Penalty heartbreak for Eastleigh in play-offs

EASTLEIGH 2-0 DOVER ATHLETIC 
(3-3 on aggregate AET, Dover win 4-2 on penalties)
 
Saturday 4th May 2013

Blue Square Bet South Play-off Semi Final 2nd Leg

Match report by Paul McNamara

After such a heart-breaking conclusion to a magnificent Eastleigh display here in Dover, the overriding emotion of all involved with the defeated outfit might be expected to be one of utter devastation. The predominant word used by travelling Spitfires to describe their post-match emotion however, was pride.

Eastleigh’s players, and management alike, were near perfect in their attempt to scale the mountainous peak that was placed in their way by Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat in the first-leg of this play-off. That game has already been pored over, and indeed, it has ultimately proved the occasion on which this team’s promotion hopes suffered their fatal blow.

The Spitfires gave a performance from the outset of today’s encounter that was a much fairer reflection of the group of players we have become accustomed to watching.

Deprived of the suspended Michael Green, Richard Hill called on the class and dependability of Andy Forbes to operate on the left of a midfield four which had Glen Southam and Mark Hughes at its core, and Mitchell Nelson starting on the right.

A defensive trio of Chris Todd, Alex Lacey, and Dean Beckwith was employed in front of Ross Flitney. Jai Reason and Chris Zebroski worked either side of the formidable frame of Craig McAllister.

Starting with a sharp and steely-eyed warm-up, Eastleigh were the side which turned up with a distinct edge to their approach. In the first 60 seconds, Tom Wynter – playing at left-back in an unchanged Dover eleven – was forced to head Nelson’s long-throw behind for a corner - which was subsequently cleared at the second attempt after Forbes’ dangerous return ball into the area.

Wynter’s next involvement saw him unsettled by Zebroski, and hauling his opponent to the ground as the forward bustled onto Reason’s forward pass. Ian Simpemba’s head made first contact with Southam’s right-sided set-piece, before the home side won a free-kick of their own for Hughes’ follow-up challenge which left both Dean Rance and Moses Ademola grounded.

Zebroski’s pace and direct running was key to a huge deal of his team’s attacking thrust and, on seven minutes, the ex-Torquay United player stormed to the by-line after taking advantage of McAllister’s strength in holding off Tyrone Sterling on the left. The striker cut inside to fling a right-foot cross into Southam at the back-post where the visiting skipper’s slightly mishit effort dribbled wide.

Nelson took every single opportunity that arose across the 120 minutes to drive forward – the full-back was continually implored to do so by his colleagues – and he was unlucky to be penalised for a challenge on Ademola after springing onto Southam’s pass which was swept into his latest surge high into the Whites’ half.

On Tuesday, Dover’s initial superiority from the first whistle resulted in a plethora of scoring chances. There were 13 minutes on the clock before they first applied any pressure today. McMahon’s corner from the left was cleared as far as Wynter, who steered the ball back into the ex-Spitfires midfielder. As McMahon jinked away from Hughes, the away player cynically brought him to the floor. Hughes was booked and left to tread a fine line for the majority of the afternoon – a situation he managed expertly, perhaps borne of plenty of similar past experiences.

The ferocity of Eastleigh’s play was encapsulated just beyond the quarter-hour. Nelson advanced onto a glorious searching Southam pass before giving the ball up cheaply to Ademola. Retreating at some speed, the previously guilty Nelson executed a bone juddering – and fair – tackle on Ademola to regain possession for his side. It was Mitchell Nelson in microcosm.

The Spitfires back-three – all of whom gave colossal displays – benefitted from the extra body in central defence when dealing with the exceptional Ben May. The former Millwall man struggled to make the telling impact he had four days earlier, and was unable to capitalise on a phase of Dover free-kicks and corners around the 20 minute mark which were all capably dealt with by the visitors.

Zebroski was able to fire his first shot on goal 23 minutes in, when Forbes was sharply onto Ricky Modeste’s header and then played a pass in-field to his effervescent team-mate. The forward let the ball run across his body before unleashing a right-foot dig which, with the help of a deflection, skipped past Mitch Walker’s right-stick.

With Eastleigh controlled and relentless, the home team was struggling to strike a balance between defending their hard-won first-leg lead and posing problems of its own. Southam and Hughes both had strikes at goal blocked – the former after darting away from Ademola.

