AFC BOURNEMOUTH: AGAINST ALL ODDS

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A club’s place throughout the various levels of English football can easily change, and nothing is guaranteed in terms of status. Giants have fallen, while smaller sides have reached new and spectacular heights. However, few can match the impressive rise through the Football League quite like Bournemouth and manager Eddie Howe.

Beginning life in 1899 as Boscombe FC, the Cherries have enjoyed a rich history along the country’s south coast. Dean Court has been the club’s home since 1910, and the past few years in the Premier League have given fans some unforgettable memories. Bournemouth have been able to truly consolidate their place in the top flight during recent times, and it all started with the appointment of a young manager with big ideas and sharp tactics.

Howe’s playing career was formed at Bournemouth, as the defender worked his way up from the youth ranks into the first team during the 1990s. With more than 300 appearances for the club, he became quite familiar with the atmosphere and surroundings also. This experience would serve Howe well when he would transition into a coaching role, an opportunity that arrived quite quickly.

A serious knee injury would cut his playing days short, thrust into a new career path in his early thirties. It is never an easy transition for a footballer, suddenly set to change so much in such a short period of time. Howe’s work on the sidelines would begin with Bournemouth’s reserve side, becoming more and more acclimated with his new role. However, the pressures of being a first-team manager would find him sooner rather than later at the club.

The 2008-09 campaign would ultimately be a defining season in Bournemouth’s history, as well as an important milestone in Howe’s coaching journey. Early in 2008, various financial issues were sending the club towards the unknown. It was not the first time that they would be dealing with this type of concern, as similar problems came about in the late ’90s. However, this was a much more severe situation.

Debts were mounting, and the club were forced into administration. Along with all that, relegation to League Two was on the horizon.

As the summer approached, the future was not becoming any clearer for supporters. The club’s finances were still not sorted, and the Football League launched an investigation. Bournemouth were luckily able to be a part of League Two, but a severe penalty was looming. A 17-point deduction would be awaiting the Cherries as they began the term, in what could only be described as capital punishment. Without actually taking the drop to non-league football, they were pushed to the absolute brink that year, and there were few who thought they would be able to survive.

To start that close to the edge would require careful planning and almost flawless execution throughout the campaign, and it was Kevin Bond at manager doing all that he could to keep his squad heading in the right direction. It was Bond’s third season in charge of the club, but it was all becoming too much to handle in any effective manner. The search for new ownership was not helping, and a tough start to the 2008-09 campaign sealed his fate. Bond was sacked after only four matches, and former Bournemouth striker Jimmy Quinn was chosen as his replacement. At this point, Howe is coaching the reserves. However, Bond’s exit has a direct effect on him as well, and almost alters the entire path ahead for the Cherries.

Along with other assistant coaches, Howe lost his job as well. He would soon be hired on in a similar role for Quinn, and more responsibility would be on the way for him. After Quinn could not get any better results out of the Bournemouth squad, he too was relieved of his duties. On the last day of 2008, Howe was named as caretaker manager. At the age of 31, he became the Football League’s youngest head coach.

Daunting. Overwhelming. Intimidating. These are just some of the adjectives that could be used to describe Howe’s new situation. But he was ready for the massive challenge, and would begin the march through a league campaign that would go down as nothing short of legendary. Boosted up front by the likes of Steve Fletcher and Josh McQuoid, Bournemouth would be able to avoid relegation that season, despite the 17 points that would be against them from the very start.

“The Great Escape” feels like a bit of an understatement, and anyone who perhaps thought that there was some luck or good fortune involved was shown even more proof at the start of 2009-10. Howe would lead his squad to a club-record eight wins in their first nine fixtures. It was a message, sent loud and clear. The Cherries would not be in League Two for long.

Bournemouth’s transfer dealings were crippled by sanctions stemming from their financial situation, making Howe’s accomplishments that much more impressive. A takeover of the club was in the works, but was still crossing some hurdles before being finalised. Russian businessman Maxim Demin and Eddie Mitchell would eventually become the co-owners that would guide the club to the top flight, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Still with plenty of uncertainty around them after surviving extreme circumstances, Howe and Bournemouth were set to take the next step together.

In the summer of 2009, an ownership group were in place, and the Cherries were flying high. They would finish second in the fourth division, earning automatic promotion to League One. Everything seemed to be set for something special, and the youngest manager in English football was proving himself with seemingly each passing week. It can be easy to say that Howe was simply “the right man at the right moment” to lead the squad. But it is important to note that at the time, the risk involved was significant for Bournemouth.

