Tonbridge Angels 3-1 Eastleigh
TONBRIDGE ANGELS 3-1 EASTLEIGH
Tuesday 26th March 2013
Blue Square Bet South
The overriding fear coming into this game, was that the weather enforced two week break endured by Eastleigh would strip some of the momentum and fluency from what was a team in rare form. The worst anxieties were confirmed in a patchy display, which could prove extremely costly to any hopes of sustaining a late season push for a top five finish.
There was only one change to the eleven which started a fortnight ago against Boreham Wood – and that was enforced with Dale Binns unavailable due to illness. It is testament to the impact that Binns has made since being afforded a run in the side, that his pace, work-rate, offensive drive and defensive responsibility were all sorely missed here.
Richard Hill chose a formation he felt best suited the personnel available, switching to a 4-4-2, with Craig McAllister returning to partner Chris Zebroski in attack and Jai Reason starting wide on the right. Damian Scannell moved across to fill the left sided berth.
The action started at a frantic pace with little opportunity for either side to enjoy any sustained possession. The visitors were initially slightly the sharper of the two teams, and Mitchell Nelson was first to carry a marauding threat. After side-stepping a David Ijaha challenge, the right-back’s cross was deflected behind for a corner. When the resultant set-piece was cleared from the box, Nelson swept up and found Scannell on the left. The winger’s swinging delivery drifted across goal and past the far post.
The Angels’ prime route forward in the early stages was through the towering frame of Mikel Suarez, the striker routinely dropping deep to link play. The Number 9 was equally comfortable with the ball delivered to his head or feet.
It was a set-piece, however, which on 8 minutes gave the home side their first dig at goal. Seconds after Nelson had won a crucial aerial duel with Suarez in the heart of his area, Mark Hughes was harshly penalised for his sliding attempt to retrieve the ball 25 yards from goal. The prolific Frannie Collin stepped up and hit a vicious right footed strike which dipped marginally past the scampering Ross Flitney’s right post.
Minutes later, Tonbridge served first notice of the crisp, fast, and incisive football of which they are capable – particularly once in the final third of the pitch. Tom Davis floated a pass behind Chris Todd for Collin on the left. The forward laid the ball back to his advancing full-back Nathan Green whose centre required another strong Nelson header to see out the danger.
Quickly after, Collin looked sure to break the deadlock when he broke onto a flick which had been applied to a deep free-kick. The former Dover man stretched to make contact but could only manage to toe-poke his effort past the left-upright.
On 13 minutes a robust Todd clearing header took him through the back of Suarez as the Spitfires sought to nullify the target-man. The Basque player was undeterred, as befits a player who has come back from a horrendous early season injury which required him to spend time in an intensive care unit.
Sixty seconds after that clash, Scannell drove to the byline – the only occasion he managed that feat all night – and sent a teasing delivery back across goal. There were three Eastleigh players in the box ready to pounce but the ball somehow evaded each of the trio. When Nelson sent a looping cross back towards the far-post, Lee Worgan in the hosts’ goal was rescued by his alert defenders who hacked clear after the ‘keeper spilled his attempted catch.
Referee, Stuart Butler, made the first of many inconsistent decisions over the course of the night when he neglected to caution Davis for a reckless swipe through the back of Jai Reason as Eastleigh’s ‘winger’ received a pass to his feet on halfway from Nelson.
Reason was hastily back into the action after Hughes picked up McAllister’s flick and poked the ball right to his Number 10. The ex-Braintree man skipped inside and struck a low left foot shot which Worgan collected down to his left.
23 minutes in, Davis’ creative aptitude was back to the fore when he hit an impeccably accurate ball into the right-wing dash of Mark Lovell whose exceptional touch on the run took him flying past Michael Green. Lovell slipped a pass back to Collin whose attempt to thread an exact return through a narrow central area was seen behind by the visiting back-line.
Eastleigh responded with some elegant build-up play of their own. Reason stepped over Nelson’s forward pass and took McAllister’s quick-thinking ball into his stride on the right. Davis - back on defensive duty - intercepted Reason’s cross, but was hurried into a weak clearance by the high-pressing of Hughes and McAllister.
