EASTLEIGH’S midfield magician Jai Reason went home proudly clutching the match ball signed by all his teammates after conjuring up the first hat-trick of his career.
With two coolly despatched penalties and one exquisitely curled wave of his wand-like right foot, the talented playmaker magically erased the memories of Tuesday’s 3-2 defeat at Weston-super-Mare which had temporarily put the Spitfires’ Skrill Conference South title ambitions on hold.
Four days later Richard Hill’s men kicked off a pivotal week in their season by brilliantly avenging October’s 3-1 loss at Ebbsfleet United with a carbon-copy scoreline at the Silverlake.
For many in the 702 crowd, it went down as Eastleigh’s best home league performance of the season, serving up the perfect appetiser for two huge tests to come - away to table-topping Bromley in the league tomorrow and at home to Conference Premier high-fliers Cambridge United in Saturday’s FA Trophy quarter-final.
“It was a big performance today and we’ve shown what we can do,” said Reason. “As a team we were fantastic. From the first minute, we were straight on it.
“We were all disappointed with Tuesday, but any good team doesn’t lose two in a row.
“It’s a big week for us and we’ve got half a job done so far. Now we’ll see if we can get something at Bromley.”
It was an afternoon when, in the words of manager Hill, Eastleigh “ground the opposition down by sheer hard work and determination to win.”
With Reason’s skill, Yemi Odubade’s pace and Craig McAllister’s physical presence a constant menace to Ebbsfleet’s defence, Eastleigh panicked their third-placed vis itors into conceding two penalties - and, truth be told, they might have had four.
London referee John O’Brien first pointed to the spot after 20 minutes when Reason was sent crashing by Ebbsfleet skip per Paul Lorraine and got up to send goalkeeper Preston Edwards the wrong way from 12 yards.
The visitors responded with a route one leveller on 53 min utes - Michael West nodding on Edwards’ kick to Billy Bricknell who classily lobbed stranded ’keeper Ross Flitney.
But seven minutes later referee O’Brien pointed to the spot for a second time and, on this occasion, it had dire conse quences for Ebbsfleet’s Chris Sessegnon who was sent off.
Dan Spence, terrific at right-back, burst forward and picked out McAllister at the near post. The big targetman got the ball in the net at the second time of asking but, by then, the whis tle had sounded and a penalty awarded for Sessegnon’s desperate handball on the line.
Reason punished ten-man Fleet with another clinically taken spot kick and, as Eastleigh tightened their grip, the ex- Braintree and Cambridge United playmaker completed his hat-trick in breathtaking style.
Following another enterprising burst by Spence, the twin kle-toed No10 paused momentarily on the edge of the box before curling an exquisite right-foot strike inside Edwards’ left-hand post with 73 minutes gone.
By then, the 24-year-old might have had two more from the spot had O’Brien not been quite so lenient.
Just four minutes after netting his second penalty, Reason unleashed a shot that Edwards found too hot to handle and the flustered keeper appeared to catch McAllister as he closed in on the rebound.
Then, as the rain battered down and a fierce gust of wind shook the main stand to its foundations, Ebbsfleet survived another strong-looking shout for Michael Corcoran’s challenge on Odubade.
Reason went off to a hero’s reception with ten minutes to go and Ebbsfleet themselves had a penalty appeal turned down when Anthony Cook went tumbling in the box.
But, in truth, it was wishful thinking by the visitors who had been completely outplayed by an Eastleigh side at the top of their game.
“The performance from everyone was very, very good and we should have had another penalty at least,” said Hill.
Saluting Reason’s hat-trick, Eastleigh midfielder Ben Strevens said: “Jai’s a very good player. He gets into positions for us, creates chances and scores goals. The boys all worked hard today, but Jai’s got it in him to win games on his own.
“It was great to bounce back after Tuesday against one of our main rivals. These are the games you want to play in and it brings out the best in us.”
With Bromley edging Hayes & Yeading 2-1 at home, the Spitfires remain 11 points behind the leaders with three games in hand heading into tomorrow’s eagerly awaited top-two clash.
Eastleigh: Ross Flitney, Dan Spence, Michael Green, Jamie Collins (Reece Connolly, 57), Dean Beckwith, Chris Todd, Yemi Odubade, Glen Southam, Craig McAllister, Jai Reason (Sam Wilson, 80), Ben Strevens. Subs (not used) Jack Dovey, Will Evans, Chris Dillon.
Referee: John O’Brien (London) Attendance: 702