Eastleigh had the difficult task of trying to tame league leaders Braintree Town as the two form sides in the division went head-to-head.
It was great credit to a number of volunteers that the game even went ahead; because of all the rain we have had this week. From 9am, Tony Shiner, Steve Brookwell, Stuart Solly and Chairman Paul Murray were all hard at work on the pitch and should be thanked for their efforts in getting the game on.
Coming into today’s top of the table clash, Eastleigh and Braintree’s last six Blue Square Bet South fixtures saw both sides take 13 points out of a possible 18 – with four wins, a draw and just one defeat apiece.
Ian Baird made only one change to the side that beat St. Albans 4-2 on Monday night. Gareth Barfoot returned from injury to replace Jason Matthews in goal for the Spitfires. It proved to be an unfortunate return to action for the goalkeeper as the game unfolded.
The visitors, managed by Rod Stringer, welcomed two new signings into his squad during the week with centre back Ollie Thorne and striker Stefan Payne joining the Iron. Thorne signed from Blue Square Bet Premier side Kidderminster Harriers, and Payne arrived on loan from Gillingham – both were handed their debuts against Eastleigh at the Silverlake Stadium this afternoon.
The Champions-elect made a bright start to the game by forcing two corner kicks in the opening minutes demonstrating their intent to attack and put the hosts under pressure from the very start.
With just two minutes played, a curling shot from Kenny Davis skimmed the top of the Eastleigh cross bar. Three minutes later, full back Phil Starkey had a go with a long range attempt that was a whisker away from finding the top right hand corner.
Gareth Barfoot raced off his line well in the 7th minute to make an important saving challenge to halt the run of Jai Reason, who had got in behind the Eastleigh defence.
Moments later, Jamie Guy had a low shot deflected narrowly wide of goal. Barfoot was stretching across goal but looked to have the shot covered.
There was no let up from Braintree’s attacking stance and Barfoot was called into action once more as he made a strong diving save to push away Payne’s shot.
In the 17th minute, Payne charged down a kick from Barfoot. The ball could have gone anywhere but fortunately for Eastleigh, the rebound did not end up in the back of the net.
Eastleigh had a brief moment going forward where they had Braintree on the back foot as Tony Taggart fed the ball to his right to find Shaun McAuley. The Eastleigh winger worked room for the cross, but it was deflected safely through to the Braintree goalkeeper, Nathan McDonald.
Braintree were then awarded a penalty kick in the 19th minute when Gareth Barfoot came off his goal line to bring down Jamie Guy at the edge of his penalty area. Guy was in need of medical attention and an ambulance was called to the stadium. After a five minute delay where the Braintree striker was receiving treatment, Guy eventually left the field on a stretcher. It was later revealed that the player had an open double fracture of the leg. We wish Jamie all the best and a speedy recovery.
Sean Marks replaced Guy in the 26th minute and the penalty was then able to be taken. After the break in play, it was Bradley Quinton who stepped up from 12-yards only to see his spot-kick come back off the post. Eastleigh reacted well to the loose ball managing to scramble clear and avert the danger – it remained goalless.
Midway through the half, Shaun McAuley cut in from the right, before letting fly with a left-foot shot, however the ball was always rising and the effort failed to trouble the keeper.
Brett Poate had a shot deflected for an Eastleigh corner in the 33rd minute. The next action of the game saw Eastleigh defend well against Stefan Payne, who had broken through on goal.
The opening goal of the game was scored in the 42nd minute when Braintree broke the deadlock. Poate made a hash of a clearance, missing the ball completely and the visitors took full advantage to make Eastleigh pay for the error. JAI REASON capitalised to steal possession cheaply in front of goal before finishing neatly by lifting the ball calmly over the on-rushing Gareth Barfoot.
Due to the prior unfortunate injury to Jamie Guy, there was a whopping eight minutes of injury time added on at the end of the first half.
In the third minute of time added on, Bradley Quinton hit a shot from 30-yards but Barfoot positioned himself well to get behind the ball and make the save.
