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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

How a devastating injury saved this club from extinction and propelled them to the promised land

Football's Front Lines: "If we lost that game, there would probably be no club now"

The threat of extinction has loomed over plenty of clubs throughout history.

However, few have banished football’s grim reaper in such dramatic fashion as AFC Bournemouth.

Not only did the Cherries survive relegation from League Two after a 17-point penalty, they escalated to the Premier League where they have established themselves as mid-table entertainers.

Bournemouth are currently three-and-a-half seasons into their Premier League residency — the club’s only top-flight spell in their 119-year history.

While their presence in the world’s most-watched league is increasingly familiar, we must not take for granted the magnitude of the endeavour required to reach English football’s promised land.

And, more importantly, the efforts of the inspirational figure at the helm.

Home of a special decade

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Home of a special decade

“We used to sing ‘we’re only here for a season’ but then we found we can live in this division.”

Those are the words of Peter Bell, the knowledgeable Bournemouth fan behind the Cherry Chimes blog, when I spoke to him just before Christmas about what Bournemouth’s Premier League status meant to the fans.

“We’d only been to the Championship [equivalent] once before, under Harry Redknapp in the 80s.

“We were in the wilderness for 100 years.”

The ‘wilderness’ Peter refers to is the gap between the third and fourth tiers of English — the club have spent the majority of their existence bouncing between the two divisions.

But in 2008, it looked as if the wilderness would swallow them whole when the club went into administration.

Recognise him?

Action Images - Reuters
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Recognise him?

After relegation from League One, they were deducted 17 points, making them heavy favourites to drop out of the Football League altogether.

And then, a miracle from the ashes of a tragedy.

Long before he was a much-admired figure in the dugout, Eddie Howe was a fan favourite at Dean Court as a player.

A talented defender, he was called up to play for England Under-21s in 1998, alongside the likes of Jamie Carragher and Frank Lampard.

However, shortly after transferring to Portsmouth, he suffered a dislocated knee that left him a shell of his former self.

“I had lost all power,” Howe told the Telegraph in 2015. “The joint was never the same.

“I was very keen to finish while people remembered me for the player I was, rather than the player I had become.”

A promising talent in his younger days

Rex Features
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A promising talent in his younger days

Howe’s premature retirement proved to be a blessing in disguise for the fans who knew him best.

After Jimmy Quinn was sacked, Howe was appointed Bournemouth manager halfway through the 2008/09 season at just 31-years-old, making him the youngest manager in the Football League.

“He took over at a very difficult time,” Peter told me. “The club was in a pretty perilous state.

“It was a massive gamble. He decided to take on the challenge and it was quite remarkable really.”

That it was.

In the last home game of the season, club hero Steve Fletcher scored a late winner against Grimsby to complete the great escape and ensue the club’s survival in the Football League.

Just one of the reasons the North Stand is now named after him…

PA:Empics Sport
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Just one of the reasons the North Stand is now named after him…

Michael Dunne, author of Dean Court Days, remembers it well: “If we lost that game, there would probably be no club now.”

This sounds hyperbolic, but it’s a fair assessment — Non-League status could have finished Bournemouth off once and for all.

Howe’s role in the great escape (and beyond) is unanimously acknowledged by the fans.

“He supported the club as a boy,” Michael said. “He’s really a fan’s dream.

“At every stage of his life he’s been involved with the club. He’s always had the fans on his side.”

Evidence of another former player-turned-manager in the North East corner of the ground

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Evidence of another former player-turned-manager in the North East corner of the ground

I spoke to several fans when I visited the Vitality Stadium earlier this season, and all reinforced Howe’s positive impact on the club’s history and identity.

“It would be interesting to see AFC Bournemouth with a manager who is not Eddie Howe,” said Stephen of the Tales From the South End fan site.

“He’s easily got to be in the top ten managers in the country.”

I asked Stephen where he thought Bournemouth would be if Howe had not prematurely called time on his playing career and taken the managerial reins at 31.

“We would probably still be in League Two,” he replied.

Howe’s injury has proved to be a decisive moment in Bournemouth’s history, a favourable Sliding Doors consequence.

Had his knee held up, the club would probably still be small fish in a small pond — they may even have ceased to exist.

Stephen of Tales From the South Stand

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Stephen of Tales From the South Stand

Howe left the club in 2011 to take charge at Burnley, who were in the Championship at the time, but returned 18 months later following his mum’s death.

Grief made him re-evaluate his life, and in particular, his work.