On 28 minutes, a chipped Hughes’ effort from 18-yards – after Reason’s lay off into the Northern Irishman’s feet - drifted fractionally beyond the left-post. Reason had initially seen a huge shout for handball waved away by the referee as he sought to break into the Whites’ area through an avalanche of defensive bodies.

Walker, in the home goal, gave a clue to events that would dramatically unfold later when he hared from his line in an attempt to claim Hughes’ clipped forward ball, only to become embroiled in a muddle with Sterling and concede a corner. The ‘keeper redeemed himself at the consequent flag-kick, leaping to take Forbes’ high and hanging centre after the initial dead-ball was swept away.

McMahon’s influence in open play was being neutered by the pressing and harrying of his opponents – chiefly Southam and Hughes -, but the Irishman’s set-piece threat can never be discounted. A 30-yard free-kick was deflected off a Spitfires defensive wall for a corner. When the same player’s flag-kick was headed out by Forbes, Reason was penalised for a high foot on Modeste as the Whites’ winger looked to seize on the loose ball.

Chancing his arm from much closer to the visitors’ area, McMahon’s free-kick made its way under the away barrier and required Flitney to drop sharply to his left to save.

Walker’s indecisiveness under quality delivery into his area was exposed once more by Southam’s deep set-piece from the right which evaded the home custodian but, to the relief of a majority of the 1,662 Crabble Athletic Ground crowd, passed beyond the back-post and a sea of waiting bodies.

On 42 minutes, a spell of patient but purposeful Eastleigh possession reached its crescendo with a one-two between Reason and Zebroski before the ball was switched to Forbes, who moved in from the left and planted a cross onto the latter’s head. The final effort was too close to Walker to cause him serious discomfort.

At the start of three added minutes, Forbes had a strike on goal blocked at the end of a move which began with another strong Nelson challenge on Ademola. There remained time for a further vociferous away penalty appeal. McAllister did wonderfully to hold up play and feed the ball back to Nelson, who immediately hit a forward pass for Reason to rush onto on the right. As a surfeit of Dover players threw themselves into the path of the visiting playmaker, he was convinced there had been a hand used to block his way. Mr Hicks wasn’t convinced, and the first-period had finished score-less.

The second-half was only seconds old when Reason was again screaming for a spot-kick after he believed his first-time flick on Forbes’ throw had been intercepted by McMahon’s arm. The plaintive cries of visiting players had the same fruitless result as their earlier pleadings.

Zebroski’s tumble in the area under Kamara’s challenge – after he had first escaped McMahon’s attentions - brought more subdued but futile protests. Nevertheless, on 49 minutes, Sterling’s challenge on Zebroski further up the pitch was penalised. Southam swung his teasing left-side delivery across the Whites’ box, and watched on delighted as the ball drifted inside Walker’s left-post and gave the Spitfires the goal their play deserved.

Equally, it was a breakthrough which the Eastleigh captain fully merited. Southam covered every square inch of the Crabble’s playing surface. Then he did so again, and again, and again. Moreover, the talismanic midfielder’s all-action display exhibited sure football intelligence as he plugged gaps, broke up play, and barely wasted possession of his own. It is no exaggeration to say that Southam’s individual performance here has not been matched by anything else we’ve seen this season.

It was Southam’s threaded pass soon after his opener to which Ademola, conscientiously working back, managed to apply a crucial toe to prevent Nelson enjoying a free penalty area strike at goal.

With the hour mark nearing, Dover were briefly able to pin their visitors back. Harry Ottaway steered Sterling’s pass into May who hit a low left-foot shot which Flitney kept out with his outstretched right leg.

Eastleigh were unable to clear convincingly, and the attendance of Southam, Nelson, and Reason was necessary to see off Ademola’s sortie on the left, before Wynter’s centre presented May with his second chance in quick succession. The end result was similar to that of his previous attempt – Flitney holding gratefully onto a goal-bound header.

The Spitfires responded instantly with another foray of their own - Reason’s low strike from McAllister’s lay-off was gathered comfortably by Walker.

