Eddie Howe took over as caretaker manager of AFC Bournemouth in October 2008, with the club facing an uphill task to avoid relegation following a 17-point penalty for failing to exit administration correctly. An ex-player of some distinction, he had retired from playing at 30 due to a persistent knee injury and gone into the coaching side of the game at a relatively young age. Survival was a tall order and Howe knew he needed the help of someone older than himself to achieve this aim. Steve Fletcher, another Dean Court hero, returned to the club having seemingly wound down his career in non-league football with Crawley Town. Never a prolific scorer himself, Fletcher’s team play and experience proved vital to the Cherries cause as they survived with the luxury of a game to spare. Howe had already done a superb job and more than justified the decision to appoint him which appeared a risk at the time.
The takeover of the club by the Murry consortium meant that the financial situation at the club would at least not get any worse, but did not stop Howe from having to operate under a transfer embargo that has remained since the back end of last season. As a result, the Cherries have operated throughout 2009/10 with a squad of only 19 professionals and when injuries have bitten, their compliment of substitutes has contained more than one empty space. None of this stood in their way as a superb start to the season saw eight wins from the first nine matches. The Fletcher – Brett Pitman partnership in attack saw the former assisting the latter on numerous occasions. A dip in form in the winter coincided with the accumulation of suspensions and injuries, but they had much bigger worries off the field. In February, a winding-up order was issued against the club by HMRC over unpaid taxation in the region of £300,000. It has also been the case that while players have been paid, it has not always necessarily been on time. The togetherness cultivated in (and by) such adversity resulted in the Cherries holding their form and their nerve down the final straight. Saturday’s trip to the Pirelli stadium to face Burton Albion was amid a strangely mixed atmosphere of celebration and nerves.
Knowing a positive result would seal their promotion to the third tier, Bournemouth’s supporters had the party kit ready but knew at the back of their minds it may have to wait for another week. Anxiety was removed when a familiar combination produced a predictable result. Fletcher won a flick-on in the penalty area and Pitman did what he had done 26 times already this season. When a breakaway goal by Alan Connell sealed the points in stoppage time, the well-earned moment of collective ecstasy saw supporters on the pitch, with players and coaches mobbed.
In typically modest fashion, Howe was quick to accredit others for the success of his team, “I can not praise the players and the coaching staff around me enough. It has been a real team effort involving the directors and our magnificent supporters and hopefully we can continue the success next season”. His connection to the club and the fact he had already acquired legendary status at Dean Court no doubt helped galvanise team spirit. However, his relaxed and approachable style has been exactly what a small group of professionals facing giant obstacles have required to overcome setbacks and remain focussed on the longer-term goal. Howe is the sort of man you can imagine you would want to work for, and would want to be successful. It is hard to envisage a seargant-major type manager having the same effect in the circumstances. Moreover, he signalled the sense of the collective applied to everyone at the club when he immediately ruled himself out of a higher-profile (and no doubt more well paid) job at Peterborough following Darren Ferguson’s departure. Their subsequent struggles must make Darragh McAntony and co. even more disappointed that he was not interested.
In truth, Bournemouth face an enormous task to build on this success and establish themselves in the third tier. While the financial crisis at the club has been reduced to merely an ‘every penny counts’ situation, funds for new players, assuming the embargo is lifted, will be minimal, possibly a ‘free transfers only’ scenario. There is a compelling case that this may be no bad thing, as too many new additions may upset the camaraderie that has been cultivated at Dean Court. Whether they can adjust will probably depend on two killer questions. Can Fletcher, 38 in July, continue to defy father time for one more season? Also, can they hang on to the talented manager who is five and a half years younger than their iconic target man? There are a plethora of clubs in the Football League whose demand for results is not met by the resources given to the man in the dug-out. Getting more for less in those circumstances is an essential skill that the best managers have in abundance. Of all the 92 managers in England’s top four tiers, Howe has been the most shining example of this in the current season. Whoever cleans up with the awards come the end of May, it is the view of this writer that Howe is the real manager of the year for 2010.