EASTLEIGH and Portsmouth football clubs could tonight take another massive step towards the fixture once considered unimaginable – playing each other in a league derby next season!
This time four years ago Pompey were still a Premier League club, playing five divisions ahead of Conference South club Eastleigh.
Pompey were then making regular trips to Eastleigh – to train at the Wellington Sports Centre facilities which are next door to the Spitfires’ Silverlake Stadium home.
Next season Hampshire’s fallen giants could be going back to Stoneham Lane – to play Eastleigh in the Conference Premier, the top tier of English non league.
Last Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat against York, combined with other results, sent Pompey tumbling down to third bottom of the Football League.
If Richie Barker’s men lose at tabletopping Rochdale tonight, and Northampton beat mid-table visitors AFC Wimbledon, Pompey could drop into the fourth division relegation zone on goal difference.
A fourth relegation in five incredible seasons would dump them into non league football and potential games against the likes of Salisbury, Alfreton and Nuneaton.
At the same time, Eastleigh could return to the top of the Conference South, the sixth tier of English football, if they can beat rock bottom Dorchester at the Silverlake.
Richard Hill’s Spitfires dropped back to second at the weekend after drawing 0-0 at Staines – the first league game they failed to score in since last August.
Kent club Bromley returned to the top after crushing Maidenhead 6-1, but Eastleigh are only a point adrift with two games in hand – and both of those games are at home.
Eastleigh have an impressive home record this season, having won 13 of their 16 league games and only losing one.
Only the top club goes up automatically in the Conference South and the Spitfires have their destiny in their own hands.
It is amazing to think that the club who were in the Wessex League as recently as 2003 could be one step away from the Football League in a few weeks time.
Pompey, on the other hand, have never been so low in the Football League, not even when they spent two divisions in the old Fourth Division between 1978-1980.
Manager Richie Barker was brought in last December after Guy Whittingham was sacked with Pompey 17th in the table.
The 2010 FA Cup finalists had started the season as the bookies’ 5-1 favourites to lift the title.
Now they are in real danger of seeing the curtain brought down on their 94-year Football League career.
Barker has only managed to oversee four wins in 18 league games since – all by a 1-0 margin against Dagenham, Wycombe, AFC Wimbledon and James Beattie’s Accrington Stanley.
Saturday’s loss to York, during which captain Ben Chorley was sent off, stretched their winless streak to five games, during which time they have scored just one goal and picked up three points from a hat-trick of 0-0 stalemates.
In Pompey’s last 11 fourth tier games, they have scored just six goals.
It is all a far cry from the club’s glory days, which included an FA Cup final win under Harry Redknapp just six short years ago.
Pompey’s last visit to Eastleigh was for a friendly in the summer of 2007 when their starting XI included former England star Sol Campbell.
At the end of that season, Pompey enjoyed the greatest day of their recent history – winning the FA Cup against Cardiff at Wembley.
Since then, though, a combination of financial mismanagement and subsequent administrations have let to a miserable half-decade of rapid on-field decline.
That could all end up with Pompey in the bottom two later this week, if not tonight, for Northampton are home to Bury this weekend while Pompey are again on their travels.
This coming Saturday they go to Newport County, who just over a decade ago were playing Pompey’s non league neighbours Havant & Waterlooville in the Southern League Premier Division.
Boss Barker has admitted to being shocked at what he’s found at Fratton Park since taking over.
“I thought it would only need small changes to get us back into the top half,” he has remarked.
“Within the first two to three weeks I recognised the changes would have to be fairly big."
“There were 50 players here last year which is bonkers – it's a hell of a turnover.
Wellington Sports Ground, top, where Pompey used to train and Eastleigh's Silverlake Stadium.
“Guy [Whittingham] started in the summer with a blank piece of paper and started from scratch which is not easy. [Former manager] Michael Appleton did likewise. It is no wonder we are where we are.
“A build-up of these things over time is now starting to hit home. It needs some continuity now.
“There needs to be somebody at the helm for a while.
“There needs to be players here for two or three years who become recognisable to the fans.
“The football club has not won back-to-back games all season.
“The football club has not won back-to-back away games for three years. It's been on minor turbulence for three years now.”
Next month’s Easter Monday trip to Northampton could be ultra crucial for Pompey.
Their final game of the season is home to play-off chasing Plymouth at Fratton Park on May 3.
Back in 1983, Pompey beat Plymouth on the final day to win promotion to what is now the Championship.
At the present rate, they might need another win just to prevent Saints ending up as Hampshire’s only club in the top four divisions.
TIMETABLE OF CHANGE
Eastleigh celebrate promotion in 2005
2003: Pompey win promotion to Premier League, Eastleigh win the Wessex League title. There are seven divisions between the pair.
2004: Eastleigh win promotion from the Southern League Eastern Division.
2005: Eastleigh win promotion again, via the Isthmian Premier play-offs. They take their place in
the newly-formed Conference South.
2008: Pompey win the FA Cup and finish eighth, their highest ever Premier League placing.
Eastleigh finish sixth in the Conference South.
2009: Eastleigh lose in the Conference South playoff semi finals.
2010: Pompey, aided by a nine point deduction, finish bottom of the Premier League and lose in the FA Cup final.
2012: Pompey go down again, relegated from the Championship having been docked 10 points for administration offences.
2013: Docked another 10 points for administration reasons, Pompey suffer a third relegation in four seasons. Eastleigh are beaten in the Conference South play-off semi finals.
2014: Eastleigh are favourites to win the Conference South title, while Pompey are only one
place above the League 2 drop zone.