Dover Athletic 2-0 Eastleigh

Saturday 8th December 2012

Blue Square Bet South

Match Report by Paul McNamara

Eastleigh drew their third successive away blank – in terms of points and goals - at Dover’s Crabble Athletic Ground, but the final result told little of a display that was much improved on those at Eastbourne Borough and Hornchurch. The Spitfires second-half performance, when they admirably refused to take a backwards step despite playing with ten men, exhibited exactly the type of spirit we’ve been longing for on some of the fruitless trips this season.

With Jai Reason and Michael Green both deemed fit enough only for places on the bench the Spitfires starting eleven was missing two of this seasons integral parts. Richard Hill opted to line-up with a three man central defence – comprising; Mitchell Nelson, Tom Jordan and Leigh Mills – having adopted a similar formation in the Hampshire Cup tie against the vastly inferior Fleet Spurs on Tuesday night.

The opening seconds were notable for Green’s replacement, Adam Everitt – returning to the team having not started a league match since Hill’s first away game at Farnborough in October – flying in to a poorly timed challenge on Ricky Modeste.

Eastleigh were slow to settle, which was in stark contrast to their hosts who were quickly out of the blocks, equally comfortable playing through the midfield or looking for their wide-men to provide service to the dangerous front pairing of Billy Bricknell and Ben May. Indeed, the Spitfires were already looking stretched by the time Dover scored the afternoon’s opening goal on four minutes.

Tom Wynter struck a cross from deep on the Whites’ left which Modeste couldn’t control. The ball deflected off the former Chelmsford player’s shin and out towards the 18 yard line where Glen Southam jumped into a rash challenge from behind and upended May, as the forward shaped to shoot. Despite Mark Hughes’ vehement protests that the tackle had taken place outside the area, referee Jake Hillier pointed straight to the spot.

May took the kick himself, emphatically smashing the ball into the top right corner, leaving Ross Flitney – on his Eastleigh return from Gillingham and playing at his former home – no chance.

The visitors’ first real foray into the Dover half resulted in a corner which Southam - another Spitfire who was returning to the Crabble as a former player – swung over from the left. The ball flashed across goal without any yellow shirt able to make a connection, but the hesitancy in the home defence betrayed a weakness that was apparent for the remainder of the game.

Still it was Dover who were playing with the greater fluency and after Daryl McMahon - playing against Eastleigh for the first time since his departure earlier in the season - delivered from the left, Bricknell turned away from Mills before the visiting defender recovered speedily and blocked behind.

As the action began to take shape it was apparent that when their opponents had the ball Eastleigh were uncomfortable, with the defensive trio unsure who to pick up and white shirts frequently outnumbering yellow in the middle of the field. When they could take control, however, the Spitfires were starting to construct some flowing spells of play.

Flitney was looking to find his colleagues, as opposed to what we witnessed last week when a lot of cheap possession was conceded by kicking long from the ‘keeper. One such example saw a fine throw pick out Dale Binns who carried the ball deep into Dover’s half and in an instant had the away side on the attack. From Everitt’s subsequent throw, Damian Scannell did well to turn his marker and squeeze a ball across goal which again evaded any telling touch.

On a rare occasion when Dover were able to pick up a Flitney kick they quickly worked a dangerous counter-attack, which the ever threatening Bricknell finished by striking over the bar when well placed in the area.

Scannell had started as the spearhead for the Eastleigh side – with Lee Peacock operating in the areas around the front man – but the former Southend man started to drop increasingly deep to link play, as well as flitting out wide to provide an extra option. This bolstered numbers in the middle and coincided with the Spitfires seeing more of the ball.

The visitors’ first genuine strike on goal came after a corner which was earned when Scannell had found Hughes on the right and the midfielder’s cross was headed behind by Shane Huke. Southam’s dead ball was cleared as far as Peacock, whose firm 20-yard shot required Mitch Walker in the home team’s goal to get down sharply and save.

