As part of our series on Non-League football ahead of this weekend’s Non-League Day, Southampton supporter Neil Cotton travelled the short distance to Havant, on the outskirts of Portsmouth, to see Havant & Waterlooville take on Eatsleigh in an early season local derby in the Blue Square South.
The sunny August bank holiday is almost deceptive with the lazy calmness as it spreads over the compact but well appointed ground. Westleigh Park will shortly be witness to the latest edition of a rapidly heating rivalry as home side Havant and Waterlooville take on Eastleigh. It is a young rivalry. Havant and Waterlooville being been formed as the result of a merger between Havant Town and Waterlooville FC relatively recently as 1998. The success it brought loosely coincided with Eastleigh’s awakening from their long time slumber in the Wessex League., and both clubs found their way to the Conference South. They played their maiden competitive fixture against each other in 2005 with Havant claiming a 2-1 victory.
An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that the rivalry between theses two teams rides on the coat-tails of that most infamous south-coast rivalry; Eastleigh is a shor hop over the greenbelt from Southampton and Havant and Waterlooville a stones-throw from Portsmouth who use Westleigh for their reserve games. This, though, is no case of little brothers squabbling in the shadows of their older siblings, but an intense rivalry which in recent years has acquired a back-story all of its own, a bitter affair taking in feuding former friends, shifting allegiances and controversy at virtually every turn.
This owes much to events in October 2007 when then Havant manager Ian Baird, who as a striker turned out for both Southampton and Portsmouth, accepted the offer of the managers position at Eastleigh a club harbouring similar ambitions to reach the pinnacle of non-league football. Havant expressed their shock at the move; Baird being only two months into a three year contract and an ensuing wrangle over compensation resulted with the threat of an injunction for breach of contract hovering in the air briefly, before evaporating when a compensation deal was reached between the clubs.
Despite Havant’s website stating that the reasons for Baird’s departure “remain shrouded in mystery”, the Havant Secretary Trevor Brock was at the time keen to dispel any conspiracy theories in telling the Southern Daily Echo that there had been “no arguments or bust-ups” and that Baird simply “said he wanted the challenge of managing a club on his doorstep with much greater resources”, adding that Baird, “genuinely seems to feel he has taken our current squad as far as he can.” Shaun Gale, Baird’s former assistant who Baird reportedly wanted to take with him to Eastleigh was installed as first-team manager at Westleigh Park and publicly wished his former boss well praising him for the strong position in which he had left his previous club.
Just seven weeks later Gale led the team to a famous 1-0 victory over Notts County in the second round of the FA Cup. The side then made history by defeating Swansea on the way to a thrilling heroic fourth round encounter with Liverpool taking the lead twice before collapsing 5-2 drained but elated with the heady romance of the competition. In the less glamorous business of league however, form was harder to maintain with the team managing a disappointing 7th place in the Blue Square South table. Meanwhile, Baird, like many managers who switch clubs, had his eye on at least some of his former squad including team captain, defender Tom Jordan.
The Tom Jordan affair would severely damage relations between the clubs. Havant insisted their player was not for sale, rejecting subsequent offers for Jordan. However, Jordan was committed to re-joining Baird a position which led to him relinquishing the captaincy and sitting out the Notts County tie along with much of the season before eventually signing for Eastleigh in the close season. At its nadir, the saga saw accusations from Havant assistant manager Charlie Oatway of foul play telling The News that Eastleigh had been ‘tapping-up’ some of their players, a claim which was vigorously denied by Eastleigh. Oatway also claimed that Baird’s Havant contract had contained a clause which prevented him from signing Havant players for a six-month period in the event of him leaving the club.
Hostilities were still in evidence last season during the meeting between the two teams, played at Eastleigh’s Silverlake ground on an appropriately frosty February day. Prior to the match, the managers programme comments were notable largely by their absence. Wounds were still raw and Baird, it seemed, was remaining tight lipped. On the pitch Havant recorded a 1-0 away win in a game which became, unsurprisingly, a niggly affair. Whilst this was being played out on the pitch, a row broke out over the issuing of boardroom passes with Havant directors declining pre-match and half-time hospitality as only the usual ten passes were supplied rather than the requested twelve. Eastleigh retorted that had an e-mail been sent they would have provided the requested number.
The end of the game also generated fresh controversy with Baird’s refusal to shake his former assistant and successors Shaun Gale’s hand at the final whistle. When asked to explain Baird told Daily Echo reporter Wendy Gee that, “He’s not my cup of tea, let’s just leave it at that.” Baird added to the air of pantomime surrounding the day by adding the suggestion, over Gale’s reaction to the handshake incident, that the Havant manager should apply for an equity card.
Against this backdrop, the latest instalment kicked off in the August sun. Gale has taken the opportunity provided by the programme notes to ponder on the nature of derby games, possibly hinting at recent history, by saying “As we all know it is still only three points we are playing for but for some reason there is always an extra spice in these games.” Gale’s words must have been taken to heart by Havant’s experienced ex-Portsmouth wide-man Sammy Igoe; scoring the first goal against the run of play he sprints the length of the ground to cup his ear in front of the away supporters, firmly establishing himself as the Eastleigh fans newest villain.
As for his opposite number in the villain stakes, Jordan; his name receives boos from three sides of the ground as the team is announced and he is later caught in a tussle with Havant midfielder Bobby Hopkinson as they tangle on the floor following Jordan’s header over the bar. Hopkinson then appears to lash out at Jordan, but he is beyond the sight of the referee and manages to stay on the pitch. Later, karma rears its head when Hopkinson concedes a soft looking penalty for a foul on Jordan at the end of the first half. The spot kick is coolly slotted in the bottom corner by Jamie Slabber; one of Havant’s side on that day at Anfield. Derby-day tackles abound and Mustafa Tiryaki puts Havant in front again with a blasted free-kick before Chris Holland heads in from a corner in added time. It finishes 2-2, and Sean Gale gives an interview referring to Eastleigh as ‘a set piece team’. Talk about damned by faint praise.
And so another chapter is added to growing rivalry. Many local rivalries in non-league football can have a somewhat transitory feel to them as rivals overtake each other and some go to the wall. For now, though, having played in the same level for several seasons, Eastleigh and Havant & Waterlooville have built a healthy rivalry that should end up lasting for a good few years yet which, if channelled healthily, might just prove to be to the benefit of both clubs.