EASTLEIGH boss Ben Strevens would be “surprised” if returning fans’ favourite Sam Matthews was not in his starting line-up for Saturday’s home game against Hartlepool United (3pm).

With the play-off race entering the home straight, Strevens believes the 22-year-old, signed on loan from Bristol Rovers for the rest of the season, can provide the creative spark to help push the Spitfires over the line.

A flat 1-0 home defeat to Barrow last time out, albeit in wretched conditions, gave the boss food for thought and he will be encouraging his side to be a bit more adventurous in the coming weeks.

With two previous loan spells at the club behind him, former AFC Bournemouth winger/midfielder Matthews – described as a “very, very technical player” by his Bristol Rovers boss Graham Coughlan – has a wealth of skill and trickery to bring to the Eastleigh party.

“It’s been pretty easy for Sam to settle into the group because he already knows 80 per cent of the lads and even those who don’t know him have been told by the others what a good little player he is,” said Strevens.

“Getting Sam in is a lift for the supporters because it tells them that we’re having a real good go at reaching the play-offs.”

Despite a two-week break from action, Eastleigh have remained static just inside the play-off zone in seventh.

Results have gone in their favour with Sutton, now tenth, caned 3-0 at Chesterfield last weekend and eighth-placed Ebbsfleet held 0-0 at Halifax on Tuesday.

Both Ebbsfleet and Gateshead, ninth, lurk two points behind the Spitfires, but Stevens’ men – home again to Barnet next Tuesday (7.45pm) – have two/one games in hand on their rivals.

Eastleigh’s players were given three days to recharge their batteries last weekend but, as ever, Strevens was busy scrutinising upcoming opponents.

“I don’t know how much you learn because this league’s so unpredictable, but at least results have gone fairly well for us,” he said.

“We’ve got a game in hand over Gateshead and I’m not saying Sutton are out of it, but their result last weekend and what’s going on there (manager Paul Doswell stepping down for the rest of the season) means it’ll be tough for them.

“Ebbsfleet have played two games more than us, but we can’t rely on games in hand, we’ve got to get wins.

“Above us, Harrogate (defeated 1-0 by Salford on Wednesday) and Fylde (beaten 2-0 at Orient) are in touching distance.”

With skipper Danny Hollands (ankle) the only slight injury doubt, Strevens has some serious thinking to do about how Eastleigh will line up against 12th-placed Hartlepool.

“For the first time in a long time pretty much everyone’s fit and available,” he said.

“Away from home we’ve done well, but our home form is a bit mid-tableish, if I’m honest, so we’ve got to decide how we can be better at home.

“I don’t want to lose a tight game 1-0 again, I’d rather be a bit more attack-minded. We’ve worked on it during the week and hopefully it’ll come right on Saturday.”