Bath City 1-1 Eastleigh

BATH CITY 1-1 EASTLEIGH
Saturday 13th April 2013

Blue Square Bet South

Match report by Paul McNamara

The bare-chested, shirt-twirling euphoria of Eastleigh’s man of the moment Adam Watkins after he had crashed in an Eastleigh equaliser deep into stoppage time at Bath City’s Twerton Park, provided a fitting conclusion to the visitors’ late siege on their hosts’ goal.

Watkins’ glee was matched by that of his team-mates, management, and fans alike as the Spitfires gained a point which, given that defeat was looking increasingly inevitable, might prove vital in both its contribution to a top-five spot, and to maintaining the momentum which exists at the club.

Richard Hill made a single change to the eleven which started Tuesday’s win at Truro. Craig McAllister was given the lone striking berth, with Corey King making way and Chris Zebroski filling the wide-right spot. Alex Lacey therefore continued in central midfield alongside Glen Southam.

Dale Binns began on the left-flank and Jai Reason was deployed in his pivotal Number 10 role. The now customary back four was comprised of Mitchell Nelson, Chris Todd, Dean Beckwith, and Michael Green, with Ross Flitney between the posts.

Under heavy rain and, on a pitch which had been markedly cutting up as the sides went through their pre-match routines, the early action was scrappy. Both teams were seeking to hit their front men early, with McAllister showing up well in a couple of aerial battles.

The first attempt at working an attack on the floor came from Dale Binns’ threaded pass into Jai Reason, whose low shot from left of centre was well held by Jason Mellor in Bath’s goal.

That glimmer of inventive football was a rarity during an opening quarter of an hour in which neither team was willing to take any risks while finding their footing on the unreliable surface. One rushed Green ball, sent down the left, led to his admonishment by both Binns and Reason - the Spitfires’ duo imploring their colleague to retain his composure.

When Bath launched their first purposeful raid forward on 8 minutes, Todd was alert to react ahead of Josh Low as the Romans’ forward strove to capitalise on his strike partner Charlie Griffin’s headed flick. Soon after, the home side’s captain, Aaron Brown served warning of his exceptionally consistent vicious in-swinging corner delivery from the right. McAllister’s headed clearance landed at the feet of Noah Keates who returned a drilled 25-yard effort past Flitney’s left upright.

The Spitfires’ stopper was swiftly off his line on 13 minutes to claim a high bouncing ball at the edge of the box after Low had won the initial challenge on a cross from the left.

As Eastleigh progressively sought to try and work the ball on the ground, Joe Burnell, one-third of an accomplished Romans’ back-three, more than once displayed his aptitude for anticipating trouble and stepping out from the back to nick possession.

The visitors’ first chunk of pressure was applied just short of the 20 minute mark. Reason stepped over Green’s forward pass, allowing Zebroski to break into the hosts’ area. The former Torquay man used all his strength to ride Dan Ball’s challenge, before forcing a corner on the left. Reason’s delivery was dealt with by the home team but, as Low carried the ball away, a chasing Binns robbed the Bath man before springing forward himself and unleashing a shot on the run which flew wildly over.

Beckwith won Mellor’s kick from goal to instantly set the Spitfires’ back at their hosts. Reason picked up the loose ball and fed Binns, who held possession and waited for Green’s energetic overlap before laying the ball wide to his left-back. Green played a square ball to Southam, but in common with any early efforts on target the captain’s dig was easy for Mellor.

The Bath ‘keeper was made to work slightly harder by Zebroski’s cross-shot from the right on 25 minutes. That opening was all the work of the majestic Reason after the talented 23 year-old first killed Green’s hacked clearance on the left, and then spread play to the opposite side of the pitch and his attacking team-mate’s run.

Zebroski and Reason were quickly back at the heart of the action, exchanging a sequence of passes in midfield, before the latter rolled a pass into the feet of McAllister and took the return to drive a left-foot shot from 20-yards which zipped narrowly beyond the right post.

By the half-hour mark Eastleigh were seizing an element of control over proceedings, having adapted to the testing conditions ahead of the home side. Any embryonic Bath attack was largely coming through a launched high ball. The pairing of Todd and Beckwith was entirely in command of that threat, a pattern that didn’t change during the 90 minutes – Todd in particular giving a performance which oozed class.