At the midway point of the half, Dover strung together one of their most impressive moves after McMahon picked up a Southam clearance. Utilising the cleverness that we became familiar with during his time at the Silverlake, the canny ex-Farnborough player exchanged passes with Dean Rance before switching play to Modeste on the right. The winger cut inside and delivered a pinpoint left-foot cross onto the head of May who could only head a clear chance into Flitney’s hands.

As play switched ends, Binns was sharp to nip in front of McMahon, after the home player had been unable to get firm control over Scannell’s delivery from the right, and lay the ball back out to Osei Sankofa. In what was becoming an echoing story a threatening cross came to nothing with Walker eventually able to drop on the ball in his area.

Minutes later, Sankofa was the unlucky man to be withdrawn as Richard Hill decided to rejig his tactical approach. Reason came on to play in his familiar withdrawn forward role, with Scannell taking a position on the right and Nelson switching from the middle of defence to full-back. The change made sense, but as happened last Saturday against Welling when an alteration to the side’s shape had no time to take effect before the opposition scored, Dover soon doubled their lead.

Scannell tried to play forward from the middle of the pitch but found himself charged down. The loose ball was pounced upon by the busy Whites and quickly worked to their increasingly favoured outlet, Modeste, on the right. The dreadlocked home favourite ran directly at Everitt, who was unable to tackle as he was backed further and further into his own area. As he bore down on goal, Modeste timed his ball across the face of the six-yard box perfectly leaving May an easy task to score his second of the game, and third against the Spitfires this season.

With May, Bricknell, and Calum Willock – who was consigned to watch this game from the bench – Dover boast a triumvirate of attackers who must be the envy of any of their league rivals.

Undeterred, Eastleigh briskly sought a way back into the match. Binns – who during his past two outings has started contributing a great deal more to his team’s efforts – ended a run on the left by playing back out to Hughes who fed the ball further across the area to Southam. The Spitfires’ inspirational captain struck a fine right foot shot from distance that was destined for the top corner before Walker tipped unconvincingly behind.

Another positive passage of Eastleigh play led to a sharp one-two between Everitt and Binns deep in their opponents’ half. Everitt was brought down to the left of the area and from the consequent free-kick Reason’s drilled ball had to be headed behind. The Spitfires maintained their pressure on the Whites when Mills headed Southam’s corner into the ground and up towards goal, requiring another far from confident stop from Walker as he pushed the ball round the post.

As the game progressed and he became more comfortable Everitt was increasingly pushing forward and, after Reason had found the left-back on one of his raiding overlaps, the combative defender just missed picking out Peacock with his low cross.

The afternoon’s defining moment, and one that won’t be hastily forgotten, arrived on the stroke of half-time. Eastleigh won a free-kick on the edge of the area, when after another period of keep-ball Hughes played into Peacock’s feet. As he looked to hold the ball up, the experienced forward was bundled over.

When Southam rolled the set-piece to Reason and the brilliant Number 10 smashed a shot which the hapless Walker spilled into the net it seemed that the Spitfires had their route back into the match. It was soon clear that something was amiss with a number of home players appealing furiously, and the linesman on the half-way line – despite the referee and the linesman who was closer in attendance seeing nothing – raising his flag.

After an interminable stoppage, with both sides raging at what they felt was going to be a miscarriage of justice, Mr Hillier delivered the most stomach turning double-whammy for the visitors and their followers by disallowing the goal and showing Binns a straight red card.

It later transpired that Binns had lashed out at May after being provoked in the wall. If that was the case, Binns let his team-mates down and will have experienced an uncomfortable half-time in what must have been a raging dressing room.

Nevertheless, the denial of any tangible reward for the Spitfires’ constant endeavour to fight back into the game felt like a particularly cruel blow. The visitors could have been punished even further when play restarted with a long kick down field which May flicked on for Bricknell to fire a shot on goal, which Flitney did extremely well to tip over one handed.

