BY MARK GODFREY
Four million pounds in debt, languishing second bottom of the entire Football League with a grand total of -1 points as a result of a 17-point penalty for failing to follow insolvency rules and a frustrating goalless draw at home to minnows Blyth Spartans in the FA Cup; the evening of Saturday 29th November 2008 was as bleak as it could get for followers of AFC Bournemouth.
Worse was to come for the south coast club in the Cup replay a couple of weeks later. Without ageing former Spurs and England star Darren ‘Sicknote’ Anderton (who brought forward his retirement plans and hung up his boots between the two ties) in their side, the Northumberland non-leaguers were able to shock the Cherries courtesy of an 89th minute Ged Dalton winner, leaving manager Jimmy Quinn to make the 360 mile return journey with cries of “you’re getting sacked in the morning” ringing in his ears. Those Blyth fans were correct to predict the former Northern Ireland striker’s demise, but were a fortnight out in the timing of his dismissal.
Seemingly odds-on for relegation, Quinn was sacked two weeks later on New Year’s Eve. To say the situation looked grim down at Dean Court would have been an epic understatement. Prospects for the next man in the hot seat looked equally uncertain; the board took a gamble and appointed the youth team coach as caretaker manager while they sourced a replacement either mad enough or desperate enough to try and drag the club out of the mire. That stand-in was 31-year-old Eddie Howe – the popular ex-Bournemouth defender who had retired from playing through injury just over a year earlier.
Whether it was the players’ own professional pride that kicked in after the disappointing run of results that led to Quinn’s sacking or Howe’s fresh approach to running the team, we may never know, but fortunes turned around – and quickly. By mid-January, managerial novice Howe was given the job on a permanent basis as Bournemouth gradually began to claw back the deficit to the teams – and safety – above them. Within three months they were out of the relegation zone and by the end of the campaign had avoided the drop with plenty of room to spare – an achievement that would have been unthinkable at the turn of that calendar year.
Twelve months down the line, the transformation from deadbeats to comparative world beaters was complete. Howe guided Bournemouth to runners-up spot on League 2 and his first promotion. The Eddie Howe effect continued in League 1 during 2010-11 (although he would depart midway through the season); the club reached the play-offs, where a penalty shoot out defeat to Huddersfield Town denied the club a trip to Wembley and another unexpected step up the league ladder.
Having done such wonders under difficult circumstances, Howe – who was forging a reputation for producing an attractive, attacking, successful side – began to draw attention from bigger clubs envious at what he’d been able to instill at a club like Bournemouth. Undoubtedly with a heavy heart but looking to fulfil strong ambitions to work at the highest possible level, Howe accepted an offer to take the reins at Turf Moor, with the aim of getting Burnley – recently relegated from the Premier League – out of the Championship and back to the promised land at the first attempt.
It was a separation that failed to work for either party. Bournemouth, now used to success, went through two managers in 20 months trying to replicate the success Howe had brought them while Howe’s time in Lancashire was fruitless and frustrating. In October 2012, the union was rejoined and part two of this footballing Cinderella story began – Bournemouth being the metaphorical glass slipper for Eddie Howe alone to fit snugly.
Yet again, Howe’s understated brilliance brought about a spectacular outcome; another promotion, to the Championship. One season of consolidation in England’s fiercely competitive second tier later and the Cherries find themselves on the brink of the almost inconceivable – a place in the richest, most high profile league in the world. Just over six years after being on the verge of financial oblivion and Conference football, how has this near-miracle been accomplished?
Firstly, the horror situation the club were engulfed by in 2008 has been banished; a five-man consortium fronted by former chairman Eddie Mitchell saved the club from the clutches of HMRC in 2009 and put Bournemouth on a sounder footing. The financial stability is now underpinned by Russian businessman Maxim Demin, who became co-owner in 2011 and sole owner two years later. And while losses of £15.3million were announced in 2012/13 – figures, that if repeated, would breach Financial Fair Play regulations – would have spelt catastrophe before Mitchell and Demin’s stewardships, a considerable outlay on transfer fees and player wages has been shrewd and measured.
On the playing side, the thoughtful composure and motivation of Howe to educate himself in the art of coaching and management has elevated the club he has served for a large portion of his adult life to the forefront of the dog-eat-dog Championship chase for promotion to the Premier League. Treading in similar footsteps to the likes of Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez and Sean Dyche, the 37-year-old has taken tips from the likes of Harry Redknapp, Tony Pulis and Rodgers himself in order to use as many differing methods to turn unfancied Bournemouth into one of the best teams in the division and favourites to go up. In the process, he has put himself firmly in the vanguard of bright, young managers in the Football League, and whether his current side have their noses in front when they cross the finish line in May or not, it would be almost certain that Howe will be in charge of a Premier League club on the first day of next season.
Through a combination of continuity, financial stability, meticulous preparation and, of course, the obligatory hard graft on the training pitch, Eddie Howe has Bournemouth heading a field of supposedly bigger, stronger and wealthier rivals. In such a short period of time to go from being the Football League’s own ‘Sicknote’ club to potentially just five games from the pinnacle of club football is nothing short of astounding.