The Spitfires’ ascendancy came close to bearing fruit when Mellor was called on to dive full-stretch to his left and touch behind McAllister’s well-hit right-foot strike from 12 yards. The striker’s chance was the result of some more polished visiting approach play. Binns capitalised on a lucky bounce to gather Green’s throw on the left and slip a ball inside to Reason, who in turn urgently steered possession into the feet of the target-man.

The visiting stopper was similarly extended when, on 34 minutes, Bath pieced together a patient passing spell of their own. The move finished with Keates’ second long-range effort which, unlike his first, required the intervention of Flitney who soared to his right to prevent the home team taking a lead.

Imbued with fresh confidence, the Romans were promptly exhibiting their own ability to retain the ball and create space. More fluid work freed Burnell to stride forward high on the right and whip in a delivery which Low glanced past the near post.

Regardless of Bath belatedly finding their feet, the Spitfires weren’t knocked off their own attacking stride. A Binns header sent McAllister scurrying away on the left. The striker’s low cut-back ran for Reason who couldn’t round the quickly advancing Mellor – the ball eventually dribbling behind for a goal-kick.

The sweeping skills of Flitney were to the fore when he sprinted out of his area to reach a through ball ahead of the pursuing Griffin. Having completed the hardest part of his task, the ‘keeper required a piece of good fortune when his attempted thump clear rebounded straight back off the Romans’ forward, only to fall kindly for Beckwith to tidy up.

As the interval approached, Eastleigh continued to hold sway. When Reason’s initial strike was deflected out to Green by Burnell, the defender struck a fierce 25-yard left foot piledriver which whistled over the bar. Gethin Jones then managed to swipe away a ball into the box with McAllister primed to pounce.

Zebroski took centre stage in the half’s one-minute of added time. The attacker was first booked for a scything challenge as he chased down Connelly on the Spitfires right, before himself being felled in the same area of the field. Green’s consequent free-kick was easily seen out by the home defence, and with that the referee called time.

The Romans were forced into a half-time change. Chris Allen had taken a knock which required treatment during the first 45 minutes, and was replaced in his free-role by Ryan Charles.

Much like the opening to the game, the second period took a while to settle. It was five minutes old when the visitors re-located some passing rhythm, culminating in Southam setting Binns away on the left. The ever direct winger drove a cross to the near post which Reason stooped to head just wide.

One of the afternoon’s more significant moments arrived at the end of a swift Spitfires’ break. Charles carelessly gifted possession to Zebroski on halfway. When the day’s right-winger poked a pass inside towards Binns, the Romans hesitated and allowed the Eastleigh man to gallop at their rear-guard and pick out Green who had surged forward into the hosts’ area.

With the full-back set to pull the trigger, Dan Ball slid in and completed a perfectly timed block to deny what had looked a gilt-edged scoring opportunity. Even more damaging for the away side was the injury sustained by their player in the course of that tackle. Despite some on-field attention to Green’s right leg, and a very brief stab at continuing, Watkins was soon thrown on in his stricken colleague’s place.

Binns initially took up the left-back spot. Southam moved across one to fill the wider slot, and the substitute took up the position left vacant in the middle by his skipper.

A consistent and reliable component in any team can be taken for granted. That might be the case with Green. The absence of his authoritative presence – the ex-Totton player routinely bosses his area of the park every week – distinctly affected the balance of the Spitfires’ unit.

Similarly, for all Lacey’s composure in the centre of the park, the bite, snap, and midfield knowhow of Mark Hughes will be welcome when the Northern Irishman returns on Tuesday, as will the wing-play of Damian Scannell.

Zebroski was never entirely comfortable in that role, chiefly when working back towards his own goal. On one occasion, Brown was allowed to complete a simple one-two high on the Bath left, running freely into a chasm of space to accept the return ball and send over a threatening delivery.

The game’s first goal arrived completely out of the blue. Burnell played a ball forward to Charles on the Bath right. The roaming home player was afforded time to send over a cross which was blocked by Beckwith. Despite muted home appeals, and the referee seeing nothing untoward, the linesman on that side of the pitch decided that Eastleigh’s central defender had handled the ball.

After conferring with his fellow official, Mr Knapp pointed to the spot. It was a harsh decision in the extreme and led to understandable fury in the visiting ranks.

Griffin displayed a steely nerve to ignore the furore and hit a clinical penalty which nestled low in the right corner while Flitney, having guessed incorrectly, flung himself the opposite way.

