The Blue Route: Eastleigh F.C. in the National League
Dave Burin looks back at Eastleigh’s first season in nonleague’s top division.
As the rebranding of the Conference National to the Vanarama National League launches, and BT Sport tighten their grip on non-league’s media output, seismic shifts are happening at small-town football clubs. Historic, humble old terraces are being replaced with impressive all-seater stands. An increasing number of Football League veterans are joining the non-league ranks. Football fans who don’t follow the non-league game closely are likely to take more attention to Gainsborough Trinity and Gosport Borough once they’re getting weekly coverage on national TV. All of that is just on the cusp of taking place. But in the tranquil Hampshire town of Eastleigh, another major footballing development is well underway.
Less than a year after the end of World War II, a local man named Derick Brooks gathered with his friends in a rural Hampshire pub named the Fleming Arms, with the intention of forming a football club. They named the club Swaythling Athletic, and by the early 1950s, they were already on their way to becoming stalwarts of the Hampshire League.
In 1980, the club rebranded as Eastleigh F.C., and six years later became founding members of the fledgling Wessex League. But it wasn’t until the turn of the new millennium that The Spitfires (as the club are affectionately known) really began to soar. In 2002-03 they eased to the Wessex League title, notching up a spectacular 103 points from 42 games, losing just three times all season. Two years later, they scaled the heady heights of promotion to the Conference South, beating now defunct Leyton F.C. in the Isthmian Premier Division’s play-off final, and making it a delightful double with a 3-1 triumph over Gosport Borough to win the Russell Coles Cup.
After two promotions in three wonderful years for The Spitfires, nine years in Conference South followed. Until 2011, stability, then play-off aspirations were seen as the benchmark, and Eastleigh fans knew their team was outstripping the achievements of the club’s proud but modest earlier history. In the summer of 2011, financial backing arrived from current chairman Stewart Donald. An Oxfordshire businessman who had struggled for funds to buy his boyhood club, Oxford United, Donald – with the profits from his company, Bridle Insurance – chose to direct his attention to Silverlake Stadium.
Whilst The Spitfires were cheaper to buy than the U’s, The Southern Daily Echo revealed in April 2015 that Donald will have pumped “£3m of his own cash into Eastleigh by the start of next season”. It’s a momentous sum for a football club playing at this level, so it’s likely that the Eastleigh chairman’s ambitions are for a quick ascent into the Football League.
Eastleigh’s significant financial muscle has displeased fans of some National League clubs with richer histories but smaller budgets. It isn’t difficult to see why. For supporters of teams like Wrexham, Grimsby Town or Lincoln City, their fanbase, coupled with a similar cash injection would likely catapult these historic clubs back into the Football League. But it’s worth nothing that Eastleigh have had to spend wisely for the money to reap rewards. Richard Hill – a long-time assistant to ex-Aston Villa manager John Gregory – was appointed Eastleigh manager in 2012, and charged with that task. Hill was able to sell the club’s vision (admittedly with the promise of high wages!) to the likes of Jack Midson, the prolific striker who joined from AFC Wimbledon, and James Constable, an imposing hitman poached from Donald’s beloved Oxford United.
Before the biggest marquee signings could be lured to Silverlake, though, Eastleigh needed to ensure Conference Premier football, and in the 2013-14 season, they finally topped Conference South, amassing an impressive 86 points from 42 games. Along the way they won 4-1 away at Whitehawk, achieved a 6-0 rout of Dorchester Town, orchestrated by the magnificent Jai Reason (who bagged a hat-trick on the day), and came from behind twice against Maidenhead United, to clinch a 3-2 win in injury-time. Such character cannot be built with mere bank notes.
Many predicted the club to have a strong season, based not just on the existence of major financial backing, but on the basis of small non-league sides such as Crawley Town and Fleetwood Town having won promotion to the Football League largely due to the attractive wages and (relatively) lucrative transfer fees they could offer. Still, whilst Eastleigh didn’t manage the double-bounce of promotion, the club’s 2014-15 campaign was an undoubted success.
Firstly, the draw of Conference Premier (now National League) football captured the town’s imagination. Silverlake Stadium saw an average crowd of 1,572 – putting Eastleigh in the league’s top half for attendances, and bringing an increase of over 150% on the previous season’s attendance. In the club’s first ever live televised game, they beat local rivals Aldershot 1-0 in injury time, and some strong home displays saw The Spitfires record 4-0 victories over Lincoln City and Macclesfield Town.
The team’s balance, too, looked good. This Eastleigh team are an ageing side – with five of their top six scorers aged 30 or over. Still, the mix of talented, experienced non-league campaigners like McCallister and Reason with potent ex-Football League veterans like Midson and Constable provided the basis for a side who were strong in attack.
Perhaps most frustratingly, it was against the league’s strugglers that Eastleigh’s form was most patchy. Despite having a consistent defensive line-up, The Spitfires were punished for some weak defensive displays, losing away at the likes of struggling Southport and relegated Alfreton. Yet, ironically, this might inspire some hope.
Victories over the likes of Macclesfield and Bristol Rovers show that Eastleigh can tackle the biggest teams, but a team with more experience in Non-League’s top tier and a little less experience in years might be needed if they are to kick on further. Just a few days after the heartbreaking play-off defeat to Grimsby Town, Spitfires manager Richard Hill told eastleighfc.com, “there are all sorts of different thoughts that have gone through my head”. With a little more time to reflect on how far the club have come, many of those thoughts may be extremely positive.