With half-an-hour to play, Forbes limped off to be replaced by Damian Scannell. That change in personnel triggered a switch in formation. Lacey moved out to play at left-back in a defensive four. Scannell was deployed in front of the Luton loanee, with Zebroski pulling across to the right. That brought Reason into a more central role – the Number 10 having hitherto spent large spells out wide to help suppress the considerable menace posed down the flank by Wynter and Ademola – a combination which was so devastating on Tuesday.

McAllister rapidly earned his team a free-kick close to the hosts’ area when, after being found by Hughes, he was tripped by Simpemba. Rance stormed from the Dover wall to shut out Reason’s thundering drive.

Reason was at once in the action again, killing a lofted ball in midfield and picking out Zebroski on the right. The attacker timed his pass into Nelson’s overlapping run perfectly, but Hughes’ header on the ensuing cross was too high to trouble Walker.

Walker was equivalently unconcerned by Southam’s next effort which was hit straight at him. Seconds later, the Spitfires’ driving force had another chance to send over a set-piece after Sterling had tugged Reason to the floor on the Dover left – an offence for which the home centre-half was cautioned. McAllister rose imperiously to meet the delivery but couldn’t keep his effort under the bar.

A string of substitutions brought Billy Bricknell and Chris Sessegnon into the fray for the Whites – Ademola and Modeste the men to make way – and saw Lee Peacock take up McAllister’s striking berth for the Spitfires.

Bricknell’s presence resulted in Ottaway dropping deeper into midfield. Scannell, who had struggled to make an early impression for the away team, switched wings with Zebroski.

When Sessegnon was penalised for pulling Reason down at the left corner of the Dover area, another Southam free-kick was lofted beyond the far post and the despairing head of Scannell.

As the 90 minute mark drew close, Richard Hill threw Chris Todd up front to join Peacock and, simultaneously, reverted to a back-three of Nelson, Beckwith, and Lacey. Inevitably, with Eastleigh committing bodies forward, gaps were left behind. Walker’s free-kick picked out Ottaway in his new wide-left position, and the attacker swept in a fantastic right-foot cross which Bricknell – in space – headed beyond the back-post.

Four minutes remained, when Nelson and Scannell linked to find Southam who went by McMahon before unleashing a shot which flew over Walker’s bar.

Play was increasingly stretched. and Dover could have killed the tie when Ottway stole possession from Hughes and passed to McMahon. The cultured midfielder strode forward but pulled his left foot dig past the right-post.

Having switched to the right, Scannell’s influence was growing. The winger’s near-post cross was only cleared straight back into him by Sterling, before a left-foot return delivery was marginally too high for Reason to make any critical contact

With the scoreboard clock declaring 90 minutes had passed, Southam once more took responsibility for his team’s fortunes. The skipper dropped deep to take charge of play, and hit a ball to the right of the Whites’ area which sparked sheer panic in the mind of Walker.

The ‘keeper made an ill-advised charge from his goal, desperately seeking to take the pressure off the rear-guard in front of him, but only succeeding in missing the ball and cleaning out Wynter for good measure. When it broke for Scannell, the wideman’s finish from a severely acute angle made its way unerringly inside the left-upright. The scenes of jubilation on the field, and among the buoyant travelling throng behind the goal, were something to behold.

Still, there could have been a twist. McMahon’s corner from the right was headed over by May and Todd, as last defender, was alert to snuff out Bricknell’s break. Even then, Dover believed they might have won a penalty for Peacock’s assertive challenge on Simpemba. We weren’t due any 12-yard drama yet though. Extra-time was next.

An additional thirty minutes can often drift along, with neither combatant in a frantic contest prepared to risk the status quo – preferring instead to turn an eye to the 50/50 punt offered by a shoot-out. That was certainly not the case here.

Walker was immediately called into action to stop a headed effort applied to Southam’s free-kick, before Rance sharply stole in front of Peacock as the experienced forward was set to unload a dig on goal from his captain’s pull-back.

There was no indication that the tempo would slow and, after May missed his swipe at the ball, the Spitfires broke through Hughes and Scannell, before Reason’s right-foot shot was snaffled low down by Walker.

More intricate work between Reason and Zebroski led to the former hitting a shot which bounced back in his direction. A wearying home backline could only halt the attacker illegally, so conceding a free-kick on the edge of the D. Scannell’s strike couldn’t get by the home wall, but the ball was steered back towards a rising Peacock whose back-post header found Zebroski. The striker – another whose industry was unyielding throughout – set up Southam for a shooting opportunity which went too high.

