The Tale of Bournemouth and Eddie Howe: Can they continue to beat the odds?
2 minutes and 20 seconds. That’s all it took for Bournemouth striker James Hayter to score a hat-trick on a February night in 2004. The match was a Second Division (currently known as League One, the third tier of English football) tie against Wrexham and Hayter had just come off the bench after 84 minutes. After just two minutes, he scored to take the score to 4-0.
Two minutes later, Hayter had completed his hat-trick. It still remains the fastest in the history of English football. Unfortunately for Hayter, his parents had left the stadium early to catch a ferry to get back home and inadvertently missed their son’s extraordinary feat.
In a way, that incident is a striking symbol of AFC Bournemouth’s story. For until recently, the Cherries could only remember every single achievement in their 125 years of existence being overshadowed by their generally mediocre state of affairs. As Hayter's case seemed to prove, every silver lining had a darker cloud to ruin the mood.
A Bournemouth fan in 2004 could have been forgiven for wondering if Hayter’s achievement would end up being the only thing worth remembering for a long time. That was until the return of Eddie Howe in the very next transfer window. The closest Bournemouth got to a quintessential club legend, Howe made a celebrated return to his boyhood club when he signed from Portsmouth in the summer of 2004.
Starting off as a 14-year-old in the Bournemouth Centre of Excellence, Howe had risen quickly through the ranks to become a first-team regular. Successive seasons of impressive displays meant that he became the first signing of former Bournemouth manager Harry Redknapp’s tenure at Portsmouth. It was heart-breaking for fans of the Cherries who had to watch their hero leave in a deal that could save the cash-strapped club.
Howe’s time at Portsmouth was brutally cut short by injury; he could make only two appearances in two seasons. By the end of the 2003/04 season, he was back at Dean Court, with a transfer secured by the £21,000 funded by ‘Eddieshare’, a fan initiative to bring Eddie home. It served to show the special relationship between the player and his fans – it is one that has stood the test of time and circumstance.
Howe, the player, retires and a manager is born
In 2007, aged just 29, Howe made what would be one of his most important decisions of his life – retirement. Serious injury problems meant that a specialist advised him to take the difficult step and hang up his boots. What do players do at such a juncture? Luckily for Howe, he had a path laid out right in front of him.
After accepting manager Kevin Bond’s offer to take up a player-coach role at the club in 2006, Howe’s managerial rise was as fast as his rise as a player. Stints as the coach of the reserve and youth teams followed. By New Year’s Eve in 2008, he was named caretaker manager of AFC Bournemouth, with his former teammate Jason Tindall as his assistant.
What a story. Here was one of the Football League’s youngest managers, handed the unenviable task of pulling a team that had been handed a 17-point deduction (due to financial issues), out of the relegation zone. Most others would have stuttered. But not Howe. He overcame a shaky start to work a miracle and ensure survival in League Two.
Now, if that wasn’t stunning enough, Howe followed it up by leading Bournemouth to a second place finish and promotion to League One in his first full season. Astonishing? Mind-blowing? You choose the adjective. The miracle man was now wanted all over the country.
This was to be a crucial period in the development of Howe as a coach. Any coach would be tempted by the various offers on his plate. Clubs placed higher than Bournemouth in the footballing pyramid certainly had their allure, considering the precarious financial situation the club was in. It was strikingly similar to Howe’s playing days when he made the move to Portsmouth.
This time, it happened again. Fans were left speechless when Howe was announced as coach of Championship side Burnley, with Tindall making the move with him. And once again, just like in Portsmouth, it was an ill-fated stay. It would last 18 months, during which Howe got a taste of Championship football but never managed to sparkle. By October 2012, Howe and Tindall were back where they belonged.
‘Bust to big time’ – How a family club climbed the English football pyramid
Howe’s second return to Bournemouth was to signal even more success. He took no time at all getting down to business, leading the team to another promotion – this time, to the Championship, where he had struggled with Burnley. This was the stage for Howe to work his magic once again and prove to a wider audience that he had what it takes to succeed at the higher levels of the game.
