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-  Inside AFC Bournemouth / FourFourTwo / September 2015  -

AFCB

The clock is ticking around to 7pm on Monday June 29. Sat inside a modest executive box at AFC Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium (previously Goldsands, previously Dean Court), Eddie Howe – who was first to arrive, some 12 hours earlier, and is a safe bet to be last home– looks out to the pitch. In just 40 days, top-flight football will be contested here for the first time in the club’s 126-year history. It’s all the more miraculous given the Cherries were on the brink of extinction just six years ago. They started the 2008-09 season in League Two on minus 17 points, and came within hours of liquidation on no fewer than three occasions.

That this against-the-odds survival and subsequent rise through the divisions has been presided over by their 37-year-old manager (albeit with a 21-month spell away as Burnley boss in the middle) makes it nothing short of a fairy tale.

Named the Football League’s inaugural Manager of the Decade in April this year, anointed the “English Special One” by Gary Lineker as Bournemouth sealed their top-flight status, and already spoken of as
a future England boss, Eddie Howe is the toast of Dorset, the UK and beyond. As such, with his Cherries having pipped Watford to the Championship title on a dramatic final day – not to mention the British core of players and electrifying style of play which has cemented their place as everyone’s second-favourite team – the past two months will have tasted particularly sweet for Howe. Or so you’d think.

“It doesn’t feel sweet to me,” he tells FourFourTwo, fixing us with a steely stare. “Everyone said: ‘Have a great summer – you’ll really enjoy it’, but I haven’t enjoyed the summer. I’ve been focusing on the next challenge.”

Hours earlier, Howe oversaw the beginning of the first day back for the south coast club. Not only that, but it’s officially their first ever day as a top-flight side. Dressed in box-fresh training gear, players file in for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fruit and an assortment of cereals, the scene regularly punctuated with eruptions of laughter. Though outside temperatures threaten to hit 30oC – as if a ploy by the seaside town’s tourist board – French striker Yann Kermorgant asks a staff member if they could turn off the air conditioning.

Breakfast over, FFT presses an ear to the door that holds the newly reunited team with their manager and coaching staff for a first pre-season briefing. “I wanted to set this marker down to you all,” says Howe, addressing his men before they’re dispatched to the training pitch. “Last season was fantastic. You’ve all gone down in the history of the club, as part of the team to win the Championship and get to the Premier League, and that will stand the test of time. But for you individually now, that’s gone.

“You’re going to be judged from the first day of training – from today,” he adds. “Any of you who are slightly complacent, or feel you are guaranteed something, that’s not going to be the case. We’re going to start fresh and you’ve got to prove yourselves all over again.” Howe pauses. “Let’s go training,” he says with a grin.

“Bailiffs would regularly come in and just take kit from the club shop. You got used to it”

The Cherries had never been a club that troubled the big boys for honours. Until now, their most successful period came under Harry Redknapp, with a famous FA Cup victory against Manchester United in 1984 and

Third Division title win in 1987. The late ’90s saw the club enter administration and kept afloat by fans pouring their change into charity buckets, but 2008-09 was their true annus horribilis. Bournemouth were hit with a 17-point deduction in League Two, risked ejection from the Football League and, had it not have been for now-chairman Jeff Mostyn writing a £100,000 cheque in the nick of time, would have been liquidated.

“Oh, it was really bleak,” recalls club secretary Neil Vacher, who is AFCB’s longest serving member of staff having been employed by the club since the 1980s. “However, the supporters responded magnificently to those bucket collections, and people would literally do all sorts: sponsored walks, face-painting – anything to raise a bit of money for this football club.

“It was bad,” adds Howe, who on occasion had to pay players and staff out of his own pocket. “Bailiffs would come in and just take kit from the club shop. That was a regular occurrence. You got used to it.”

When Howe took charge in January 2009, Bournemouth were second bottom (ahead of Luton, who had suffered a 30-point deduction) and seven points from safety. With no buyer on the horizon, it was made abundantly clear that anything but survival would see the club go bust, which is more than a little pressure for your first taste of management at the age of 31. Cut to April 25, and a run of form that included 10 victories meant a rejuvenated Bournemouth could preserve both their place in the Football League and their mere existence with a win over Grimsby in the final home game of the campaign.

