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Spitfires fire six

WANTAGE TOWN 1-6 EASTLEIGH
Tuesday 16th July

Friendly

Eastleigh were provided with a competitive training contest by their Hellenic League Premier Division opponents in this bucolic Oxfordshire outpost writes Paul McNamara.

The Spitfires settled quickly into the 3-4-3 formation which Richard Hill deployed at kick-off. In particular, the manager’s ability to select the collective craft and experience of Craig McAllister, Ben Strevens, and Jai Reason, to form his forward trio, ensured much of the side’s early attacking play was slick and fluid.

All three are flexible and mobile enough to work across the front-line, with Strevens and Reason both knowing when to drop and link play.

By the time seven minutes had passed, a rout appeared to be on the cards. Reason had already marginally failed to capitalise on a Glen Southam through ball (the skipper was joined in the middle of the park by Jamie Collins), when Dan Spence’s forward surge on the right was picked out by the Number 10.

Spence, who demonstrated an effective willingness to push on all night, had his low cross deflected behind. 

Southam’s subsequent corner into the heart of the penalty area was met by a forceful Chris Todd header, which flew into the net past the outstretched left arm of Wantage ‘keeper Steve Howe.

Almost instantly, Todd was in action at the other end. The centre-half – operating between Will Evans and Dean Beckwith – came off second best as Richie Guy bustled onto Joel Meade’s high forward ball. The young striker, however, could only scuff a weak shot into Ross Flitney’s hands.

Eastleigh responded to that let-off in the best possible manner. Reason took a sharp throw-in to Strevens on the right. The livewire attacker slid the ball left to Collins, who in turn moved play on to Michael Green. The seasoned full-back was rewarded for his foray from a more advanced starting role, when his low left footed strike sneaked inside Howe’s near post.

With the home side struggling to find any degree of composure, more visiting chances came and went.

Reason opted against sending a right-sided set-piece into a packed box, instead slipping the ball across to Southam. The skipper’s left-footed strike flew wastefully over.

It was Evans’ turn to have a dig at the next free-kick – awarded when Alfredians centre-back Meade misjudged a ball sent in his direction, and was forced into using his hand to prevent Reason from breaking clear. Evans shot was slammed into a defensive wall – the requirement for more Spitfires’ guile at set pieces around the opposition box prevails.

Wantage’s forward, Jimmy Deabill, was intent on making his hefty presence felt on matters and, after he had accomplished his aim on a physical level with a primitive challenge on Green, the thick-set Number 9 picked up Todd’s loose defensive header and hit a dipping right-footed 25-yard effort which forced Flitney to tip past his right-hand post.

When the ensuing flag-kick was flicked on by Guy, Sam Elkins found himself completely free at the back-stick, only to snatch at a volley which drifted harmlessly wide. That moment provided further evidence of some confusion among the three man backline, a feature of the game apparent from early-on.

Buoyed by gaining a foothold in events – and perhaps assisted by a dip in the Spitfires’ intensity – the home team were growing more comfortable. That extended to some heavy-handed tackling – specifically, one Tom Melledew tag on Reason which sent Eastleigh’s key playmaker spinning to the floor in the manner of a giant tree felled by an expert axe-wielder.

As Alfredians confidence spiked, Elkins, and the extremely impressive and adaptable Danny Lachacz, combined cleverly on the right for the former to hit a low cross which Beckwith could only deflect towards his own goal, so requiring Flitney to drop smartly to his left and push behind.

When Elkins was caught slightly out of position by Southam’s ball into the inside-left run of McAllister, the full-back recovered to hook clear of Eastleigh’s prowling target-man.

Reason was the next visiting player to bear down on his opponents’ goal, collecting Green’s left-sided throw, and jinking inside, before sending a low drive past the left upright.

During a halt in play, both teams retreated to their dug-outs for an impromptu water break. It would be of little surprise if Richard Hill took that chance to urge his men to re-locate the passing rhythm which, after their bright start, had been replaced by a more hurried approach – and consequently, too many wayward forward balls being struck.

Despite the coarse grass which covered the Alfredian Stadium pitch – the type of semi-rough that Woods, McIlroy, and Poulter et al will seek to avoid this week – whenever the Spitfires were zipping the ball between one another their superiority was glaring.

Around the half-hour mark, Eastleigh’s manager tweaked his line-up. Evans moved into the centre of the park to join Southam and Collins, with Green and Spence dropping their starting positions slightly to become more authentic full-backs.

That change came at no cost to Spence’s attacking drive, and another fine delivery was steered away from McAllister by the alert Meade. Todd’s attempt to repeat his earlier goal-scoring feat, from Southam’s resultant corner, proved futile, as he could only make minimal contact on the rising set-piece and watched on as the ball drifted away to safety.

Yet another low Spence cross was fortunately deflected into Howe’s arms by a flailing defensive leg but, still, Wantage wouldn’t be cowed. Seconds prior to that escape, Deabill’s strong headed effort, on a ball clipped in from his left, was only fractionally too high.

