Soaring Spitfires Showing Money Doesn't Matter

Their supporters can pin-point the exact moment they wondered what kind of a future their football club had.

The beaming bulbs of Sunderland’s Stadium of Light drew Stewart Donald in last summer, and many thought here we go again. The minute the news dropped, the questions quickly followed.

Eastleigh's likeable owner made his hardest decision in June 2018. He had to say goodbye to the club he had invested so much of his time and so much of his money into to attempt to revive the fortunes of some Black Cats whose luck had long since run out.

The Spitfires cheque-writer with a net worth said to be around £9million had called time on six years trying to get the club into the Football League. The temptation to raise the former Premier League mainstays from the bottom of the League One ocean was something he felt he had to do.

We all know it’s not uncommon for clubs to encounter problems once a benefactor’s attention is diverted. Some even don’t survive it.

For Eastleigh, it seems to be a totally different story. Gone are the days of marquee signings and high wage bills. In has come team spirit and a new lower-spend philosophy geared to make the very best of what they’ve got.

Instead of the ship slowly sinking, the south coast club are very much swimming. They so nearly achieved Donald’s EFL ambition without him last season, and this time around they’re well set for another challenge.

Ahead of the live BT Sport game with AFC Fylde this Saturday teatime, talented young manager Ben Strevens says he wouldn’t swap the current situation for the club’s deep-pocketed past for anything.

“In all honesty there are so many positives to working in the way we are now,” he told us.

“Things have changed here. I’ve been here with how it was and how it is now, we’ve got a new way of doing things - we’ve got stability and we’ve got a new approach to things.

“This season I have probably a budget which is 20 per cent less than what I had at the start of last season. Maybe 25 per cent less. That’s life. That’s where we are. Who’s to say that’s a bad thing? We are certainly not thinking we can get this club into League Two.

“Let’s talk openly, the club used to have one of the biggest budgets in the National League. They were spending. I’ve been involved for a number of years but last year, the first year without Stewart’s support, was actually one of my most enjoyable.

“That’s not to say he wasn’t fantastic for this football club. He said the moment he arrived that the day he eventually leaves, his only wish is that Eastleigh are in a better position than when he first walked through the door.

“Now we’ve got a wonderful ground, incredible facilities, a youth set up which I am very proud of and a supporter base which is five times the size of what it was.

“This may sound a little strange but I actually don’t think it’s really about big budgets at this level. Players’ abilities are usually not too far from each other, it’s about working with them, creating a strong bond, having a good work ethic within your group and building.

“I look at what Leyton Orient did last year, keeping their squad together and adding one or two - it’s that mentality that’s needed, not money.”

Strevens, 39, doesn’t join in with all that ‘not looking at the table’ talk.

He has clearly been looking at it closely - and found a fact which will surprise many.

It all started when we asked if he is surprised by AFC Fylde slow start of the season, with the Coasters winless since the second Saturday.

“Can you say any of the sides who were in the play-offs last season with us will be too happy about their current position?” he posed.

“We are 14th and the only team out of everyone from last year who are ahead of us are Solihull - and they’re in 12th place.

“Wrexham won’t be happy, Fylde won’t be either. Harrogate are 18th and I don’t think they have quite got going yet.

“But I tell you one thing, all of them clubs will get going - they will be putting on the pressure before you know it.

“Fylde are a good, good club with an excellent manager. They will be thinking as soon as they get that one result things will start to move.

“We don’t want to be the ones who help start it off for them of course but the table is strange at the moment. There are some big clubs in places they couldn’t have imagined.

“We went to Ebbsfleet in our last away game and they are bottom but wow that was a hard game. We had to be happy with the draw.”

It’s a much changed Eastleigh this year of course losing five key players over the summer.

It’s a by-product of their success says Strevens after coming to within a penalty kick of Wembley and the Promotion Final.

“When you are doing well people are going to be looking at you,” he said. “That’s natural.

“We lost players over the summer and that’s a part of what we have to cope with.

“We’ve got ourselves another good group here and we’re looking forward to the opportunity to show everyone on Saturday that we could have another good season.”

Pictures by Graham Scambler Photography

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