“We all knew how important it was,” admits Cherries icon Steve Fletcher, now their head of recruitment, who at 36 had been brought back to the club by Howe on a short-term deal. “Going into it against Grimsby we knew we had to win, and there was a positive vibe around the place. I thought: ‘We’re not going to lose this’.

“I was at Crawley on a two-year contract, but I put everything on the line for a five-month deal at Bournemouth, knowing in the back of my mind that, with the club 10 points adrift, the probability was that we would go down and I’d be left without a football club at the age of 37.”

With 10 minutes to go and the game poised at 1-1, it was Fletcher who rifled the ball home, completing the most improbable of turnarounds and keeping the club in business.
The following year, the Cherries’ record appearance holder had a stand named after him. “People have said it was written in the stars,” Fletcher beams. “Fans still come up to me in the street and say, ‘If it wasn’t for that goal…’, and that makes me feel very proud, honoured and humbled. Some of the supporters say that while [being in] the Championship and Premier League is brilliant, that’s their favourite moment because it kept their football club alive.”

Back in the present, it’s almost a fitting nod to their grim past that AFC Bournemouth, rather than follow other Premier League clubs by lifting the curtain to the new season with glamour ties in the United States or Middle East, begin their first pre-season as a Premier League outfit on the grounds of a local school. “We’ve always had a bit of inconvenience – it brings out the best in us,” jokes Neil Vacher, noting the current renovations to the training pitches at the stadium. However, today’s 30-minute commute was the norm back in the days of administration, as the Cherries had no training facilities to call their own. “The only reason I got this job,” notes head of media Max Fitzgerald, who dropped out of university for a role at AFCB four years ago, “was that I had a car and was willing to drive here.”

After limbering up with the use of yoga mats, Bosu balls and foam rollers – all in the view of biscuit-nibbling pensioners playing a round of golf next door – Cherries players are taken on a light jog by the coaching staff as a team of sport scientists watch on, scribbling notes on clipboards. But, much unlike the clichéd pre-season training of yore – of players running for a fortnight before catching sight of a football – within minutes the squad is taking part in ball exercises, 3v2s, and eventually a full-on, fiercely-contested 11-a-side game.

“The gaffer’s great like that,” winger Marc Pugh tells us later. “He instils this philosophy, and you do as much fitness work as you want to, really. The lads want to work hard, but it’s great as a lot of clubs don’t even get the balls out until week two.”

Eddie Howe is a poster boy for the new school of management, been hailed for his innovative approach to training, while his studious attention to detail has drawn comparisons to Jose Mourinho. “Training’s top notch,” admits left-back Charlie Daniels. “You have to think about everything – there’s no day you come in and have a jolly-up. It keeps us on our toes, keeps the brain active and makes you a better player. I can’t speak highly enough of him, and I do believe he will become England manager one day.”

“I want my players to get better, probably quicker than they actually can”

Any success Howe enjoys as a manager has been hard-earned, as he endured a torrid time as
a player. Joining Bournemouth at the age of 10 and graduating from their Centre of Excellence, Howe was a defender feted for big things, making two appearances for England Under-21s in 1998 and over 200 appearances for the Cherries before being signed by Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth in 2002. Sadly, Howe’s dream of gracing the Premier League ended in tatters when he suffered a knee injury on his Pompey debut, and then another just nine minutes into his comeback the following season. After re-signing for Bournemouth on loan in 2004, the club’s dire finances led supporters to establish ‘Eddieshare’ – a crowdfunding campaign that pre-dated Kickstarter by half a decade – with the £21,000 raised confirming his return. Given his services to the club that followed, fans probably consider this a worthy investment.

“As a player I was hugely focused to become the best I could be,” Howe says, “but I quickly realised I was deteriorating and not getting better. Maybe I’ve taken that frustration, in not being able to improve, out on my players now – because I want them to get better, probably quicker than they actually can.”

Upon being forced into retirement in 2007 aged just 29, Howe worked a number of roles for the Cherries, including reserves boss, first team coach and within the Centre of Excellence, before he got a crack at the big job. Steering the team away from relegation in his first season, Howe won promotion to League One in his second (despite a transfer embargo that left 12 fit players), before he and assistant Jason Tindall left for Burnley in January 2011, amid further financial strife at AFCB.

