Reminders of the Redknapp Era at AFC Bournemouth
Eddie Howe’s surprise return to Bournemouth at the back end of 2012 soon developed into a major exception to the ‘never go back’ rule. Heavily bankrolled by League 1 standards, the Cherries cut a swathe through the upper reaches of the division and more than a few commentators were starting to regard one of the promotion places as tied up and dusted.
But a five match losing streak that straddled the months of February and March has led to a more cautious optimism down Boscombe way — and this new reality saw the Cherries dig deep for some vital wins subsequently. The 1-0 win at Stevenage may have been a touch unlovely but this, an identical 1-0 win at Oldham and a 4-1 hiding of hapless Bury have highlighted the Dorset club’s mettle. Here, Peter Bell of the Cherry Chimes blog assesses whether this new found gumption will be enough to maintain an automatic promotion challenge.
Having stood in the away stand at Crawley Town’s ground last October with 434 other away fans on a freezing and unforgiving night as Paul Groves and Shaun Brooks’ XI stumbled to another defeat, the mood was one of inexplicable puzzlement.
As yet another pass went astray, it became clear that this would likely spell the end of the duo’s short reign while the club sat stranded ignominiously in twenty first place with a paltry eight points from ten games.
Bournemouth is no footballing hotbed of course — and promotion to the second tier of English football has been gained only the once — a youthful but only slightly less jowly Harry Redknapp working his magicianship on that occasion.
Since then, the dark days have been many — administration has been entered into twice, and survived twice, while that familiar cycle that sees promising players depart and homegrown resources relied upon has been repeated as predictably as the turn of the clocks purveyed by local horologists M. C. Taylor.
We had believed progress could be possible until Eddie Howe left for Burnley and, under Lee Bradbury, we agonizingly missed out on Championship football at the end of the 2010-11 campaign. Losing to a lively Huddersfield Town in the play-offs on penalties was no disgrace but the inevitable fire sale resulted – only Marc Pugh, Stephen Purches, Steve Fletcher, Harry Arter and Shaun Jalal survived the Summer.
And yet here we are 18 months further down the line, hazarding perhaps to believe that ascension is still possible.
With Maxim Demin, a Russian petrochemical multi-millionaire, funding a detailed programme of new investment at the club, Chairman Eddie Mitchell’s aim over 2012’s non-existent summer was to build a Championship club. Those joint bosses Groves and Brooks were hence handsomely provided for.
That the doubts that set in after that disturbing defeat at Crawley have now been put to bed again is due to the return of the prodigal blonde haired hero — as adroit a manager as there is at this level, Howe has inspired his charges magnificently and one of the largest squads in League 1 has now been augmented by Aberdeen’s teenage sensation Ryan Fraser and Matt Ritchie from Swindon; the newly announced divisional player of the season. We’ve suddenly become a big club in terms of spending power among our peers and everyone knows it.
That puzzling run of five defeats aside, the team has been metronomic since Howe and Jason Tindall’s return last October – a 22 game unbeaten run in all competitions proceeded, while Howe has rivaled King Midas himself in the Magic Wand stakes.
That mini-blip was worrying chiefly because the defeats came against some of the main rivals for promotion while the loss of Tommy Elphick after the MK Dons away match and Charlie Daniels’ injury has led to major disruption in the Back Four. Ritchie has had to fill in at left back and Dan Seaborne has been cover for Elphick — arguably the Cherries’ best player of the season.
I still have confidence with the fixtures we have left that we could mount a challenge through the play-offs, but automatic promotion is still very much a possibility too.
In the background and despite Demin’s philanthropy, Eddie Mitchell has come out and stated that the club must also restructure in order to live within its means. This was interpreted by some as a reaction to financial overspending and cost-cutting, with seven jobs in media and the events sections the first to be made redundant.
Goalkeeper David James has also now had his contract terminated by mutual consent and Howe has hinted that more players will be leaving as the current squad is still too large. In fact, when the ex-terrace hero came back to the club in October he immediately declared the squad to be too big and that some would be moved on. Lorenzo Davids duly left in the January window, while others were loaned out – Frank Demouge to Roda JC, Stà©phane Zubar to Bury and Wes Thomas to Birmingham.
Of the current formation, the players most likely to prosper a division up and, indeed, help maintain the current promotion challenge would be composed right back Simon Francis, midfield captain marvel Elphick, yellow card magnet but inspirational playmaker Arter and the effortlessly classy Ritchie.
Brett Pitman, who had his moments in the Championship with Bristol City should also thrive while Lewis Grabban has proved to be an exceptional buy from Rotherham.
Finally, who is to say that legendary striker Steve Fletcher cannot haul his mighty frame around the training pitch for one more season — few players in the lower divisions would deserve a crack at the Championship — the only man to have a stand named after him while still playing is a fearsome competitor and a Saturday afternoon date with Tranmere Rovers at Prenton Park in little over a month’s time will provide him his stage.