Mark Jones also came close to extending the lead following a patient, passing build up play from Braintree. The Iron’s skipper drove a left-foot shot which skimmed off the surface and flew wide of the upright.
The final chance of the half fell to Eastleigh when Richard Graham worked the ball into the feet of McAuley down the left, whose shot from a tight angle was off target.
HALF TIME: Eastleigh 0-1 Braintree Town
Immediately after the break, Gareth Barfoot had to make a save following a long ball forward that saw Braintree turn defence into attack. Stefan Payne took the ball into his stride before holding off the challenge of Chris Holland only to be kept out by Barfoot who saved well with his legs at the near post.
From the resulting corner kick, Ollie Thorne’s diving header was wide of goal.
In the 52nd minute, Bradley Quinton set Payne free down the right. The striker got into the Eastleigh penalty area and dragged a low shot wide of goal.
Two minutes later, Chris Holland came the closest to an Eastleigh goal when he rose high to meet a set piece into the box, only to see his excellent header tipped over the bar by Nathan McDonald.
Braintree were a very organised side, as can be expected off a team who are top of the league. Their defence was particularly strong with Ollie Thorne standing out as a commanding presence at the heart of the back four. Eastleigh just couldn’t find a way through for a clear cut opening.
With the hour mark approaching, Nicky Symons struck the ball from a long way out, but Barfoot was equal to the powerful effort. Sean Marks was the next to come close for Braintree as he connected with Mark Jones’ cross from the left flank, though his header wasn’t on target.
Eastleigh made their first change with Ross Bottomley replacing Shaun McAuley, their second change followed shortly after when Justin Bennett came on for Danny Smith.
Stefan Payne was denied once more in the 68th minute following another good cross from Jones on the left hand-side. Barfoot kept the header out to keep the score the same, with the visitors still leading by Jai Reason’s first half strike.
Eastleigh were denied a reason to celebrate as Anthony Riviere linked up with Jamie Slabber before slotting the ball past the keeper and into the net. There was to be no equaliser however, as the referee’s assistant had his flag up for offside.
There was no shortage of action for the remainder of the game. Barfoot was alert to make a good save to keep Reason away from goal in the 75th minute, before better play from the Spitfires saw Bennett and Taggart combine to tee up Riviere. The Eastleigh midfielder wasn’t too far away with a shot that flew over the bar.
From a Quinton free kick, Adam Bailey-Dennis headed over Barfoot’s goal from close range in the 78th minute, whilst at the opposite end Taggart shot straight at McDonald despite options to his left and right.
Eastleigh began to throw bodies forward with time running out and had a spell of pressure where they looked as if they might salvage a share of the points. Richard Graham floated a free kick to the far post, where Bottomley forced a corner – only for Braintree to clear their lines.
Five minutes from time, 17-goal Jamie Slabber was agonisingly close to making it 7 goals in 6 games for the in-form striker as he curled a shot towards the top corner with an effort from 20-yards out.
Tom Jordan might feel aggrieved not to have been awarded a penalty in the 88th minute, but the referee was uninterested in any Eastleigh claims on this occasion.
The games fate was sealed in stoppage time, late in the game when Braintree were awarded their second penalty. Sean Marks raced into the Eastleigh penalty area, got past Barfoot but was caught by an outstretched leg. The Eastleigh stopper was shown a red card for denying a clear goal scoring opportunity, and there could be no complaints with the decision as he was the last man.
Jason Matthews was brought on as the Spitfires’ final substitution which saw Chris Holland sacrificed for the 10-men of Eastleigh. Sadly, the first thing Matthews did was face the penalty and pick the ball out of the net as JAI REASON despatched the spot-kick from 12-yards with confidence to the keeper’s right.
Next up for Eastleigh is an equally challenging home game on Monday night against Dover Athletic, weather permitting.
FULL TIME: Eastleigh 0-2 Braintree Town