Elkins once more demonstrated his sureness of foot, neatly stepping inside Evans and sliding a ball ahead of him into Luka Riccio. The midfielder sought to play in Guy, but a spritely Flitney beat the rushing forward to the ball.

When the home team got on the score-sheet it was a praiseworthy strike, and befitting of their positivity. 

After Evans had been brushed aside on halfway, the industrious Guy determinedly held off Beckwith at the edge of the Spitfires’ area, and laid a ball into the path of Melledew, who hit a lifting first-time strike which flashed beyond Flitney and high into the right of the goal.

The single-digit margin in score held through to the interval – Eastleigh’s only further threat coming from Collins’ long pass in McAllister’s direction, which skipped off the hard surface and away from the pursuing attacker.

Aiming to increase the game-time in his players’ legs, Richard Hill made just the one half-time change, Damian Scannell replacing McAllister.

Melledew started the second 45 minutes by fashioning another opening for himself. After coming out on top of a 50/50 tussle with Spence, the tenacious midfielder had his curling attempt on goal crowded out by Todd.

The visitors’ renewed composure was conspicuous early in the half, and a move which began with Flitney rolling the ball out to Evans’ feet nearly reaped full dividend. When Southam took Evans’ pass, and strove to pick out Scannell’s direct run, Howe was called-on to race to his 18 yard-line and head clear of the attacker.

Just minutes later, Reason provided the match’s stand-out strike. Taking the ball off Spence on the right, the playmaker calmly cut inside and struck a delicious curling left-foot effort which nestled in Howe’s top right-corner.

Admirably, the Alfredians continued to pose questions of their own. Melledew sent a gloriously unerring cross-field pass into Lachacz on the right touchline. When the ever-aware winger fed the ball into the dashing Elkins, the right-back’s attempt drew another solid stop from Flitney, who pushed the crisp strike away from his goal.

Scannell’s eager influence was growing, as he bedded into his part of an attacking triad. After the former Southend man was found on the left by Southam, he launched a deep cross which Evans returned for Reason, in oceans of space, to volley over.

It was Reason’s pass into Spence on the right which preceded a terrific piece of forward play from the silky defender. Spence carried the ball, waiting calmly for the perfect moment to thread an intricate pass behind Meade and into Southam’s path. The Spitfires’ captain was resultantly free to fire a cross-shot which found Scannell unmarked at the back-post, from where he completed the easiest of finishes into an empty net.

With an hour on the clock, Richard Hill made six changes, a move which, as the manager himself conceded, played a major part in allowing a fresh batch of motivated and fit bodies to dictate the remainder of the play.

One of the newly introduced men, Sam Wilson – playing in a striking pair with trialist Jack Ross as part of a more rudimentary 4-4-2 – was rapidly into the action, his touch just failing him as he looked to pounce on Scannell’s threaded pass into the Alfredians’ box.

Collins was one of the few to complete 90 minutes (Southam – who again went about his work with remarkable fervour, and was lucky to avoid talking his way into the book, Todd, and Reason being the others). The new midfield man finished the match at left-back, from where he demonstrated good energy-levels and no let-up in the Spitfires’ desire to get their wide defenders into opposition territory. After gathering Southam’s ball, the summer acquisition burst forward, exchanging passes with Scannell, before delivering a looping cross which grazed the top of the bar and bobbled free of danger.

After Wilson and Ross combined efficiently, the Oxford youngster’s first-time pass allowed Scannell a sight of goal – his low dig being diverted past the post by a swift defensive block.

Melledew’s appetite for combat hadn’t dulled, and he sent Romone Rose – another Eastleigh trialist, and occupying a right-wing berth – crashing to the turf with a bone-shuddering, and fair, challenge.

Nevertheless, all the attacking intent and guile on display was now coming from the visitors. Sanchez Ming – the third of the evening’s Spitfires’ hopefuls – swept forward from right-back, traded passes with Rose, and whipped over a menacing delivery which Mark James resolutely headed clear.

Ross then became the second Spitfire on the night to hit the woodwork. The striker took a pass from Reason and, from an inside-left position, sent his attempt across Howe and onto the base of the upright.

Howe’s intervention was necessary to prevent the next Eastleigh attempt ending up in his net. After a ball broke loose in the home box, Reason’s close range shot brought a superb reflex stop from the ‘keeper, who managed to scramble the ball up onto his bar and over.

The stopper, and his rear-guard’s weary legs, could do no more to prevent the away team adding a real sheen to the eventual result.

A fifth Spitfires strike arrived through the head of Rose, who stole in front of a flat-footed defender and deftly applied his head to Scannell’s in-swinging left-sided cross. The ball drifted across Howe and low into the right-corner of goal.

Scannell was central to the game’s final meaningful business, tricking his way into space on the left and feeding Collins’ latest over-lap. The ex-Havant & Waterlooville man’s drilled delivery from the by-line was met at the back stick by Ross, who tapped in to complete the scoring.

Overall, this was another good workout, against whole-hearted opponents who approached their task with some steel and a touch of laudable adventure. 

Furthermore, the ultimate object of these games was achieved. Richard Hill had an opportunity to learn more about the individuals at his disposal, while continuing to work towards a target of hitting the ground running next month.

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