At the end of Saturday’s 2-1 win for AFC Bournemouth at Reading, Cherries’ players and officials converged on a spot just outside one of the Madejski Stadium penalty areas and positioned themselves in huddle formation.
After a minute or two of close consultation, the scrum broke and the players stepped forward to garner the adulation of two and a half thousand delirious supporters.
Cheesy? Perhaps? But from the vantage point of the home fans, it made a big change from the half-hearted wave that visiting Championship players are often prone to proffer from the centre circle.
For this is a Bournemouth team with very few stars and perhaps lacking in the finer talents, but my goodness, it’s a team where everybody knows his job, a team that is expertly and consistently organised and a team that is together .
For half an hour at the Mad Stad, the home side had run the show, using Danny Guthrie as a fulcrum, clocking up corner after corner and keeping possession carefully.
But the Cherries were unnerved. As the half wore on, Reading’s ability to pierce an athletic and committed back four became increasingly evident with only a Billy Sharp header to count in terms of serious efforts while recent star man Pavel Pogrebnyak looked on from the bench after mystifyingly being dropped.
Steve Cook and captain Tommy Elphick belied the absence of the experienced Elliott Ward to produce near faultless displays in the centre half positions, providing more than ample protection to Lee Camp, assured under the high ball and rebuilding a career that has gone ever so slightly awry in recent seasons.
On the left, Charlie Daniels is one of the South Coast club’s most impressive operators in recent times and it’s no surprise he is keeping Ian Harte out of the team given the narrowness of the room he allowed Garath McCleary to manoeuvre in. Ditto on the right hand side where Simon Francis made it a tough afternoon for emerging Royals youngster Jordan Obita.
Both Daniels and Francis are in their late twenties and have the CVs of lower league journeymen – you would never have guessed that here.
Having built a platform of solidity, the Cherries gradually ferreted their way into the game and a delightfully produced free kick caused havoc in the area; Lewis Grabban pouncing after a close range save from Alex McCarthy to lash the ball high into the net.
Grabban played the central striker role to perfection here – aided by whippet like runs from wide men Matt Ritchie and Marc Pugh, both outstanding on the day.
Ritchie has only just returned from injury but gave a man of the match performance in the recent 1-1 draw with Brighton and reminds me of another tenacious second tier midfielder of yesteryear, new Carlisle United boss, Graham Kavanagh.
It was no surprise, therefore, when Ritchie edged his way into a shooting position soon after Grabban’s strike before firing a low drive into the net. As blogger Peter Bell said in a recent interview with Reading blog The Tilehurst End, Ritchie is the undisputed star man down Dean Court way.
But that’s only if you don’t count Eddie Howe. Unlike his opposite number Nigel Adkins, there was no messing about with formations here – the central midfield trio of Eunan O’Kane, Harry Arter and on loan Andrew Surman knew exactly what was expected of them and they stifled the promptings of Guthrie and Danny Williams expertly.
For despite Adkins’ claims that he lined up his own threesome to counteract Bournemouth’s, Hal Robson Kanu was in fact deployed as an auxiliary striker, leaving Reading at a man disadvantage in the centre of the park as they have been so often this season.
The Championship is a league that takes some getting used to and some early thumpings did leave some Bournemouth fans less than optimistic about the prospects for these nine months.
But Howe is a very canny manager and one should remember that it was his own decision to return to the club after a short spell at Burnley – his record remains unblemished and his tactical nous on this showing would appear to be up with the best of them, making Adkins look like a novice at times.
Of course skill and creativity can occasionally trump systems and resources being what they are, the arrival of a Royston Drenthe on the scene can suddenly make life more difficult – the Dutchman sparkled on his return from injury with a cross field run and shot that fell into the path of Adam le Fondre – that supersub par excellence .
But it was way too late and Bournemouth held on for a deserved win after carving out the more convincing chances in the second period. With Howe having returned after that spell in the supposed bigger time, the club might also retain confidence that he is here to stay – he’s as fundamental to the future of the team over the next few years as one could possibly imagine.