It was one small victory in many this season but it was one giant leap for Eastleigh Football Club.
Goals from Yemi Odubade and Salisbury loan man Ben Wright confirmed the Spitfires as champions of the Skrill Conference South with two games to spare after winning 2-1 against Basingstoke Town at Silverlake Stadium yesterday.
Richard Hill’s side are going where no Eastleigh team have gone before by playing in the Conference Premier at the elite level of the non-league.
At one point this term the Spitfires were more than ten points behind leaders Bromley but, through blood, sweat and tears, they turned this campaign into one that has made history and will be forever remembered as the most successful in the club’s 68-years in existence to date.
Eleven years after winning the Wessex Premier Division and nine after the famous Ryman Premier League play-off final win, the Spitfires are one more promotion away from the Football League itself. One man has been ever-present through their rise, and that is founder and life president Derik Brooks.
The 90-year-old, who has seen the club rise through the Southampton Junior Leagues and now to the dizzy heights of the Skrill Premier, said: “I don’t think words can express it.”
“We’re in the top league of non-league football, what better success is there? It is a truly wonderful feeling and I don’t think I can fully appreciate yet.” While Brooks (below) has seen highly successful managers given the responsibility to guide his beloved club, it is Hill who was charged with taking the Stoneham Lane side to within five divisions of the Premier League. Since last season, when Eastleigh suffered the heartbreak of defeat in the play-offs against Dover Athletic, Hill has not rested.
The boss, with a glass of champagne in hand, said with a smile: “I said at the start of the season ‘we can win the league if we get the players we want – if we can play the way we want to play and get everyone to buy into it, then we stand a chance of winning the league’. “We didn’t want to create a side that just saw out the season. We’ve kept the squad tight-knit, and they’re absolutely tired to death now, two or three of the players that played the last few games shouldn’t have done, we’ve had to patch them up.
“I believed we had a chance to win the league. You live the job, there is no respite, you live it every day and even more so because of where we’ve been in the league; the pressure’s always on us to win the next game.
“My family have been through hell this year, my wife turned round to me and said yesterday ‘I won’t bother speaking to you until 5pm tomorrow and I won’t probably speak to you then’.
“I’ve been grumpy at home, I’ve had sleepless nights but that’s all part of this job.”
It was certainly a battle-weary Spitfires team that turned up for the match against the Dragons. It took them until way past the hour mark to breach Town’s goal, even with centre-back Ross Adams in goal, having to take the gloves after first-choice stopper Louis Wells was injured in a collision with Odubade (above) with no substitute keeper on the bench.
The opener was fired in by the same Odubade, a scorching effort from just outside the box after Ben Strevens had almost lost control of the ball and stumbled it into the path of the Nigerian born attacker.
Wright then sparked huge celebrations as he poked home from close range from Dan Spence’s square ball with ten minutes to play, to notch his 13th goal of the season after arriving on loan in February. The spontaneous eruption of joy behind the ’Stoke goal after Wright had scored, saw the advertising hoarding collapse, with fans sprawling on the ground as it went down. Thankfully no supporter was injured and their festivities soon continued. Eastleigh were unchanged from the 1-0 win over Dover Athletic on Tuesday but, with Stuart Fleetwood, Reece Connolly and Jamie Collins all out through injury, Hill had little or no option to field an identical side. Basingstoke, who had Manny Williams – the player who scored against the Spitfires in the Ryman Premier League play-off final for Leyton FC in 2004/05 – and former Saints loan player Nicholas Bignall in their starting XI, looked far from a side that have struggled for most of the season. They had come to spoil the party and Bignall, who made three appearances for Saints on loan from Reading in 2009/10, fired a couple of powerful shots at Ross Flitney’s goal.
Williams also had a golden chance but squandered it as he looked to latch on to a square ball from Simon Dunn. Apart from a couple Daniel Wishart efforts that worked keeper Wells before he got injured on 37 minutes, Eastleigh’s main threat of the first-half came as Town cleared from a Michael Green corner. Jai Reason, Eastleigh’s top goal-scorer with 20 goals, controlled the resulting clearance and popped a dipping effort over Wells’s head and off the crossbar, the follow up landed perfectly for Wishart, the loanee from Alfreton Town, but he fired wide. For the most part the Dragons were on top and were rewarded with an injury time consolation as Liam Enver-Marum tucked in past Flitney as the ball rebounded off the stopper.
More coverage in today's Daily Echo and celebration pictures in the Pink