By Matt Badcock
What that coming over the hill? While eyes have been focused on the chopping and changing at the top of the National League, Eastleigh have been quietly inching their way up the table and into serious promotion contention.
Last weekend, any hopes of that unassuming rise continuing were unceremoniously dashed when they rolled over Salford City in their own back yard to kick the play-off door open and properly announce their arrival. It was a sixth win in seven games that took Ben Strevens’ Spitfires into fifth place before last weekend’s defeat at home to FC Halifax Town.
“That’s all it is, we’ve kept winning games of football,” Strevens told The NLP. “To be fair to all the teams in the top half, they were all winning too. So for a long time no one was really talking about us because everyone else was doing well.
“The last couple of weeks – and winning away at Salford – catapulted us up to fifth place and people are now speaking about us but we’ve been quite happy going about our business and getting on with things.
“We’ve been fortunate with a settled side and it’s just been down to hard work on the training pitch. I’ve got Jason Bristow as my assistant and Ross Flitney as goalkeeper coach – they’ve been great, they’re doing loads for me. I’m realising it’s a real big team effort and the boys are going out and performing for us on a Saturday.”
Since Strevens stepped up from his role as assistant to Andy Hessenthaler, who returned to the Dover Athletic dug-out, back in October, Eastleigh have lost just three games.
It’s a run that shows why the club appointed from within after Strevens’ caretaker impact stood out while they conducted an in-depth recruitment process. In the end, their man was already in the building.
Strevens knew the club from playing and coaching there under Richard Hill and Martin Allen before becoming Hessenthaler’s No.2.
Eastleigh were backed, on and off the pitch, to the verge of the Football League by businessman Stewart Donald, but the landscape shifted earlier this season when the owner took over League One side Sunderland.
Strevens says that hasn’t changed the ultimate aims. The days of a bloated squad were already gone and the former
Barnet and Dagenham player felt he had the players equipped to make a push.
“There’s been a lot said about Eastleigh the last couple of years,” Strevens said. “The foundations have been really good for us. The environment we get to work in, the facilities at the ground that were built by Stew and all the hard work he’s done, we’re reaping the rewards now. Even Hilly last season stabilising the club and Hess taking it on again. I’ve been quite fortunate I’ve followed on from those guys.
“Any manager who is doing well is more of a reflection of the people they’ve got around them. The boys have been really good, even when I stopped playing and became a coach, then into the assistant manager role, they’ve always been really respectful of what I’m trying to do. The people around me are making it really easy to be the manager.
“Of course, if things are going badly everyone looks at the manager and if things are going good you get a bit of the limelight. But I’m well aware it’s the people working hard around me who are getting the results and I’m not getting carried away. We’ve got to keep going.”
In 21-goal top scorer Paul McCallum they have one of the most in-from strikers in the league and Strevens says there is a down-to-earth confidence among a squad enjoying their shot at finishing in the top seven.
“I’ve been in loads of dressing rooms and it’s hard when you’re down at the bottom and trying to keep everyone’s spirits high and you get little knockbacks,” Strevens added. “Then if you’re in the middle of the league it’s very hard to get people motivated towards the end of the season because you know you’re not getting promoted or relegated.
“But when you get into a position of being around the play-offs it really pushes everyone on.
“A big part of our success – and it’s got to keep like that until the end of the season – is how well they train with each other. Even the boys who are so unfortunate not to be playing. It’s my job to look after the ones who aren’t playing and let them know how important they are because without them pushing in training, we wouldn’t be able to go out and perform.
“We’ve got 12 massive games. Everyone is fighting for different reasons so they will be tough games but we’re enjoying it. It’s a nice pressure to have.”