He came into the job with no true experience other than his time as a player, and fans have seen countless examples of how that background does not always bring success. One only has to look at the early struggles of Thierry Henry’s current spell with AS Monaco to witness the potential pitfalls that can await.

Howe’s player management skills and sharp preparations were being noticed, and he was linked with several different clubs throughout the 2010-11 campaign. Although he would state publicly that he was staying with Bournemouth, Howe signed on at Burnley in January. He would test himself at the next level in the Championship, finishing eighth and 13th in the division during his first two seasons with the Clarets.

At the same time, Bournemouth were stagnant in League One. Something wasn’t quite right, and this was true for both Howe and the Cherries. But by the 2012-13 term, everyone involved appeared to gain an understanding of what needed to happen. The quest to the top required the leader.

Howe returned in October of 2012 (Sean Dyche took over at Burnley), as Bournemouth were struggling to begin the campaign amidst poor results. What would follow would only once again confirm their strengths together, finishing second at the end of the season to earn automatic promotion to the Championship. At this point, the new ownership group headed by Demin and Mitchell had brought a stability to the club’s finances, something that seemed nearly impossible just a few years ago.

The progression would continue with a top-half finish in 2013-14, missing out on the play-offs by only six points. It would all come together though for Howe’s side in the next season. Following a comfortable 3-0 win against Charlton Athletic on the final day of 2014-15, Bournemouth finished atop the Championship and would be set to play top-flight football for the first time in their history.

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Clubs enter the Premier League each year, and many newcomers do not last very long. It can be a very different world in the first division. Many pundits assumed that Bournemouth players would fail to get the better of their opponents, and that Howe would find himself being overwhelmed tactically by his new counterparts. However, with Joshua King and Callum Wilson leading the way on the front-line, they would not be denied their place.

A nervy 16th-place ending in 2015-16 was followed by more promising performances, with Bournemouth finishing ninth and 12th in the Premier League during the next two years. Even now in the current 2018-19 season, they are putting pressure on the top half of the table with excellent skill and a disciplined approach.

Howe’s philosophy blends a unique mixture of past and present, with the manager looking for maximum effort from all involved. Usually using a variation of a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 shape, Bournemouth will not look to rely on long-ball tactics. There is a sense of patience in the build-up, as the squad aim to find ways to create space.

In past years, there was a tendency for King to drop back a bit behind another striker, giving the Norwegian international more freedom within his role. Full-backs make overlapping runs, while wingers search for key passes and will be tasked with keeping possession. An excellent example of that was Matt Ritchie, who played well out wide for several seasons at Bournemouth before signing with Newcastle United in 2016.

Howe wants his line-up to pressure the opposition into making mistakes, and force them to pay for those mistakes immediately. It is a style that has not only produced success, but has been able to sustain that success over the course of multiple years. New faces are of course added. Goalkeeper Asmir Begović has been an outstanding addition at the back, while the signing of forward Jermain Defoe provides fantastic knowledge for younger strikers to learn from. But the players who have been in Howe’s system for many years are truly blossoming, and it is wonderful to see their hard work be rewarded with both playing time and positive results on the pitch.

Captain Simon Francis, Steve Cook and Ryan Fraser have all been with Bournemouth for more than five years, and have seen the club rise to where they are now. All three are significant contributors to the current season’s bright start, and it certainly must be a joy for Howe to see their development shine in the top flight. A former defender in his playing days, Francis and Cook certainly seem to have benefitted from his insight.

At the Football League Awards in 2015, Howe was presented with the honour of Manager of the Decade. Certainly a prestigious moment, it was a superb form of recognition for a coach who has accomplished so much in the face of adversity. It can’t simply be due to tactics, as Bournemouth are not the first side to press high up the pitch and have full-backs join in the attack. It comes down to the intangibles that are so difficult to measure, the motivations that can never be calculated. There is a connection between club and coach that is genuine and unique, launching both to previously unimaginable heights. At the age of 40, Howe already boasts what seems like a lifetime of experience in the business.

Bournemouth and Eddie Howe have been full of surprises, not only by reaching the Premier League but maintaining that status for several years. They are now battling for European qualification this season, and that would be a thrilling next chapter for them to write together.

BY ROY EMANUEL

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