An uncharacteristically poor Simpemba header provided the Spitfires next glimpse of goal. Sterling’s block took Scannell’s shot straight back to the wide-man, whose left-foot follow up crack was clutched to his chest by Walker.

The half-way mark was approaching when Peacock determinedly seized possession in midfield and found Scannell – now back on the left – to hit a fine ball down the line with the outside of his right boot. Zebroski reached the pass first and injected his searing pace to gallop free of Simpemba – only to be tripped by the flailing defender who was booked for his intervention.

Rance put Reason’s free-kick past the near-post at the expense of a corner. The same midfielder – who couldn’t effect play as he had four days earlier, but was nevertheless fantastic in his defensive endeavours – made a full-blooded block on Reason’s piledriver which was sent towards goal after Southam’s flag-kick was hacked away. Possession squirmed back out to the corner-taker, and his back-post cross found Todd unmarked but unable to capitalise as the ball rolled agonisingly off his thigh and behind.

Beckwith started the second additional period by slicing Sessegnon’s cross past his goal, but quickly made good the rare error by putting his head on McMahon’s resultant corner.

A loose Flitney kick allowed Sessegnon to guide the ball forward to Bricknell on the right, from where the Whites’ substitute delivered a perilous near-post cross which Todd forced away before he had seen the linesman’s raised flag indicating offside.

Scannell, back on the right side from where he had been so predatory, struck a left foot effort well off-target, before Flitney commandingly plucked McMahon’s cross off the head of Calum Willcok – the forward having been sent on as Dover’s final change in May’s stead.

The Spitfires’ last alteration brought Dale Binns onto their left flank – Reason being forced off with a groin problem. Binns’ fleet of foot instantly troubled Rance who sliced down his adversary and was yellow carded.

When play shifted back to the other end, Ottaway closed Nelson deep in the defender’s territory, and opened up a shooting opportunity for Bricknell whose effort was snuffed out by Todd.

Next came a moment which will live long in the memory of the watching Spitfires. Hughes’ header was collected by Zebroski on the right. In an explosion of speed, the attacker raced away from the pursuing Sessegnon and bore down on Walker. With the goal appearing to open up in front of him, Zebroski opted to cut inside and that extra touch allowed a frantically retreating home backline to recover and see out the threat.

Undeterred, Eastleigh wanted the crucial third goal. Nelson thumped a ball across goal which Sterling’s faint headed touch took out for a throw on the opposite side of the field. Zebroski had another delivery cut-off at the near-post, and a Nelson throw induced some home panic before Walker could claim.

When the whistle blew, the sight of Hughes pounding the ball to the floor spoke for a team which had firmly believed they could win the tie without the need for penalties.

When it came to the stomach turning shoot-out, Hughes scored Eastleigh’s second after Southam had put the first crisply into the top left corner. Those strikes were in response to Willock’s and Bricknell’s successful takes.

Kamara scored Dover’s third. Then Walker’s time arrived. Either side of McMahon’s assured conversion, the Whites’ stopper saved, in turn, low to his right from Beckwith and then down to the opposite side from Zebroski.

The dignified manner in which Richard Hill’s team and its supporters accepted their fate was a credit to the club – as was the reaction of the gleeful home fans who, after a celebratory pitch-invasion, applauded their travelling adversaries.

So, the definitive season of two halves has reached its end. A team which struggled with its away form through a tough winter has emerged from that period of transition into a unit of some repute.

Eastleigh were able to impose their will and undoubted quality, to considerable effect, on a Dover team which has shown us on three previous occasions since September how strong it is. The afternoon might have finished in the most cruel fashion imaginable but, once the hurt has washed away, there is much cause for optimism.

It remains to congratulate Dover – it shouldn’t be forgotten how they came to the Silverlake, played with a commendable fearlessness and showcased their own excellent brand of attacking football. The Whites were equally impressive in their two league victories against the Spitfires.

For Eastleigh’s part, a talented, spirited, confident, and driven group, led by an astute manager, can only inspire excitement and great anticipation for when we come back and do it all over again.

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