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National League in focus: Eastleigh

Despite former Chairman Stewart Donald leaving the club for Sunderland over the summer, Eastleigh have surprised many onlookers to reach the National League Play-Offs. 

Ahead of their eliminator at Wrexham tomorrow night, we caught up with our Spitfires reporter Simon Carter to find out about what the mood is like at the Hampshire club 

How has this season been for Eastleigh?

When looking at Eastleigh’s season you need to put it in the context of their recent history. When they first came up they made it into the play-offs in 2015 and with Stewart Donald providing the money they had a very strong budget and were able to attract Football League players like James Constable.

There was certainly a lot of money around and from 2015 onwards they tended to come in around mid-table but with a few relatively high profile managers.

Last summer, after Stewart Donald left to take over Sunderland, I honestly thought that they would struggle this season. Even though most of the players from last year stayed on, they have massively surprised me in reaching the play-offs.

They will certainly have had a smaller budget this season and certain things that Stewart introduced such as letting people in for free once a season have had to stop.

You can’t fault what they have done with a small squad and a team that relies pretty heavily on just a few players for scoring and providing assists.

Whenever I have seen them at home, where admittedly the results have been worse than when they have been on the road, I have noted a lack of pace.

Going forward, Chris Zebroski, who has been in and out of the team is their main forward outlet for pace, which means they have relied heavily on full backs Josh Hare and Michael Green, who do provide good support and pace.

At the back the fact Reda Johnson has got a full, mainly fit season under his belt has been hugely instrumental.

With this in mind, are the play-offs a bit of a free hit?

For certain the pressure is off them on Thursday night against Wrexham. They have managed to sneak into the play-offs on minus goal difference, which really tells you something.

Wrexham will have a big crowd behind them, which in a strange way could add a greater weight of expectation and pressure onto them.

As I have mentioned before, Eastleigh have tended to play their best football away from home, so you never know what could happen but it is certainly going to be an uphill task.

Where you worried that the departure of Andy Hessenthaler could de-rail the season?

To begin with there was a lot of talk that Ben Strevens wouldn’t get the job because there were a few disappointing results, however they picked up good draws against Leyton Orient and Salford, which were much better performances.

The decision to appoint Strevens was a good handover and it allowed for a sense of continuity, with him having previously been a coach.

The club had had their hands burned a few times before by bringing in big name managers like Ronnie Moore and Martin Allen, which didn’t really work out and also ended up costing the club a lot of money

Have there been any differences in playing style under Strevens?

There has a bit. One of his first moves was to bring in Jason Bristow who was the Basingstoke manager and a decorated coach and he has had a big effect behind the scenes.

I always think that managers kind of chisel their teams into their own persona and under Hessenthaler, who was himself a competitive central midfielder, the team didn’t seem to mind giving away things like cheap free kicks.

However, under Strevens they have tried to play a bit more football and be more expansive. It hasn’t always worked but it has represented a change.

How optimistic are you for the club’s long term future?

Considering where the club have come from it is amazing to think that they are potentially just a few games away from reaching the Football League.

I am not entirely sure whether they are ready for it quite yet but if the opportunity arises you don’t turn it down.

In football you always want to improve and, even if they lose at Wrexham, there will be a sense of optimism that they can go on and move forward next season

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