The much talked-about return to the Silverlake Stadium for ex-manager Paul Doswell, goal-scoring Eastleigh legend Andy Forbes and fellow former Spitfires; brought added excitement in the build-up to this afternoon’s FA Trophy first round tie.
Doswell’s Ryman Premier table-toppers came into the game as underdogs against Ian Baird’s Conference South side, but it was always going to be a close game and an interesting battle to see if one team would triumph.
Tom Jordan was withdrawn from the starting line up ten minutes prior to kick off due to an illness so Ross Bottomley was drafted in at centre half.
Eastleigh opted to stick with a 4-5-1 formation, which was used in the Spitfire’s last fixture (a 1-1 draw away to Woking), so Richard Gillespie led the attack as a lone striker.
With the lack of fixtures owing to the winter weather in recent weeks, there was certainly some rust to shake off for the hosts, and so it proved.
Sutton United took an early lead through CRAIG DUNDAS with just five minutes played. The powerful striker pounced in the six-yard box to turn the ball into the net following a double save from Gareth Barfoot. The Eastleigh stopper first denied a long range effort from Tom Kavanagh and quickly reacted to deny Andy Forbes’ goal-bound shot. The ball fell loose and Dundas took full advantage to hand the visitors a dream start.
In the 13th minute, Tony Taggart was played through one on one with the Sutton keeper by Anthony Riviere, though the flag went up for a dubious offside decision.
Two minutes later, Taggart put in an excellent cross from the right to find Richard Graham unmarked in the middle. Graham’s downward header was comfortably saved by former Havant & Waterlooville goalkeeper Kevin Scriven.
A lot of the play saw the ball in the air with both sides scrapping for possession in a tightly contested midfield battle. Danny Smith and Anthony Riviere in particular worked hard throughout the game.
Midway through the half Forbes set up Bradley Woods-Garness who had a low shot smothered by Barfoot.
At the opposite end of the pitch, Danny Smith let fly with a stinging drive from 30 yards that Scriven was only able to catch at the second attempt.
The Spitfires steadily improved as the half wore on and went into the break on the back of a good spell of pressure. Sutton were kept on the back foot and had to defend in numbers to soak up the pressure.
Richard Graham had a goal-ward header blocked and hacked away from danger but Eastleigh continued to threaten by forcing successive corner kicks.
Ross Bottomley had Eastleigh’s best chance of the half from one such set piece but only managed to shoot horribly wide when well placed, squandering a golden opportunity to draw level.
The last chance of the half saw Graham cut in from the left and fire narrowly over the bar with a right footed curling effort.
HALF TIME: Eastleigh 0-1 Sutton United
The second half started slowly with the first attempt taking nine minutes to come and when it did, it wasn’t particularly worth waiting for. Danny Smith cleared the stand with a wayward shot that ended up in the car park behind the goal.
For Sutton, Bradley Woods-Garness came close in the 56th minute when shooting wide of Barfoot’s near post.
On the hour mark, both sides made substitutions in an attempt to freshen the game up. Eastleigh’s Shaun McAuley and Jamie Slabber played their part when coming off the bench with McAuley running with pace and purpose and Slabber going on to make a vital contribution late in the game.
Eastleigh could quite easily have fallen further behind when an uncharacteristic error from Chris Holland saw the centre back slip in front of goal allowing Woods-Garness a clear sight at goal. The Sutton winger should have done better with the opportunity but blazed high and wide.
The Spitfires allowed mistakes to creep into their game with Ross Bottomley tripping Richard Jolly just outside the penalty area in the 67th minute. The Eastleigh defender was fortunate to escape without punishment as he was the last man when making the challenge. Sutton couldn’t take advantage from the resulting free kick, which was driven straight into the Eastleigh wall.
A minute later Bottomley gave the ball away cheaply at the back with a disastrous pass across the face of the Eastleigh 18-yard box. Jolly intercepted the loose ball and so nearly made Eastleigh pay by firing inches wide of the post – had this gone in, the tie would have been out of sight for the Spitfires.
As the game wore on, Eastleigh continued to trail and struggled to work goalkeeper Kevin Scriven. It didn’t look as though a goal would be forthcoming.
With fifteen minutes remaining, Slabber flicked the ball on into the path of Richard Graham, who in turn played the ball into Shaun McAuley with a neat touch behind the Sutton defence. The winger opted against shooting and lost possession by turning away from goal.
Ian Baird moved Bottomley into the Eastleigh attack (from his centre back position), for the last five minutes. It proved to be a good decision, as by putting more men forward, Eastleigh were able to take the game to Sutton in the closing stages and pin their opponents back.
The clock was running down and just as it looked like the visitors would be heading home £5,000 richer, TONY TAGGART popped up with a dramatic equaliser two minutes from time to rescue the tie and force a replay.
Jamie Slabber was instrumental in creating the goal and Taggart did the rest by turning the ball home emphatically from close range.
Four minutes of time were added on and Eastleigh may well have stolen victory despite only moments ago looking likely to be dumped out of the FA Trophy. Shaun McAuley continued his lively performance and had a great chance to win the tie as he nodded the ball past his marker before breaking into the penalty area. The only element missing was the finish to match his approach play as the effort with his weaker left foot failed to trouble the keeper, sailing comfortably wide of the mark.
Eastleigh and Sutton will do battle again on Tuesday night at Gander Green Lane for a place in the next round of the competition.
Sutton were arguably the better side today and Eastleigh will need to put in an improved performance if they are to progress.
FULL TIME: Eastleigh 1-1 Sutton United
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