With the half-hour approaching, Hughes received his customary booking – this time for a cynical trip on Green, as the Angels’ powerful and adventurous left-back broke forward. The young defender excelled for the home team all night, only once blotting his performance when, early in the second period, he ‘over-enthusiastically’ flew into Nelson in an attempt to retain possession after a heavy touch. Green was perhaps lucky to escape with only a yellow card, but that aberration aside his display was faultless.
As the match entered its middle third Eastleigh were gradually being out-numbered in midfield. The home forwards were all willing to retreat and supplement their engine room, while McAllister and Zebroski looked isolated and lacking in movement by comparison. Richard Hill’s decision to ask his ex-Cheltenham forward to shift to the right, and move Reason inside was of little surprise. As is the case whenever he is away from the heart of the action, the Spitfires don’t benefit fully from the influence of their chief playmaker.
Zebroski’s first sight of the ball in his new position came when Nelson superbly volleyed Southam’s driven pass into him down the line. The auxiliary winger hit a low cross which appeared to hit the arm of a home defender sliding in to block. The man in the middle didn’t see the event through the same eyes as the vocal Spitifres behind the goal and ignored some fierce penalty appeals.
Tonbridge eventually saw out a burst of sustained pressure which included two flag-kicks and another flailing punch by the ruffled Worgan.
All concerned with the visitors held their collective breath when Hughes impeded Davis on half-way. The Northern Irishman avoided the referee’s attentions but had effectively ended his own night – indeed it was a little surprising that Hill waited until nearly an hour had elapsed before replacing his tightrope walking midfielder with Adam Watkins. It was a blow to the Spitfires’ aspirations for the evening, with Hughes’ astute positioning and prompting having been at the core of his side’s better work.
As half-time approached the action took on a harum-scarum end-to-end feel. McAllister’s back-heel would have set Southam free in the Angels’ box but for a saving Green tackle. The resulting corner on the left was only cleared at the expense of a flag-kick on the opposite side which Reason swung in. Worgan’s punch was limp and only reached Hughes to the right of the 18-yard area. When the ex-Barnet man’s whipped cross was headed at goal by McAllister an opening strike looked certain. That was reckoning without an exceptional reaction stop by Worgan, who shifted his body weight and managed to deflect the ball with his leg away to safety.
After another corner, Eastleigh’s more muted cries for a penalty after Davis’ lunge at Hughes again fell on deaf ears as the home side broke. David Ijaha fed a pass forward to Collin who found himself up against Green and, eventually, more recovering yellow shirts. Seemingly crowded out, the slippery forward advertised his terrifically quick feet to work a gap and fire a shot which flew into the same spot beyond the right post which had been home for his earlier free-kick.
The half’s final stanza was arguably the match’s defining moment. If Eastleigh had secured the precious breakthrough there was every chance a home team coming into the night hovering dangerously above the relegation zone and on the back of three defeats might have wilted. As it was, the Angels scored a goal which evidenced all their attacking cohesion, and from that point they never looked likely to relinquish their grip.
Collin began the move, finding Henry Muggeridge on the right, before the impressive full-back slipped a pass to Davis. The midfielder picked out Collin’s forward run, and he in turn slid the ball across goal where the unmarked Lovell was left with the facile task of finishing into an unguarded net.
That goal, and the manner in which the Spitfires were opened up, was a hammer blow going into the break. Perhaps wounded by finding themselves behind, Eastleigh came out for the second 45 minutes bristling with renewed intent. After a neat-interchange with Nelson on the right, Zebroski was upended. The same player headed Reason’s consequent set-piece high and induced another unconvincing waft from Worgan, who was indebted to a mass of home defenders suppressing any further trouble.
An unsavoury aspect of the hosts’ approach once they had gained their lead came in a readiness to maximise every chance to halt the game for extended periods – particularly the unnecessary dragging out of stoppages. After Zebroski had out-foxed Jon Heath high on the right, his low centre was swept away by the sturdy Sonny Miles who then spent some time receiving attention after being clipped by Reason on his follow through – an infringement for which the Spitfires’ player was booked.
