Torquay United 2
Matthews 18, 66
UNITED slipped into the bottom four on a night when long periods of attacking dominance were undone by sleepy defending at crucial times.
The Gulls controlled the first period but still went in behind at the interval after Sam Matthews was given the freedom of Plainmoor to score the opener. Luke Young equalised direct from a corner soon after the restart but celebrations had barely finished before Ayo Obileye pounced on more defensive hesitancy to edge Eastleigh back in front.
Shaun Harrad once again levelled with a lovely finish just past the hour but the game was lost when Matthews rocketed a super volley in off the post on 66 minutes, and the fight for survival has got a little tougher.
United boss Kevin Nicholson stuck with the same match-day squad that battled to an entertaining 0-0 draw with Tranmere last week. Myles Anderson passed muster after suffering a broken nose, although his visage carried the extra weight of a protective mask.
Eastleigh manager Richard Hill made three changes from the team that pinched a last-minute win at Chester on Saturday, with former Argyle defender Reda Johnson, Ben Close and striker Craig McAllister missing out. Obileye, Matthews and the imposing James Constable were the readymade replacements.
From the first minute, United were on the front-foot, with Young winning the ball in midfield and then a dangerous low cross from Dan Sparkes forcing Paul Reid into a decent near-post clearance.
Eastleigh began to find some semblance of rhythm, although United continued to probe down the left flank with Sparkes and Lathaniel Rowe-Turner seeking to test the credentials of teenage right-back Hakeem Odoffin, on loan with the Spitfires from Wolves.
The visitors responded to the mild pressure with a floated free-kick from Ryan Burge met by the rising Obileye and goalkeeper Brendan Moore did well diving low to his right to palm the ball wide of the post.
Moments later, the Gulls were left to rue a worrying hole in the defence and Matthews accepted the invitation to race clear before steering a low shot inside the far post. All a bit simple from a Yellow perspective and a strong response was crucial in such a big game.
Damon Lathrope attempted to set the tone with strong challenges in midfield, but the missing component was quality delivery in the final third, as genuine attacking penetration failed to match the clear endeavour.
When Sparkes did manage to fire over a fizzing low cross, Harrad did very well to turn his man but was denied a shot on Graham Stack’s goal by dogged defending from Reid.
Rowe-Turner was having a serious influence down the left and his determined work eventually led to a foul on Lathrope just outside the box. Sparkes took responsibility with a vicious low curler that Stack failed to hold, but Anderson could only bundle the rebound narrowly wide.
The Gulls were now playing some super stuff. Sparkes first had a shot charged down before Aman Verma cleverly recycled the ball to Young for a 20-yard curler that flew a whisker wide of the far corner.
The pressure was unrelenting and credit to Odoffin, standing up to an obvious strategy from United to target the youngster. The next effort stemmed from an inswinging corner and Stack was conspicuous in his failure to collect from inside his own box, but Verma headed over amid heavy Eastleigh pressure.
United switched their impetus to the right wing three minutes before half-time and lovely work between Young and Jared Hodgkiss culminated in a cross that narrowly eluded the unchecked run of Sparkes at the back post.
The Gulls had completely dominated possession and territory for 45 minutes, but half-time arrived with the only important stat in Eastleigh’s favour.
Sweeping rain on an unseasonably chilly evening greeted United for a massive half in the context of a desperate fight for survival but Eastleigh were first to pose a mild threat, with Constable’s low volley dragged well wide.
The intense storm began to subside just as the Yellows drew level, although the wind definitely played a major role, as a corner from Young caught on the breeze and completely deceived the hapless Stack on its way to hitting the Eastleigh net.
It was perhaps the slice of fortune United’s first-half dominance deserved but the visitors immediately restored their lead, and the culprit was criminal indecision in the home defence from a routine set-piece.
Obileye was alive to the hesitancy, lashing a decent finish into the roof of the net but an exasperating goal for all the Plainmoor natives, especially Nicholson and his coaching staff.
Sparkes attempted to dispel the frustration with a shot to the near-post that was charged down and the resultant corner culminated in an effort from Harrad jabbed well over the bar. Stack, meanwhile, continued his irritating role as pantomime villain, taking as much time as possible from every restart.
Thankfully, it mattered not, as Verma fed the ball wide to Rowe-Turner and his instant cross was beautifully controlled by Harrad, who then fired a tremendous low finish on the swivel beyond the right hand of Stack for a second leveller.
The next chapter in this excruciating saga was a half-cleared corner landing at the feet of Matthews and, however much it hurt, there was no argument with superb technique in guiding his 20-yard volley past Moore and into the bottom corner.
Nicholson immediately introduced Jamie Reid and Ruairi Keating for Harrad and Brett Williams, while Hill withdrew the beleaguered Odoffin for Ross Stearn.
There was understandable despondency around TQ1 after falling behind for a third time and the players had to dig deep to recover earlier intensity, as Hill further disturbed the rhythm with another substitution, replacing the impressive Matthews with Scott Wilson.
Reid did reply with a skidding drive narrowly wide of the far post and then the final Yellow change of Sam Chaney for Lathrope arrived with 11 minutes left on the clock. Yet more bench-activity, as McAllister joined the fray in place of Matt Tubbs.
Moore retained hope of rescuing a point when he blocked a drive from Wilson after Anderson had let the ball escape his reach.
Five minutes of added time gave the home faithful some hope but, despite throwing everything at their visitors, United ultimately paid the price for two bad goals and one cracker.
United (4-3-1-2): 1 Brendan Moore; 20 Jared Hodgkiss, 17 Myles Anderson, 15 Sean McGinty, 3 Lathaniel Rowe-Turner; 8 Luke Young, 4 Damon Lathrope (7 Sam Chaney 79), 12 Aman Verma (capt); 11 Dan Sparkes; 9 Shaun Harrad (19 Ruairi Keating 68), 14 Brett Williams (18 Jamie Reid 68). Substitutes (not used): 5 Giancarlo Gallifuoco, 31 Jordan Lee.
Booked: Young 88'
Tranmere (4-4-2): 37 Graham Stack; 29 Hakeem Odoffin (11 Ross Stearn), 15 Paul Reid, 24 Ayo Obileye, 3 Michael Green; 20 Gavin Hoyte, 14 Sam Togwell (capt), 16 Ryan Burge, 12 Sam Matthews (18 Scott Wilson); 10 Matt Tubbs (19 Craig McAllister 81), 9 James Constable. Substitutes (not used): 5 Adam Dugdale, 33 Tyler Garratt.
Referee: Christopher O’Donnell
Attendance: 1,528 (51 away)