Eastleigh 3 Hartlepool United 2. 

EASTLEIGH’S National League play-off push remained on track with a truly exhilarating 3-2 home win over Hartlepool United this afternoon.

The result keeps the seventh-placed Spitfires two points clear of Ebbsfleet, who have played two games more, and they are now a whopping five clear of Gateshead, surprisingly beaten 2-0 at lowly Braintree.

Midfielder Sam Matthews came straight into the starting line-up at the start of his third spell with the Spitfires and there was a first start for fellow loanee Shaun Hobson from AFC Bournemouth.

But manager Ben Strevens, who had pledged to encourage his side to be more attack-minded, had his pre-match preparations upset by the loss of top scorer Pal McCallum, who injured his thigh in training, and defensive linchpin Reda Johnson who had a quad muscle problem.

Yet, with just 72 seconds on the clock, the Spitfires found themselves ahead.

Wing-back Michael Green pushed on from the off and forced his side a corner on the left.

That led to a second flag kick, this time from the right, and it was expertly worked with Mark Yeates swinging the ball out low to BEN WILLAMSON who nonchalantly placed the ball into the bottom corner from 12 yards.

The feel-good factor from that goal was not to last long, however.

From their first move of note, Hartlepool United were level with just six minutes gone.

MARK KITCHING, a late addition to the starting line-up after Fraser Kerr had been injured in the warm-up, was first to pounce after a 25-yard blast from Luke James had cracked back off the inside of the post.

Three minutes later Eastleigh nearly found themselves behind. Another heartily-struck shot, this time by Liam Noble, was parried by goalkeeper Luke Southwood and, from the follow-up, Luke Molyneux’s angled shot was scraped off the line by Green.

As a thrilling opening continued, it was the Spitfires who got their noses in front with 14 minutes gone.

Again the damage was done from a Yeates corner from the right. This one took the aerial route to Joey Jones who headed down for unmarked defender ALEX WYNTER to stretch and bury for 2-1.

Big saves followed at both ends with Southwood doing outstandingly well to deny Molyneux after the Hartlepool man had brought down a long ball inside the six-yard box.

Then, after another right-sided corner had come back to Yeates, the Irishman’s next delivery was met by a flying header from right wing-back Josh Hare which was superbly blocked out by big Scott Loach in the Pools’ goal.

With both teams intent on attacking, it was always going to be a busy afternoon for the goalkeepers.

And on-loan Reading man Southwood was called upon twice in the space of a minute, first spreading himself well to deny on-loan Havant & Waterlooville striker Nicke Kabamba and then stretching to shovel over skipper Ryan Donaldson’s long-range blast.

Donaldson then tried his luck again from distance with the ball this time drifting wide.

With the late March sun beating down and barely a breath of air inside the Silverlake Stadium, this was chalk and cheese to the wet, windswept 1-0 defeat to Barrow when Eastleigh struggled to create a shot on target during the entire 90 minutes.

Now, with the shackles off, they were involved in a feast of attacking football in which Hartlepool fully played their part.

The visitors threatened again in the 39th minute when Molyneux played a clever reverse pass to Kabamba, who looked certain to score. But his attempt to fire across Southwood was thwarted by the inspired, young goalkeeper who stuck out a hand and turned the ball round the post.

With the interval approaching the Pools forced their eighth corner of a cracking half of front-foot football when James’s goalbound blast was deflected behind.

Half-time: Eastleigh 2 Hartlepool Utd 1.

Eastleigh began the second half much as they had started the first and, come the 47th minute they were 3-1 up – and, would you believe it, it came from yet another Yeates corner from the right.

This time he took it short to Matthews, who cheekily backheeled it back to the Irishman. Yeates' delivery was repelled by Loach, but straight into the path of HOBSON who slotted in his first ever Spitfires goal.

Hartlepool, arguably the better side in the first half, were suddenly rocking and, on 49 minutes, Williamson was played in by Yeates and looked certain to score, but his deftly curled shot nicked off the keeper and hit the far post.

34-year-old Yeates, playing with all the energy of a man half his age, then went rampaging off down the right and drilled the ball across the face of goal and beyond the far upright.

Twelve minutes later the Spitfires’ No10 tried his luck again, but he didn’t connect cleanly with his shot and it dribbled just past the opposite post.

But, from a position of relative Eastleigh comfort, the game took another twist on 71 minutes shortly after Jones had made way for Cav Miley.

Noble sent in a hanging cross from the right to KABAMBA at the back stick and the ex-Portsmouth man headed into the far corner of Southwood’s goal for 3-2.

The 76th minute saw a second Eastleigh substitution with the tiring Matthews making way for Chris Zebroski.

A couple of minutes later the Spitfires had the ball in the net again when Andrew Boyce got on the end of Hare’s driven cross from the right, but it was disallowed, seemingly for handball.

There were then yells of frustration from the Eastleigh dugout as lax defending almost let Kabamba in again, with Hobson finally clearing the danger.

Then back the game swung to the other end with Zebroski doing well to bring Danny Hollands’ delivery under control, but shooting limply at Loach.

Hartlepool threw everything at the Spitfires in the five minutes of added time, but an injury stoppage, when Southwood went down after colliding with Myles Anderson, took the sting out of the visitors and Eastleigh held on for three precious points.

Next up for Eastleigh is another home game against Barnet on Tuesday (7.45pm) and, with AFC Fylde and Harrogate currently just one point better off, they could move up to fifth spot.

Eastleigh: Luke Southwood, Josh Hare, Michael Green, Shaun Hobson, Alex Wynter, Andrew Boyce, Sam Matthews (Chris Zebroski, 76), Joey Jones (Cav Miley, 68), Ben Williamson, Mark Yeates (Oscar Gobern, 83), Danny Hollands. Subs (not used): Jack McKnight,Ollie Dennett.

Referee: Richard Hulme.

Attendance: 1,863.