Eastleigh's promotion push has started slowly
Conference South side replace manager
18 September ~ Saturday's 4-2 victory over Maidenhead United eased Eastleigh's stuttering start to this season's Conference South. It was the first game in charge for former Stevenage manager and Aston Villa assistant Richard Hill, who was appointed on Wednesday following the removal of ex-Leeds striker Ian Baird the previous day. Despite never having played above the sixth tier of English football expectations were high in Hampshire. Numerous players with experience higher up have joined the club, which is based less than five miles north of Southampton.
Craig McAllister was part of the Crawley side that won promotion to League Two and started their FA Cup tie at Old Trafford in 2011, before turning being part of the Luton squad at Wembley for last season's play-off final. Jai Reason has Conference experience for Cambridge United and Braintree, while Glen Southam and Damian Scannell have recent League experience with Dagenham & Redbridge and Mark Hughes has two caps for Northern Ireland.
This is a strong group of players for a club whose highest finish was third in their current division five years ago. While Eastleigh appear to have a good commercial department it is clear that they are benefitting from significant investment to be able to attract such a squad. This is an increasingly common trait among success-hungry teams even below the Conference National, with mixed success.
For every Fleetwood, flush with funds that may prove sufficient to outdo even their new League Two rivals, there is a Histon or Truro who threaten to overlook unsustainable budgets and a tiny following before relapsing, unrealistic goals dashed and finances depleted, to a more natural divisional habitat.
This year's Conference South contains a new breed of ambitious clubs, as Eastleigh captain Daryl McMahon explained before the season. "We've got a lot of quality players but it's not just us. There are other teams spending lots of money like Havant & Waterlooville and Dover and they've signed good players." While Dover are rivalled only by Chelmsford and Salisbury in benefitting from the biggest support in the south division – all three average nearly 800 – Eastleigh have had gates of around 550 for each of the last four years.
Results before Baird's departure did not befit a side with promotion ambitions. Consecutive 3-0 wins over the August Bank Holiday weekend were the only successes in the seven matches before Saturday. They were followed by a home defeat against Dover and losses at Dorchester and Billericay, the latter 4-0, prompting the man who signed the entire squad to be moved on just two weeks into September.
Hill takes charge of a side still ranked as joint second favourites to go up this year, behind Dover and alongside last year's play-off finalists Welling, but there is work to be done if the dream of Conference football at Silverlake Stadium is to come to fruition. Matt Ramsay