As with most students at the University of Southampton with even a passing interest in football, the lure of Premier League action a mere three miles or so from Highfield Campus at St. Mary’s Stadium, the home of Southampton Football Club, proved difficult to resist.
Several enjoyable evenings have since been spent, both in the afternoon sun or shivering underneath the floodlights, watching the Saints take on both the domestic heavyweights of the nation’s favourite sport along with some renowned names from abroad – Liverpool, Arsenal, Inter Milan and so on.
With the cost of tickets ever soaring and in dire need of capping in the top flight, a cost-effective alternative exists for students, and one which I’m inclined to argue they maybe should have invested in to begin with.
Eastleigh Football Club currently ply their trade in the National League, just a single step on the English footballing pyramid from the Football League, and with the Saints set for another season squabbling over the bottom reaches of the Premier League top-ten, the short journey to the Silverlake Stadium may prove a more satisfying day out.
At the time of writing, the Spitfires have made a positive start to the season under returning manager Richard Hill, with new signing Ben Williamson firmly in form after departing Cambridge United earlier this year.
The National League is no pushover either, with seasoned Football League sides including Aldershot, Dagenham & Redbridge, Hartlepool, Leyton Orient, Macclesfield and Tranmere Rovers all set to make a trip to Stoneham Lane over the next nine months.
That professional experience is reflected in Eastleigh’s squad, with the vast majority having plied their trade at higher levels before joining the Blues. Make no mistake about it – this is a football club assembling an arsenal capable on rewarding it’s loyal supporters with League football in the near future.
The club is just as ambitious off the pitch as it is on it too. The north terrace has a strikingly different aesthetic to it this season after the completion of a brand-new hospitality and conference venue in the summer – and more improvements to the spectator areas are firmly in the pipeline.
There’s something special about lower league football, and Eastleigh certainly captivates the imagination. Southampton are undoubtedly the dominant side on the south coast – but is there really anything rewarding about parting with £25 to watch a dull 1-0 victory against West Brom, when you could spend less than a third of the price to watch the Spitfires claim a resounding home victory that really means something to the club?
For the more invested supporter, Eastleigh make a welcome habit of rewarding fans where possible, a recent example being the use of unexpected television money to subsidise away travel to Leyton Orient for supporters, reducing return fares to just £2.
Watching Southampton play football is something every student should experience whilst it exists on their doorstep – but if you want a gripping story to engage with this season, do yourself a favour – head to the Silverlake Stadium instead. You might just find yourself witnessing the birth of a new Football League side.