In just twelve short years, Eastleigh FC have risen from the local leagues to the brink of the play-offs for the football league. The rise maybe meteoric but the foundations are firmly in place for even bigger success in the future, Thanks, in no small part, to one of the most ambitious and forward thinking chairman in football today.
Founder of insurance company Bridle, Stewart Donald has built the club from the bottom up over the last few years, in the same way that he has built his business into one of the biggest insurance brokers in the south of England. Along with business partner Neil Fox, Donald would purchase five or six insurance companies over the course of 15 months after striking out on their own together in May 2009. With staff numbers increasing five fold over the course of the same period to handle the increase in customers, it’s not hard to see how he could afford to become the shirt sponsor of his boyhood heroes Oxford United.
His involvement in Eastleigh came about after a failed attempt of a complete takeover at Oxford. Still, Oxford’s loss has certainly become Eastleigh’s gain. One of his early tasks was to sack a formerly popular manager in Iain Baird (who admittedly had gone very stale at the Silverlake outfit). Donald then appointed Richard Hill, a former Stevenage Borough manger (and assistant manager at Wycombe Wanderers, QPR and Aston Villa). His first full season in charge ended with defeat on penalties in the semi-final of the Conference South play-offs against Dover Athletic.
The following season in 2013/14, ended with the Spitfires walking away with the Conference South title and their first ever season in the Conference Premier for this season, 2014/15. Now with six games remaining, Hill’s men lie in seventh place, two places and two points off the final play-off place with a game in hand. This is all a massive cry from how the club began way back in 1946.
Formed on 22nd May 1946 by Derik Brooks and a group of friends in the Fleming Arms Public House as Swaythling Athletic originally. They entered the Hampshire League in 1950 and by now the name had been changed to just Swaythling. They remained one of the most consistent sides in the Hampshire League during their 36 year stay, equalling their highest finish of fourth three times in the early 1980’s (1982, 84 and 85). In 1986 they became one of the founding members of the brand new Wessex League, finishing 8th in their first season of 1986-87. The Spitfires didn’t achieve a top seven finish until 1995-96 when fourth place was achieved at the beginning of a sequence of six consecutive top seven finishes.
Paul Doswell arrived in 2002 which signalled a run of three successive promotions. Brief spells in both the Southern League and Isthmian League saw Doswell’s men rise into the newly formed Conference South, where the club would remain for nine years until Captain Glenn Southam held the trophy aloft into the late April 2014 sky at the Silverlake Stadium, to signal a much deserved escape to non-league football’s topflight. Suddenly sat-navs were being set for places such as Bristol Rovers, Macclesfield Town, Gateshead and Grimsby.
A true rags to riches story for a small club. Off the field, Stewart Donald has done a remarkable job. The ground has now risen to over a 5,000 capacity following the completion of a 2,300 seater stand at the motorway end of the ground. That stand coupled with a covered terrace down one side of the pitch, which holds over 1,000 fans, has put the club in a position to attempt league football. Several free entry games (for both sets of fans) and a large sum of money being invested into the supporters club for away travel, means this is a club with a rapidly increasing fan base. Indeed just a few weeks ago, over 4,000 witnessed a 4-0 drubbing of Macclesfield Town at the Silverlake Stadium, in a game which was screened live on BT Sport. Stewart Donald is a man on a mission, destined for great things and desperate to achieve football league status for Eastleigh FC, and I for one, would back him all the way. Up the Spitfires.