AFC Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe is the prince charming who brought the club’s fairy tale to life.
“There’s a ‘but’ coming, I hope.”
“But one season, just six years after almost dropping out of the league, they won promotion to the Premier League, the world’s richest soccer competition, scoring 98 goals and winning the championship in the last minute of the last day of the season.”
“Implausible story. And we need a hero.”
“The coach. Big injury ends his playing career early, he turns to coaching, gets his hometown club to this pinnacle, and wins Manager of the Year. He’s handsome, blond, modest, smart, and only 37. We’re talking Eddie Redmayne with a rinse.”
“This sounds like a fairy tale.”
Indeed, the astonishing story of coach Eddie Howe and AFC Bournemouth’s promotion to the Premier League is a fairy tale. For one thing, the club inhabits an Arcadian site in Boscombe (Bournemouth’s original name), with a tiny stadium (11,700 capacity), an athletics track and field where the team trains, and a cricket pitch and pretty pavilion beyond an avenue of tall trees. Bournemouth supposedly derived their nickname, the Cherries, from the Victorian orchards of J.E. Cooper-Dean, in which their pitch was first situated in 1892. Hence the stadium’s birthname, Dean Court.
Starting from their Football League debut in 1923, Bournemouth were planted in the Third Division (South) or the reformed Third Division, until 1970, when they were relegated to the Fourth Division. They have won only three trophies—the Third Division (South) Cup in 1946; the Associate Members’ Cup, for clubs in the lowest two leagues, in 1984; and the Third Division Championship, in 1987.
They had one famous FA Cup run. The artist Michael Simpson (he has two paintings in the entrance hall of the Royal Academy in London) has supported his hometown club since 1947, and their extraordinary form in reaching the sixth round in the 1956–57 season is still etched in his memory.
“We were still Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic then,” Simpson recalls. “The kit was beautiful: red shirts with white sleeves, white shorts, and Prussian blue socks with red-and-white tops.” Bournemouth eased their way through three rounds, but were then drawn to play at Wolverhampton Wanderers, third from top in the First Division and stuffed with England internationals, including the England captain, Billy Wright.
“We were under the cosh most of the time,” Simpson continues, “and then Reg Cutler had a chance to score but missed as he slid in and collided with the post, bringing the whole goal down. He somehow recovered to score and win 1-0. Next we were drawn against Tottenham Hotspur. There were 25,000 fans packed into Dean Court seeing us beat Spurs 3-1.”
To complete the adventure, Bournemouth were paired with Manchester United, in the sixth round. “Dean Court was at bursting point, and there on the pitch was Duncan Edwards, the greatest English footballer since the Second World War. He was stocky, with huge thighs, but had tremendous elegance. Brian Bedford put us into the lead with a header. They went down to 10 men, but Edwards was immense.We couldn’t get past him. Both of Berry’s goals were dubious, but they beat us 2-1. It was a great Cup run by the Cherries—but then I always think about United and the terrible crash at Munich the following February.”
While Simpson was off at the Royal College of Art, sharing space with David Hockney and Peter Blake, his beloved Bournemouth were a portrait of mediocrity. After overseeing the 1970 relegation to the Fourth Division, manager John Bond tried to reboot the club. “Boscombe” was dropped, and AFC Bournemouth was born, with a new kit (based on AC Milan’s red and black stripes) and shirt badge. Bond also introduced a club motto: “Our aim is to entertain.” Ted MacDougall obliged with 49 goals, gaining Bournemouth’s first-ever promotion.
But Bournemouth remained trapped in a maze. A stream of managers sought a way out. Harry Redknapp, who had played for the club; Mel Machin; and Sean O’Driscoll all tried mapping a future. Meanwhile, notable players such as Rio Ferdinand, Jermain Defoe, and Jamie Redknapp followed George Best in making fleeting appearances. Then the first of the club’s financial crises arose. A fans’ trust helped stave off bankruptcy in 1997, but by the time Howe took over as caretaker manager, at the end of 2008, the club had suffered successive points deductions (10 in 2007–08, 17 in 2008–09) for going into administration, dropping to the very bottom of the league.
