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Hill celebrates new contract with Trophy win
WHEN the final whistle sounded at just after 4.45pm at the Silverlake Stadium yesterday, the overwhelming emotion was that these are great days to be an Eastleigh fan.
Not only had the Spitfires marched into the last 16 of the FA Trophy by outclassing a Gateshead side sitting in the top ten of the league above, but tucked away on page five of the matchday programme was positive news about manager Richard Hill.
After 16 impressive months at Stoneham Lane, the 50-year-old ex-Wycombe, Aston Villa and QPR assistant boss has signed his first contract for the Skrill Conference South high fliers, allaying fears that he might be tempted to link up again with his big buddy John Gregory at Crawley Town.
After watching exquisite strikes from Jamie Collins and Stuart Fleetwood book Eastleigh a third round ticket for only the second time in their Trophy history, Hill – fresh from penning a minimum 18-month deal at the Silverlake – lauded his team’s performance as “brilliant”.
Even without two of his most trusted rearguard generals – goalkeeper Ross Flitney (eye infection) and vastly experienced centre-back Dean Beckwith (thigh strain) – Eastleigh’s commander-in-chief came up with a game plan that brought down one of his all-time footballing heroes.
As a life-long Leicester City fan, Hill holds Gateshead boss and ex-Foxes midfielder/defender Gary Mills in the highest esteem.
But Saturday was no time for sitting star-struck in the dugout and, in the second half in particular, Hill saw to it that Eastleigh got the measure of a Tyneside outfit who arrived at the Silverlake with a reputation for playing good passing football.
“Today you’ve seen what a good side we are,” smiled Hill.
“Gateshead work you and they pass the ball, but from the start we encouraged the lads to squeeze the space down, get into their space and deny them the chance to play.”
Jai Reason was arguably the brightest star in the Eastleigh galaxy, playing a crucial part in both goals.
But with all due respect to the talented playmaker recently linked with Leyton Orient, Hill wasn’t interested in highlighting individuals.
“Jai did fantastic for the goals, but you’ve still got to score them,” he said. “Today was all about the team.
“The attitude was very good and all 11 of the lads who started and the subs who came on were brilliant.
“You’d like to think this will give us confidence for Tuesday’s league game at Dover. If we conduct ourselves like we have this week and last in training, we’ll have every chance.
“I had some big decisions to make on the team and fortunately they came off.”
Those decisions included leaving attacking left-back Michael Green on the bench and charging Dan Spence with nullifying Gateshead’s threat down the right.
Damian Batt had one of his best performances in an Eastleigh shirt in the right-back role and, in Beckwith’s absence, 22-year-old midfielder Will Evans cut an authoritative figure alongside Chris Todd in central defence where, ultimately, his future may lie.
Behind him, ex-Saints youngster Jack Dovey coped well in place of Flitney as the Tynesiders gradually upped the first-half pressure after Eastleigh had started the brighter.
But, aside from a James Marwood header which flashed narrowly over, the visitors produced nothing too nerve-racking for a somewhat disappointing 330 crowd and it was Eastleigh who took the lead in the 33rd minute.
Heed ’keeper Adam Bartlett saved solidly from Ben Strevens but was guilty of a poor throw which came to Collins. He passed it short to Reason who returned it with a cheeky back-heel, leaving the former Conference Premier midfielder to exquisitely curl in a first-time shot from just inside the box.
Eastleigh’s second on 73 minutes was another diamond strike.
Reason was again the architect, pick-pocketing Gateshead skipper Ben Clark as he momentarily dwelt on the ball inside the area.
Ben Strevens chested it back to Reason who laid it off for Fleetwood to steer home from 18 yards.
It was no more than Eastleigh deserved for the sheer quality of their second-half show against a Gateshead side who have won more away games (six) than anyone else in the Conference Premier.
Indeed, the visitors arrived having only lost one of their last seven away Conference games, and that in the last minute at Wrexham.
Prior to Fleetwood giving them breathing space, Yemi Odubade should have punished his old club, but Bartlett blocked, and in the closing stages Fleetwood and skipper Glen Southam could have built on the lead.
Gateshead had a couple of good chances at the death, but Spence intervened to deny Colin Larkin what looked a certain goal before Dovey tipped Marwood’s net-bound free kick over.
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