We are used to seeing Eastleigh respond manfully to any setback now, and within a minute they nearly had a leveller. Zebroski’s low centre from the right came back out to Southam, positioned just outside the home area, from where he smashed an effort which screamed past the left stick.

Richard Hill had responded immediately to the Romans’ goal by tinkering with his personnel. Lacey reverted to left-back, freeing Binns to push forward again and Southam to shift back inside.

Bath started to drop deep early and so presented Eastleigh with a huge slice of the possession. Pivotal to making capital on that advantage was Watkins. The Luton-loanee is prepared to accept the ball in the tightest of spots, and a mix of his touch, confidence, and the manner in which he receives it on the half-turn, invariably sees him buying the time to pick an incisive forward pass.

Pushing forward in numbers, the Spitfires were susceptible to the counter, and Nelson was late into a full-blooded tackle with Connolly, an offence for which he was booked.

The resultant set-piece was chipped by Burnell over the top of the Easteligh backline. Charles took the ball in his stride, but with the whites of the posts firmly in the Bath man’s eyes, Todd flew into action and executed a recovery tackle every bit the equal of Ball’s earlier effort. When Low’s subsequent corner was swung in, Lacey was relieved to see his header disappear safely over his own bar.

From there, the away pressure was near relentless. Mellor continued his stand-out afternoon by pushing out Zebroski’s sizzling penalty-area drive. When the ball was dribbling away from the Bath area, Watkins drove forward and went over a home leg. All Spitfires’ penalty shouts were waved away – it would have been a soft award.

Mellor’s best save came when Reason spun his marker to the right of the Romans’ box, having taken Watkins’ pass into his feet, and hammered a low goal-bound drive. The home stopper not only got his body in the way of the ball, but somehow forced it up and over his bar.

Lacey, taking up the mantle of attacking left-back, had an effort squeezed behind by the home defence after the combination of Watkins and then Southam worked to create the opening. The versatile 19 year-old next struck a crisp pass to Reason. The playmaker linked with McAllister to tee up Zebroski whose 20-yard right-foot effort was hit wastefully and frustratingly off-target.

There was a definite tempo and determination to the Spitfires’ football. That desire spilled over into a confrontation between Southam and Brown in the aftermath of a Reason foul on Jones.

For all their exertions going forward, Eastleigh couldn’t switch off at the other end. Todd was wide awake to snuff out Sekani Simpson’s penalty-area burst onto Connolly’s pass from midfield. A second home strike then would have killed the game.

Richard Hill’s last throw of the dice, with three minutes to play, came in the form of the dazzling feet of Corey King. Lacey was the man sacrificed as the away team became ever more top-heavy with attacking threat.

Before the winger could get into the action, Ball put a free back-post header past the left post after another excellent Brown flag-kick.

King’s first involvement was agonisingly close to providing a deserved equaliser. Watkins caught Low napping and moved the ball onto the inspirational Southam, who immediately looked for his jet-propelled, touchline hugging colleague. King dug out a superb cross onto McAllister’s head at the back-post. When the target-man couldn’t get on top his effort, and watched on in dismay as the ball drifted over, it felt like the Spitfires’ dwindling hopes of a point had been extinguished.

That suspicion was exacerbated when King’s next opportunity to cross – Brown, already chastened by the youngster’s speed, had backed off alarmingly – saw the wing-man run the ball over the touchline in a blur of quick-feet.

Incredibly, there was time for one more chance – perhaps as a result of crucial extra seconds being added for some barely concealed home attempts to run down the clock.

Brown cut-out Southam’s ball to King, but Reason, ever aware, rapidly prodded a crisp pass to the wide-man. As he drifted into the box, King was clipped but elected to stay on his feet. Reason hit the teenager’s measured cut-back to McAllister who, with his back to goal, calmly fed Watkins, for the midfielder to lash a wonderful drive high and into the goal. Priceless.

There can be no denying the bounce that any team gains from a decisive late strike such as Watkins’. The Spitfires may have slipped outside of a precious play-off spot, but their eventual destiny remains very much in their own eminently capable hands.

A reversal on Tuesday of what was perhaps this season’s watershed moment - the January loss at Bromley - will ensure that today’s point looks an even healthier return than it did when the top corner of Mellor’s net bulged here and brought a shaft of light to the leaden Bath sky.

Bath City v Eastleigh - 13.04.13 by Eastleigh FC

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