As a result, he returned to his spiritual home on the south coast and continued where he left off, eventually leading the Cherries to the Premier League.

“He’s been brilliant for the club,” lifelong fan Tony told me prior to Bournemouth’s 2-0 win over Brighton in December.

“Everyone loves him. What he’s been very good at is getting the players to gel as a team.

“He’s not looking for standout stars or big egos.”

Team spirit has always been cited as an influential factor in Bournemouth’s fairy tale rise from the brink of extinction to the top flight.

Players such as Marc Pugh and Simon Francis remain key members of the squad today, having joined when the club were in League One.

Francis has been through a lot with Bournemouth

PA:Press Association
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Francis has been through a lot with Bournemouth

Not only have Bournemouth survived in the Premier League, they have entertained.

Howe believes in developing players and the merits of attacking football, aspects which have set Bournemouth apart from most other clubs who prioritise survival.

“We’re very proud of the way the team plays,” said Peter.

“It’s easy to say play out from the back but it’s another thing to do it, to get the ball through the thirds and keep the passing quick and efficient.

“There were games when we played out from the back and things did go badly.

“But he [Howe] was very much from the mind of, we have to continue with this if we are going to build these players.

“We love the football, we expect it now. If anyone else came in and tried to do something different, the fans would probably be on their back pretty quickly.”

Old friends

PA:Press Association
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Old friends

Stephen echoed this opinion: “Eddie wants attacking football, entertaining football.

“I’d much rather come and see that and lose than see other dross and draw 0-0 every week.”

In many ways, Howe is the antithesis of the old-school ‘proper football men’ profile attached to the most notable English managers currently active.

He shadowed Maurizio Sarri during the Italian coach’s time at Empoli in a bid to learn possession-based training methods.

Bournemouth played Sarri’s Napoli in a pre-season friendly in 2017, allowing the two tacticians to catch up and exchange knowledge once more.

Cut from the same cloth

Rex Features
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Cut from the same cloth

In January of 2017, Ryan Fraser said he ‘couldn’t believe’ how much Pep Guardiola reminded him of Howe after reading the former’s book.

Sarri and Guardiola’s resources, both in terms of players and transfer kitties, dwarf those available to Howe.

Many neutrals like to imagine how Howe would fare at a top six club, while Cherries fans are keen for such a practice to remain hypothetical.

It’s almost impossible to underestimate the credentials of a man who is primarily responsible for a club enjoying life in a league three or four standards above what was expected of them not long ago.

A space for life?

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A space for life?

Bournemouth’s stadium is a constant reminder of their past life.

At just over 11,000, its capacity is lower than the home grounds of Bury, Tranmere and Non-League’s Gateshead.

Given the club’s history, stadium and resources in comparison to their Premier League rivals, it’s understandable the club are often thought of as perennial plucky underdogs.

But is this reputation fair or a tad patronising?

“When we first came into the Premier League we were classed as underdogs with good reason,” Tony told me.

“Small stadium, small fan base, a team with no stars.

“But somehow we have consolidated our position and we have proved that on our day we can match the other teams.”

Two players who have flourished this season

Reuters
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Two players who have flourished this season

“There’s always a sort of ‘David and Goliath’ thing with Bournemouth,” Peter said. “It keeps us grounded, we want to be the David and beat some of the biggest clubs in the world.

“I think the mentality of the club is very strong. There’s no limit to the ambitions of the club just because we’ve got a small ground.”

In exploring Bournemouth’s identity I discovered something of contradiction that could perhaps be divided up into the realms of past, present and future.

Their journey from administration (and all the desperation that accompanies it) to the utopia of the Premier League is so impressive it cannot be overlooked.

And yet it shouldn’t define them as overachievers who are in the top flight for a good time, rather than a long time.

The cult of Howe has many followers

Reuters
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The cult of Howe has many followers

Presently, they have earned their status as one of the Premier League’s most entertaining teams who are not looking over their shoulder at the drop, but ahead to Europe.

“Being described as underdogs,” Michael said, “you could say it’s patronising and blah, blah, blah, but it gives us the opportunity to pull off surprises.

“And that suits us just fine really.”

Who knows what Bournemouth could achieve in the future?

Perhaps they are destined for a long spell in the top flight, a new stadium, silverware, and a reputation as familiar ‘must-haves’ among loyal Premier League followers.

One thing seems certain, whatever tense you consider, Eddie Howe must feature prominently as possibly the best English manager of the modern era.

Good job he got injured, eh?

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