From the resulting corner, he had to do exactly the same from a Martin Smith effort. It felt like Chesterfield were turning the screw, and going after the solitary goal they tend to need, and so it proved.
The crucial goal came on 61 minutes, and it was Liam Mandeville with his first of the season (which astonished me, considering how good he’s been both times I’ve seen him). A long throw from George Carline – one of the players Rowe brought with him from Gloucester – made it’s way through to Mandeville at the back post, and the Lincoln born forward made no mistake with his first time volleyed finish. 1-0, and when Chesterfield score they tend to win. In fact, the last time they scored and failed to take maximum points was a 2-2 draw against Dagenham & Redbridge on January 30th – 11 games ago.
Mandeville had another chance ten minutes later, which again McDonnell did brilliantly to divert past the post, and I kind of felt that the match was slipping away from Eastleigh. Cavaghn Miley and Tom Bearwish were introduced to try and reverse the flow of the game, but although Tom Blair and Joe Tomlinson did well to get to the byline and cross on occasion, I don’t think the Spitfires forced a save from Smith in the final half hour.
Ultimately, Chesterfield were just too resolute, and as the match wore on, their players were able to clear their lines effectively. Dominant in the air, and with the three centre backs, so difficult to work through in the centre, if anything it was more likely that the visitors would extend the lead. As the referee blew for four minutes’ stoppage time, almost all of them were spent in Eastleigh’s half, with an Akwasi Asante free kick the final action of the game.
The Wash Up
From the moment Chesterfield took the lead, the writing was really on the wall. They simply don’t concede, and it doesn’t tend to matter who plays either. The back three today consisted of Hollis, Yarney and Kerr, with Whittle and Carline flanking. No Will Evans, no Laurence Maguire? No matter, the result is the same. For the 8th time in 11 matches, Chesterfield kept a clean sheet, and took three points.
Eastleigh had been the busier side, particularly in the first half, but a twenty minute spell in the second period had been enough for Chesterfield to take the points. Hill looked bright for the hosts, and Dan Smith battled hard against difficult odds, and had Sam Smart not been forced off with injury at half time then maybe he would have found a way through, but it was not to be. It should be noted as well that without Tyrone Barnett, the attack was lacking its most prolific focal point.
What’s particularly disappointing for Eastleigh, is that Chesterfield didn’t even have to be at their best to win. Asante barely had a sniff, and the Spireites didn’t create a huge amount, but they just kept their half of the pitch so tight. The back three was solid, with Kerr having one of the best games I’ve seen from him, and Yarney’s elbows a real contender for man of the match. George Carline is one of the signings of the season for me as well, whilst Whittle on the opposite flank was equally solid.
The man of the match though was undoubtedly Curtis Weston. His engine is phenomenal, and the 34 year old club captain is the heartbeat of the side. With over 500 career appearances, his experience on the pitch is evident in the way he plays, and one clip of the heels on a breaking Baggie showed just the sort of nous which you want in your side. In a fairly large Chesterfield squad, which has depth in most positions, he’s the one player who can’t really be replicated in my opinion, and with the Spireites now up to 6th, he’ll be crucial if they are to secure a Play Off finish.