The rise and fall of AFC Bournemouth
“Little Bournemouth” and their fairytale rise
Tucked away on England’s Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site hardly known for being the hotbed of football, AFC Bournemouth sit nestled in the shadow of giants. Their kit may be modeled after the might of AC Milan, but the club’s meteoric rise could not be more different.
12 years ago, the Cherries were facing oblivion. Slapped with a 17-point deduction in England’s bottom tier and staring into the non-league abyss, the club needed a miracle – a kindred spirit, divine intervention, and a huge dollop of good fortune. With the club ten points adrift of safety and time running out, 31-year-old former player-turned-manager Eddie Howe took charge tasked with saving his new side’s Football League status.
Yet, somehow, Bournemouth overcame almost insurmountable odds to wipe out that deficit and secure fourth-tier survival in dramatic style on the final day. The club had climbed Everest in slippers and without oxygen – but that would be only the beginning.
The man with the Midas touch
Bournemouth had found their Messiah and Howe’s golden touch only continued to shine as he took the team to promotion in his first full season. He then left for a turbulent spell at Burnley but soon returned.
Returning to Dorset with unfinished business and a new chapter waiting to be written, Howe’s second stint began in similar circumstances as he found a team in desperate need of revitalising – albeit this time in League One. Not only did he pull Bournemouth away from relegation, but he also went one better and achieved promotion into England’s second tier for the first time since 1990.
Starting as red hot favourites for relegation, Bournemouth finished tenth in the next season (their best ever League finish at that point) before going on to clinch the Championship title and the most unlikely, heartwarming promotion to the Premier League.
It’s one thing getting there, but quite another entirely staying put.
The Cherries proved a breath of fresh air in the top flight, improbably defeating Chelsea and Manchester United in back-to-back games and catching the eye with their aesthetically pleasing, fearless, and fluid style of play. With Jack Wilshere, Nathan Ake, and Josh King pulling the strings and Howe’s stock seemingly rising by the week, Bournemouth finished ninth in their second season as a top-flight club. Bournemouth were media darlings, everyone’s second team, and the envy of the league with their astute business model and likeable ethos, the future seemed bright.
Howe on earth did this happen?
Yet things have gone alarmingly stale. It wasn’t so long ago that Howe seemed destined for bigger and better things. He seemed linked with every big job in the country – from the third favourite to succeed Louis van Gaal at Old Trafford to Arsene Wenger’s potential replacement two years later. There was even talk of the England job. His stock had risen like never before but that’s now fallen by the wayside almost as quickly.
Bournemouth are, to be frank, stuck in a horrible rut. No longer are they that breath of fresh air, and – after five seasons as an established Premier League side – once again find themselves staring into the abyss. Howe increasingly looks a beaten man, a string of expensive transfers haven’t worked out and his best player, Ryan Fraser, has deserted him.
Fraser attracted flirtatious glances from the likes of Arsenal and Spurs having hit 12 goals and claimed 14 assists from the left-wing last season. A shadow of his former self this time, his mind has looked elsewhere and a reported falling out with Howe left them in the lurch and Fraser out the door. Howe seems an amenable kind of chap, so it’s hard to believe anyone would end up on the wrong side of him. A sign perhaps, that the stresses and strains of a battle he looks set to lose having finally caught up with him. Once the most sought after manager in the country, Howe is sleepwalking towards the relegation trapdoor.
Freefalling Cherries lose their identity
They’ve lost all three games since the restart and still have to travel to Manchester City and Everton, with a visit of Champions League chasing Leicester also on the horizon.
So much money has been splurged that the “little Bournemouth” narrative is hard to engage with any more. The club has the fifth-highest net spend over the three seasons, spending £15m on Jordan Ibe (78 appearances, two goals) and £19m on Dominic Solanke – a striker with no goals in 57 games for the Cherries. Lloyd Kelly, a £13m buy, has only played once since signing in the summer. The list goes on – in fact they have made 13 eight-figure purchases since promotion, for little or no reward. Bournemouth used to be a great asset to the league and fantastic to watch for the neutral, high pressing, hard-working, energetic, and effervescent. Heavily utilising their pacy, tricky wingers, Bournemouth shone by keeping things simple and playing to their strengths. The very principles upon which Howe has built his career – and his side’s rise from rags to riches – have been conspicuous by its absence.
Now they are everything and nothing. There’s no discernible way of playing, they’re leaking goals left, right and centre and only fellow strugglers Norwich (25) and Watford (29) have scored fewer than Bournemouth. Their cause was certainly not helped by a lengthy injury list, with Ake, Callum Wilson, David Brooks and captain Simon Francis all having had long spells on the sidelines.
There, is of course, six games still to go so all is not yet lost, but even for a club accustomed to triumph over adversity, Howe and Bournemouth are embroiled in perhaps their greatest challenge. This time, another Great Escape seems beyond them.