Minutes after Watkins had joined the midfield battle he was unable to gather a wayward Beckwith pass into a congested area. Collin seized on the chance and instantly moved the ball to Ijaha before continuing an explosive run through the middle to take a return delivery. In a blur of movement Collin found himself clean on goal and there was only ever going to be one outcome – which the forward duly delivered with a clinical low strike past Flitney.
The ease with which Collin scythed through the core of the Spitfires’ unit will trouble their manager – it was reminiscent of a goal conceded on the miserable night at Farnborough in October.
In the 64th minute – and a mere three minutes after the second goal – the game was well and truly put to bed. Lovell sped past Todd – who in common with Beckwith endured his toughest outing in an Eastleigh shirt – before turning back inside. The attacker’s progress looked to have been stalled, but a ricocheted attempted clearance somehow spooned to the back post where home skipper Lee Browning was presented with the chance to joyously thump into an empty net. It was a farcical way to put the seal on any chance of returning home with a tangible reward from the evening.
Alex Lacey replaced Todd, while a fired up Glen Southam smashed into tackles on Davis and Collin, the second of which he was penalised for. It was the challenge on Davis which left its mark, the excellent midfielder being forced off after an aborted try at continuing in the fray following some brief treatment.
Understandably with their considerable advantage, Tonbridge were happy to sit men behind the ball – exemplified when Zebroski’s low effort was blocked by one of four home defenders surrounding him.
With 18 minutes to play Corey King replaced McAllister, and having been operating for a spell with Reason, McAllister and Zebroski as a front three, Eastleigh reverted to their original formation – Reason pairing Zebroski at the point of attack.
King’s first marked contribution arrived with 10 minutes to play – and after Nelson had been the latest visiting player to have his name taken for an injudicious tackle on Lovell. Galloping onto Southam’s precise pass to the right, King effortlessly flew past his marker and sent over a cross which Worgan could do no better than divert into Reason’s path. The ex-Braintree man was never going to miss and casually swept into the net.
With the slightest glimmer of a comeback on the horizon there was a flicker of excitement as Zebroski saw an 18 yard drive deflected over by one of two Tonbridge bodies flinging themselves at the ball, before the forward latched onto Southam’s sharp pass but couldn’t make a telling connection and saw Worgan hold his effort.
King’s raw pace added a new dimension to the Spitfires’ attack, and after collecting Scannell’s lofted pass his delivery looked to have been obstructed by Green’s arm. Play continued as Eastleigh’s impassioned protests were rejected, and Zebroski had another pop at goal shut out by Muggeridge.
The visitors’ woe increased when play stopped as Scannell was shown a straight red card - apparently for something he said to the referee. Whatever the winger’s words they possibly echoed the thoughts of any Spitfires present. That said, there was no excuse for an experienced player killing off his team’s hopes – however vague – of salvaging a draw, and receiving a subsequent ban.
Watkins and Southam both had stoppage time efforts fly off-target but that late twist had confirmed the game’s outcome. Ultimately, Eastleigh never matched the fluidity, intelligent movement, and imagination of the hosts’ front three – Suarez, Collin, and Lovell. Nor did they get to grips with a midfield which was dominated by the hard running and tackling of Browning, Davis, and the admirably disciplined and decidedly strong Ijaha.
It should be noted that the Spitfires lost to a very good Tonbridge side here. The Angels’ recent run might have been poor but they are an outfit accomplished enough to have beaten their third placed Kent counterparts, Dover, twice in the space of a week during the Christmas and New Year period.
For Eastleigh’s part, they responded to February’s defeat at Sutton United by winning successive away matches, and the loss at Hayes & Yeading later that month was followed by a four game unbeaten run which was 18 minutes away from drawing the side level on points with the then play-off spot dwelling Boreham Wood.
It is to be hoped that with 90 extremely competitive minutes in the legs, and a chance to immediately right the wrongs which occurred at the Longmead Stadium, a hurting Spitfires’ unit will respond again and set about stringing together another fruitful period when there is a plethora of points on offer.