Even though his spell at the Lancashire by no means a failure (just ask Sean Dyche, who inherited a squad from Howe that included signings Danny Ings, Charlie Austin and Kieran Trippier), the death of Howe’s mother and the feeling “we had a story to tell” lured him back south less than two years later. Promotion to the Championship followed and, after a 10th-place finish in 2013-14, Bournemouth rarely fell out of the top six in their assault on the Championship title last season.

Of the rare criticism levelled at Howe, some argue that elusive owner Maxim Denim – the Russian petro-chemical tycoon who purchased 50 per cent of the club in 2011 and the rest last year – has bought the Cherries’ recent success. Others have questioned whether, if you took him away from his adopted home, Howe could really replicate his magic elsewhere.

“I’m not really fussed what people say,” he says. “One of the earliest things I learned in management was to not listen to what people say. I’m confident I could manage outside of Dorset. Football management doesn’t change on location.” Given that he was linked with West Ham and Newcastle this summer, chances are Howe won’t be short of suitors should he one day crave a change of scenery.

“I don’t consider myself special in any way. I’m just a hard worker”

At Cherries HQ, winds of change are in the air (well, that and some horrendous techno music wafting from the dressing room). Premier League officials visited within days of Bournemouth’s promotion, with them a long list of demands to bring their 11,700-capacity stadium up to spec. Mostyn proudly told fans that money would be invested in players before adding additional seats, with Sylvain Distin, Tyrone Mings, Josh King and Adam Federici since brought in (along with Chelsea’s Christian Atsu on loan). However, the Vitality Stadium currently resembles more of a building site.

Strips of exposed wire hang along the main concourse. A deep, gravelly trench sits where the touchline used to be. Rubbish-filled skips, paint-spattered sheets and workmen using stacked desk chairs as makeshift ladders are at every turn. With a chorus of power drills, creaking JCBs and a haywire alarm system drowning out the players’ music, a handful of Cherries stars arrive in the boardroom to brandish poker chips in a promotional photo shoot for new shirt sponsor Mansion.

One player is conspicuous by his absence. Had he graced the Premier League, Brett Pitman would have been the sole survivor from the team that achieved the great escape in League Two, and a goal would have made him the first and only Bournemouth player to score in every tier. Amidst this comic book tale of redemption, does the transfer of Pitman – who scored over 100 goals for the club – to Ipswich show that romance in football is dead after all?

“It is indeed,” admits Fletcher. “Clubs evolve. People move on. But Brett was one of the major reasons the club survived. His goals [17 of them] really were the reason we had a chance of staying up, the following season it was Brett’s goals [26] that got us promoted into League One, and when he came back
in 2012-2013 it was his goals [19] that got us into the Championship. So he has played a massive part in the club’s rapid progression up the leagues.

“These things happen in football. But who’s to say he won’t come back for a third time somewhere down the line?”

There’s more change to come at Bournemouth. Season ticket prices were hiked to reflect the club’s Premier League status, and although last year’s prices are currently displayed on the stadium’s food stalls, Cherries fans can wave goodbye to £3 pints and £3.50 pies. And yet a cautious pragmatism endures, with the club refusing to get carried away with its current setting. A few days after our visit, AFCB are set to abandon their school training ground for a training camp in Philadelphia but chairman, manager, assistant and first-team coach aside, all players and staff will fly economy.

As for Howe, at the end of the first of what is guaranteed to be many long days this season, the manager dubbed a “local messiah” by Jeff Mostyn is refusing to believe the hype: “I am my biggest critic – I’ve always been that way. The accolades are nice, but they’re not going to win us any games this season.”

Three promotions in six years, against the backdrop of liquidation, transfer embargos and stock-grabbing bailiffs… surely this must garner some self-assurance. Does he agree with Lineker? Is he England’s ‘Special One’?

“I don’t consider myself special in any way,” insists Howe. “I consider myself a hard worker with a passion for football. I’m just looking forward to the next season, and making sure I do my job properly.”

Eddie Howe: The Self-effacing One.








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