Eastleigh: The most important game of the season

My title is ironic, as we know the most important game is always the next game. Tomorrow is as important as any of the other cup finals we have, when you’re sat atop of the league going into the final three weeks then there are no dead-rubber matches. Tomorrow we travel to Eastleigh, a fixture that looked incredibly daunting at the start of the season, but one that perhaps has less venom in it now.

The Spitfires were tipped to be in the top five come the end of the season, but having spent big in the summer and starting poorly, Chris Todd was relieved of his duties before 2016 was finished. That wily old fox Ronnie Moore turned up and left, as did ‘mad’ Martin Allen. For a team that have built steadily and sensibly it seems a shame that they’ve sullied that image by throwing money at managers without consistency or success. The latest incumbent is Richard Hill, a man who has been very complimentary about Lincoln in the press recently. I hope his geniality extends to his players tomorrow, and what is a non-event for them results in a Lincoln win.

It’s a non-event because they are too far adrift of the play-offs to have anything to compete for, but also far enough away from the bottom four not to be worried about relegation. Having expected to do well they have shrivelled away, and the loss of Michael Mandron perhaps signalled their intention to knock down the expensively assembled under-achieving side and start rebuilding. If that is the case tomorrow we could face a team of players fighting for contracts, and mid-table or not that could be a tricky prospect.

A lot also depends on which Eastleigh turn up. Prior to last weekend they had won three out of four games, with impressive away victories over Torquay and Chester included. They’d also beaten Barrow, a notoriously tricky team to face and earned a credible draw at play-off chasing Gateshead. Then along came Dagenham and stuffed four past them without reply, reminding them of the frailties they’d experienced before the mini revival.  They started 2017 with a 11 match winless run, and that only included four draws as well, although two were Forest Green and Aldershot.

There’s little doubt Eastleigh are a talented team who, on their day, can match anyone in the league. Now they’re safe, will we see them relax a little? Is last weekend an indication that they are not up for a fight when the promotion hunting teams are in opposition?

They do have a team which is a nice blend of experience and youth. Players such as Sam Togwell and Matt Tubbs have been around long enough to know what is required at this level, as has out of favour striker James Constable. I’ve said it already, but on their day these players are as good as any we’ll face in the National League. Midfielder Sam Matthews, on loan from Bournemouth, is a young player we’ll have to watch and Hakeem Odofin is a tough defender on loan from Wolves.

This Tuesday we gained some revenge on Luke Howell, the Dagenham midfielder that featured for us in the disaster that was 2010/11. This weekend we get to do the same to Gavin Hoyte, a player brought in on loan by Steve Tilson that featured in home defeats against Shrewsbury (5-1) and Bury (5-0). He arrived at Eastleigh with Martin Allen from Barnet, but he’s kept his place under Richard Hill. If he turns in the sort of performances that he did back in 2011, we’ll be home and dry by five past three.

We’ve only met Eastleigh six times prior to tomorrow’s game, and the record doesn’t make pretty reading. We do have one win, the excellent 3-0 home performance last season. Matt Rhead bagged a stunner, with Jack Muldoon and James Caton getting the other two. The first three meetings all went in their favour though, in 2014/15 we lost 2-1 at home, 4-0 away and 2-1 away in the FA Cup. Since then as well as the win we have drawn twice, 1-1 at theirs last year and the 0-0 earlier in the season at Sincil Bank (played on Danny’s birthday). We may have won one in six but we haven’t lost against them since April 2015.

What has happened in the past doesn’t matter one bit though. It’s all about tomorrow, and on paper it is mid-table side playing the champions elect. We need to win the game, irrespective of what that lot from Birkenhead do, and irrespective of what results have been over the last few years. Do that and we’ll take another step towards the promised land of League Football. Who ever thought that the promised land would consist of away trips to Hartlepool and Colchester?