A TOUGH one to take on the balance of play but the harsh reality is another morale-sapping defeat for the Gulls, and the fight for survival is going to be a massive challenge.
After conceding a soft opener to Sam Matthews on nine minutes, United responded positively and went in level at half-time thanks to a sweet strike from Luke Young.
The Gulls were in the ascendancy but hit by a sucker-punch from Gavin Hoyte and the chance to earn at least a point slipped away when Jamie Reid’s penalty was saved in the closing minutes.
United boss Gary Owers handed a debut in defence to new signing Conrad Balatoni but the other two recruits from this week, Reece Mitchell and Aaron Barnes, had to settle for a place on the bench.
Eastleigh arrive at Plainmoor with confidence high after Andy Hessenthaler’s men turned on the style in a 4-2 victory over Guiseley last weekend. The Spitfires included former Gulls Chris Zebroski and Danny Hollands in their starting line-up.
A bright start from the Gulls saw Michee Efete released down the right flank and his pinpoint cross was headed narrowly over by Jake Gosling. Eastleigh responded with a Zebroski shot into the side-netting.
A tremendous tackle from Liam Davis denied Zebroski in his next thrust but the visitors maintained the pressure with big defender Ayo Obileye climbing highest from a corner to force the recalled Ryan Clarke into a fine tip over the bar.
The opening goal arrived moments later and it was painfully soft from a United perspective, as Matthews was given far too much room to engineer a low shot toward the bottom corner and Clarke will feel he should have got enough on the effort to turn it around the post.
Eastleigh were enjoying their afternoon, with Bradley Hudson-Odoi skipping into the left channel and his deflected cross had to be hacked clear of the six-yard area by a retreating Sean McGinty.
United came back with a swift run from Efete, feeding George Dowling for a pass to Gosling, who dinked his effort toward the top corner and it needed a good save from Ross Flitney to prevent a swift equaliser.
The game descended into a midfield tussle and Eastleigh were sitting quite comfortably on their lead. A sumptuous touch from Luke Young sparked one foray and a cross from Jamie Reid almost caught Flitney out of position with Alex Fletcher lingering in the box.
It proved to be the appetiser for a deserved leveller, as a weak clearance from Eastleigh fell perfectly for Young to set himself and then rifle an excellent low drive into the bottom corner from 20 yards. A great goal from the Southway Beckham, as he is known in his hometown of Plymouth.
A surge down the left from Tommy O’Sullivan led to a strong handball shout from his driven cross but waved away by referee Peter Wright. The lively Gosling then had another effort fired narrowly wide after a lovely turn 25 yards from goal.
The Spitfires had to replace the injured Hollands with Sam Togwell just before half-time and the opening 45 minutes concluded with another decent attempt from Gosling just missing the far post.
A weaving run and cross from Reid sparked the second period into life and the near-post run from O’Sullivan resulted in an effort deflected wide by the covering Sam Wood.
United then put together a delicious move involving Efete and Young culminated in the ball falling to Gosling, who was extremely unfortunate to see his clever low curler graze the outside of the post with Flitney beaten.
Ben Williamson replaced Hudson-Odoi on the hour, as Hessenthaler sought to change the pattern of proceedings. It was a forlorn hope, as United continued turning the screw and the Eastleigh defending was increasingly desperate.
James Constable for Mark Yeates was the final change for the visitors and Owers turned to Mitchell in place of Fletcher for the final 20 minutes, with Reid moving into a central role.
From nowhere, United fell behind again and, while it was completely against the run of play, credit to Hoyte for neatly controlling the cross-field pass and steering an assured finish past the onrushing Clarke.
Ruairi Keating replaced the hobbling Gosling in an attempt regain the initiative and a foul on Dowling did just the job. The referee seemed unsure at first but eventually pointed to the spot and Reid took responsibility.
The penalty was struck low and hard, but Flitney guessed right to make a fine save low to his left. It was a situation that sadly summed up United’s fortunes at present.
A low cross from Davis very nearly presented with the chance for instant redemption but fair play to Obileye for an excellent block tackle. Nothing else left in the tank for United but a day when the performance warranted a better outcome.
United (4-3-3): 1 Ryan Clarke; 2 Michee Efete, 26 Conrad Balatoni, 5 Sean McGinty (capt), 3 Liam Davis; 24 George Dowling, 8 Luke Young, 17 Tommy O’Sullivan; 11 Jake Gosling (10 Ruairi Keating 75), 28 Alex Fletcher (15 Reece Mitchell 69), 19 Jamie Reid. Substitutes (not used): 4 Damon Lathrope, 21 Aaron Barnes, 30 Vincent Dorel (GK).
Eastleigh (4-4-2): 13 Ross Flitney; 2 Gavin Hoyte, 15 Ayo Obileye, 27 Callum Howe (capt), 7 Sam Wood; 24 Miley Cavaghn, 10 Mark Yeates (8 James Constable 67), 19 Danny Hollands (4 Sam Togwell 45), 26 Sam Matthews; 11 Chris Zebroski, 17 Bradley Hudson-Odoi (25 Ben Williamson 58). Substitutes (not used): 22 Andrew Boyce, 30 Frazer Shaw.
Booked: Matthews 58
Referee: Peter Wright
Attendance: 1,486 (67 away)