Within two years, Bournemouth had conquered the Championship too. Eddie Howe had brought Premier League football to Dorset. A 3-0 home victory over Bolton Wanderers all but secured their promotion and fans thronged the pitch for wild celebrations. As praise poured in for Howe, he had this to say:
"We had nothing. A group of supporters put their money in their pockets to keep the club alive and they are reaping the rewards. It is the club I watched as a kid, the club that gave me an opportunity in the game as a player and a manager.
“It shouldn't be them thanking me, it should be me thanking them. It is a family club and deserves its moment in the sun.”
This is where the world actually sat up and took notice. In just around seven years, a manager in his late thirties had led his hometown club from the foot of English football to its glamorous top division – from 91st place in the league system and the threat of bankruptcy to the Premier League and financial stability. Howe and Bournemouth had written a tale for the ages.
The club now finds itself under the spotlight – with the kind of fame and scrutiny it is not used to. National and international media laud their achievement while romantic neutrals rush to proclaim them as their pick for the surprise of the season. With Bournemouth-mania spreading, the recent Sky Sports documentary ‘Bust to Big Time’ charted the amazing tale of how Howe marshalled the club’s rise from near-liquidation to the riches of the Premier League.
On August 8, Dean Court’s historic first-ever Premier League match saw the Cherries go down 0-1 to Aston Villa. It was seen by many as a reality check, as highly optimistic fans’ hopes came crashing down. Yet, the gaffer remains remarkably upbeat.
"I think we have learned today what the Premier League is about – how difficult it is going to be if you are not clinical," he said in the post-match press conference, according to BBC.
"There were plenty of positives from my perspective, but also a lot to work on."
Howe’s boys had more possession and more chances but as the gaffer laments, they just weren’t clinical enough on the day and suffered because of it.
The task now is a tougher one. Next up is a Liverpool side led by Brendan Rodgers, who Howe acknowledges as a mentor. As Howe plots bringing down the Reds at Anfield, he will do so keeping in mind that even the most carefully devised plan can be undone in a matter of minutes; nowhere more so than in the cruel and frantic world of top division football. Two minutes and twenty seconds may be all it takes to ruin Bournemouth’s historic debut season. Howe knows this well enough.
But if there's anyone who can make the Cherries beat the odds, it is Eddie Howe. He has proved his credentials time and again – be it making Bournemouth giant-killers in the Cup or being an exceptionally fast learner who devises ways to improve just as quick. The Villa defeat will only further his desire to stay and fight it out for more than just a season in the Premier League – not that he’ll admit that survival is the main target.
“We are not focusing on the staying-up stuff,” he says. “For me, it’s about improving the team and making sure that we are the best we can be, and I’m sure that if we are, we will win games.”
Making the Cherries dream
James Hayter is long gone. His remarkable two-and-a-half minute hat-trick now seems destined to be outstripped in the memories of the Cherries faithful. Many years from now, fans could instead be talking about Max Gradel and Matt Ritchie tearing apart expensively assembled defences or Artur Boruc’s match-winning penalty ensuring Premier League survival.
It will be a far cry from the seemingly endless time spent in the lower divisions. Alright, I’m stretching it. But do imagine for a moment or two, what if the magical tale of Bournemouth continues? If it all works out well, they will have Eddie Howe to thank for it.
Howe’s time at the club has washed away the pain of the seasons of gloom. The fans are now filled with genuine hope of betterment, dreaming of reaching uncharted territory and making history. Pulling his team from the forgettable depths of fourth-tier misery to the heights and lights of the Premier League, Howe has proved himself capable of orchestrating the extraordinary.
He has helped pen a story that will forever resonate in English football annals. Go on Eddie, continue writing it in true Eddie-like style; footballing romantics will love nothing better.