Putting a 31-year-old former player in charge—good enough to win two England under-21 caps, but whose playing career had been crushed by injuries—seemed as flimsy as a New Year’s wish. Howe had been at the club since age 10 and became youth coach after his forced retirement. Now he had five months to devise an escape. His first act was to re-sign Steve Fletcher, a wardrobe-sized center forward who’d been a club favorite for years. A remarkable 11 wins were enough to eradicate the 17-point deficit, and in the penultimate game, against Grimsby Town, a Fletcher goal 10 minutes from time brought a 2-1 victory and safety.
“If we’d dropped out of the league, there is no doubt that the club would have suffered bankruptcy and gone out of existence,” Howe says. Now full-time manager, but with only a 19-player squad and nothing to spend, he somehow fashioned an attacking side based on the team he’d admired most in his youth: Everton, which won two titles in the mid-1980s, the FA Cup, and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, with fast, passing football.
Howe’s team took flight, attaining second place and promotion to Division 1, greatly assisted by 26 goals from Jersey-born forward Brett Pitman, who was sold off with his fellow striker Josh McQuoid. Though the team continued to progress, Howe—frustrated by financial restrictions—accepted an offer to become Burnley’s manager in January 2011, taking young striker Danny Ings with him. A short way into the 2012–13 season, Howe was enticed back. His mother had died and his wife hadn’t enjoyed Burnley’s Pennine climate.
Howe and Bournemouth once again proved a perfect match, aided by money (supposedly $15 million) invested by a Russian pharmaceutical businessman, Maxim Demin. The Russian had been introduced to the club by former chairman Eddie Mitchell while his firm refurbished Demin’s house on the exclusive Sandbanks Peninsula in Poole. Jeff Mostyn, another donor, had become chairman. Howe led the team to promotion to the Championship, one tier below the Premier League, and finished a respectable tenth. Few people noticed the sudden upward mobility, though Rednapp, another Sandbanks resident, had seen it coming. “Eddie had put together a really good bunch of lads, playing attractive, expansive football, and they were a joy to watch. With two wingers, they were always taking the attack to their opponents.”
Last season saw Howe’s master plan fulfilled. With the backing to play the transfer market, Howe brought in forward Callum Wilson from Coventry City to go with left winger–midfield Matt Ritchie, who’d been snatched from Paolo di Canio’s Swindon. Pitman had returned to add goals. Tommy Elphick, team captain, says that the team benefited “from the togetherness of a hard journey.”
Last October, they won all four league games, including an 8-0 thrashing of Birmingham City at St. Andrew’s that put them atop the Championship. Suddenly people took notice. Seven more wins before Christmas consolidated Bournemouth’s unexpected position. The naysayers took comfort in the team’s poor form in the New Year, but after successive losses to Brentford and Nottingham Forest, Bournemouth did not lose another game, scoring five goals at Fulham, four against Blackpool, and four against Birmingham.
Watford emerged as the main threat, taking a significant advantage after Bournemouth’s 2-2 home draw to Sheffield Wednesday—a draw given to them by a nervously conceded 95th-minute penalty. A 3-0 win at home to Bolton Wanderers confirmed Bournemouth’s promotion to the Premier League. In the joyful mayhem that followed, Mostyn, the chairman, bounced into the home locker room chanting, “We are going up. I love these fucking lads!” live on television. The players responded by hoisting him in the air and smacking him on the butt. Howe shied away, allowing his players the limelight.
Watford were on top by a point, and with a home game against Sheffield Wednesday they looked certain to be champions. Bournemouth were away at Charlton Athletic. The Cherries raced into a 2-0 lead, showing no signs of a hangover, but Watford soon scored. Bournemouth completed a 3-0 win, then waited for confirmation of Watford’s win. But then came the final miracle of a miraculous season. In the fourth minute of added time, Sheffield Wednesday stole an equalizer. Watford dropped two vital points, and Bournemouth were champions.
“The key to all this was when the gaffer came back from Burnley,” Elphick says. “He knows how to organize a team and how to lift us when we’re down. He gives us the credit for wins and takes the blame himself for defeats.”
Bournemouth now face the established superclubs of the Premier League, hoping that their modest stadium, modest additions to their squad, and defiant attacking will disarm enough opponents to enable them to stay in the top flight. “I think they’ll turn over plenty of teams next season,” says Redknapp in proud grandfatherly tones.
Not so long ago, those who believed in Bournemouth were mostly dismissed as fantasists. Implausible their story may be, but it is no longer a mere fairy tale.