It is to the credit of every single Eastleigh player and the management staff that the team came out in the second half and gave a performance brimming with purpose and intent, the only frustration being that they couldn’t deliver the punch that would have undoubtedly wobbled their increasingly vulnerable opponents. Indeed, after a first-half when despite their application, they were second best in the early stages to a well-drilled unit, it could have been easy to forget that when playing with some cohesion and a cause the Spitfires are one of the division’s pre-eminent sides. This second 45 minutes provided a timely and welcome reminder of that fact.

There was little goalmouth action in the first ten minutes after the break, but it was immediately noticeable that the team in yellow were enjoying by far the greater share of possession. There was no hint of any damage limitation in the visitors’ play, and just before the hour Flitney again demonstrated his excellent distribution by finding Reason after collecting a McMahon corner.

Reason displayed a wonderful turn of pace to take him away from a flailing challenge and played the ball to Scannell on the left. The wideman shifted play into Hughes who in turn played a pass down the side of the home defence for the positive run of Southam. When the ball came into the box it was Nelson, bursting forward, who had the chance inside the 18-yard box, only to skew a left-foot shot over the bar.

Eastleigh’s second change came on 67 minutes when McAllister – who if fit was unlucky not to start – came on for Peacock who had given a performance full of determination. Within a minute the Spitfires had come agonisingly close to halving their deficit. After Dover, who were looking more and more unsettled, couldn’t clear a Southam set-piece hit from deep, Hughes squeezed a ball through to Scannell. The attacker, who was buzzing and a menace throughout, lifted his effort over the advancing Walker, but a fraction too high as it struck the bar and rebounded to safety.

The Crabble side were rarely able to get out of their own half. When they did with just under 20 minutes to play, May, having picked up possession in space, took a few steps before hitting a blistering long-range drive which Flitney, again one-handed, tipped over.

Soon after, Flitney’s only aberration nearly cost his team when he was caught under a deep cross from Wynter. Modeste retrieved the deep ball on the right and when he spooned it back in Jordan was well placed to head away from under the crossbar.

Only two minutes later, Modeste’s afternoon was over when Reason slightly overran a ball in the middle but showed the desire to reach it first. The Dover man came in late and his ugly, high challenge earned him a straight dismissal despite his attempts to win sympathy by remaining down and claiming he was the party who had been wronged against.

The hunger Reason showed in that tackle was typical on an afternoon when he left nobody in any doubt regarding his ability or how central his influence is to Eastleigh’s play. The trequartista’s introduction completely changed the tone of the afternoon. All of the vision, intelligence and creativity we’ve been accustomed to seeing from the Number 10 was on display in abundance. He allies those attributes to industry and competitiveness – qualities which all of the very best players have in addition to their eye-catching gifts.

It was Reason who had the Spitfires next opportunity when McAllister adroitly headed a far post Nelson cross back into his path. After being forced slightly wide on to his left, the ex-Braintree man’s close-range strike was blocked by Walker.

Hughes picked up his customary booking as he ended a Dover break with a ‘professional’ trip. A home yellow card followed minutes later when Daniel Webb, who had an uncomfortable afternoon, stopped another Reason charge with a firm arm across the face. That incident came shortly after Corey King arrived as a replacement for Everitt to make his first league appearance for the club. The youngster was unlucky as he became the second Eastleigh player in consecutive league matches to sustain a late hamstring injury. If reports of the youngsters’ progress are accurate his time will come again.

Even as the clock ticked away, the Spitifres, displaying magnificent fortitude, refused to relent in their pursuit of a goal and with their final flourish Reason flashed a header past the near post after a Southam corner.

McMahon had one more strike on goal, a right foot dipper from distance which Flitney gathered at the second attempt. 3-0 would have been exceedingly flattering for the team whose victory kept them in third place, and only two points off the summit of the table.

Despite the eventual outcome it is imperative that both team and supporters can take the momentum built by the gutsy and unflinching second-half showing in Kent into the imminent busy run of games. We are past the stage of being able to say it is early in the season and, if a genuine push for a play-off spot is going to be sustained, a healthy Christmas points return is a necessity for the Spitfires.
Dover Athletic 2-0 Eastleigh - 08.12.12


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