“THEY’RE second in their league, we’re second in ours, and we’ll see how big the gap is.”
Those were the words of Eastleigh manager Richard Hill prior to Saturday’s big FA Trophy quarter-final examination against a classy Cambridge United side pushing for promotion from the Conference Premier.
Sadly for an expectant 757 crowd, the Spitfires failed the test, a 1-0 defeatshattering their dreams of extending their best ever Trophy run all the way to Wembley.
But the hugely encouraging news from Hill’s perspective was that the gap between his Conference South title chasers and their lofty visitors was barely noticeable in all but that killer final ball.
Rather like Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, Eastleigh are awash with creative players but, as their ‘goals for’ tally of 34 in the league suggests, they don’t always get the return their abundance of attacking flair merits.
Ultimately, it cost them dear on Saturday as Cambridge – distinctly second best for the first 45 minutes – turned in a professional second-half display to squeeze through to the semis thanks to a Luke Berry penalty.
Taken down Eastleigh goalkeeper Ross Flitney had been a largely peripheral figure until the fateful 67th minute when Cambridge’s on-loan Portsmouth frontman Ryan Bird burst through on goal and was taken down by the Spitfires No1.
Midfielder Berry, the Us top scorer, stepped up to slam the spot kick to Flitney’s left just 15 minutes after coming on as a substitute.
Try as Eastleigh might to summon up an equaliser, Berry’s 12th goal of the season was enough to break the hearts of the Spitfires who, Hill felt, had matched Cambridge almost every step of the way but lacked that decisive bit of quality in the final third.
“Full credit to my lads, it’s been a great cup run and we can take heart from it. We battled to the very end, but I’m just a little disappointed because I feel we’ve missed an opportunity today,” he said. “I just felt we could have done a little bit more in certain areas, especially in the second half, but when we needed that bit of quality – that last pass or that cross into the box – it wasn’t quite there.
“Credit to Cambridge, they’ve come here and been very professional and you’ve seen the difference between the two leagues today. The difference was that final ball. “If we could have scored in the first half, I think we’d have gone on and won the game.”
Once again Eastleigh’s hard-working band of staff and volunteers did wonders to get the game on after another week of heavy rain.
The saturated Silverlake pitch held up well under the circumstances and, although the boggy penalty areas were a hindrance to both teams, it was Eastleigh who appeared to suffer more.
It looked for all the world as if they would open the scoring on 32 minutes when Yemi Odubade sent Dan Spence scampering away on the overlap down the right.
The full-back delivered a perfect cross to ex-Cambridge man Jai Reason in the centre of the six-yard box but, much to the relief of United goalkeeper Will Norris, he failed to get a clean hit on it.
Cambridge manager Richard Money ruffled a few feathers earlier this season when he suggested the Trophy should become a midweek competition with no replays to avoid it interfering with the league.
At times in the first half, the Us players looked as if it was of secondary interest to them too. But they emerged a far more determined unit after the break and, once they had got their noses in front, they defended their lead superbly.
Just wide Ben Strevens went as close as anyone to levelling for Eastleigh, sending a downward header just wide from Stuart Fleetwood’s cross.
But, with a bit more composure, Bird could have struck at the other end and Us defender Josh Coulson forced a smart save from Flitney with a header from a corner.
Money had forecast a testing afternoon for Cambridge at Stoneham Lane – and they certainly got one.
Lavishing praise on the Spitfires, he said: “This was a tough, tough game, let’s get that right.
“All Eastleigh’s players are top, top Skrill Conference Premier players.
“If they were in our league now they would be top half.”
Those words can only encourage Hill’s men as they resume their Conference South promotion quest at home to Dover Athletic tomorrow (Tuesday, 7.45).
Hill would not expand on the nature of the injury that ruled targetman Craig McAllister out of Saturday’s squad, but admitted: “We missed him a bit.”