Inside Story: Why the EPL is within reach for Bournemouth

Martyn Thomas 06:31 16/02/2015
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  • South coast club are heading north: Bournemouth top the Championship – on goal difference ahead of Middlesbrough – with 59 points.

    Valentine’s Day 2009 was a relatively good one for fans of AFC Bournemouth. A late strike from Brett Pitman was enough to see off Accrington Stanley, giving the Cherries a third win in seven games under fans’ favourite-turned-manager Eddie Howe, and lifting them to within five points of League Two safety.

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    In a season plagued by a period of administration that resulted in a 17-point deduction and transfer embargo, it was also a key victory in a run of 11 in 18 games that secured their survival.

    Fast forward exactly six years, and it may seem surprising that a 1-1 draw with Huddersfield that took them back to the summit of the Championship was treated as a missed opportunity.

    Especially considering the Cherries had never finished higher than 12th in England’s second tier prior to last season, and represent a catchment area more famous for speedway than football.

    But while those present at Dean Court – a ground the club do not own and that holds just 12,000 – might be expected to be satisfied with the club’s recent success, their disappointment highlights just how fortunes have improved for the small south coast club and its sought-after coach.

    An exit from the Football League still looms, of course, but rather than oblivion it is the promised land of the Premier League that awaits for Bournemouth.

    “We finished strongly last season, the highest position the club had ever finished, and coming into this season we realised that if we play as well as we can then we’re one of the better teams in this league,” midfielder Andrew Surman says.

    “We came into the season not really fearing anyone and that’s going to be a dangerous weapon to have. So, we approached the season thinking ‘right, we just want to get promoted’.”

    Surman has witnessed Bournemouth’s progression first-hand, having signed permanently for the club on the final day of last summer’s transfer window following season-long loans in 2005 and ‘13.

    “Compared to when I was here first time, there is a lot better structure in place now,” he adds, revealing he encountered a club “in turmoil” when first arriving from Southampton.

    “You’ve got a good owner (Maxim Demin), a good chairman in Jeff Mostyn and obviously a good manager. So, I think the core of the club is there.

    “It has been quite a big jump quite quickly from League Two to the Championship but I think the structure is in place now, and there is direction to what they want to achieve in a relative space of time.”

    Key to the stability that has aided Bournemouth’s success has been the return of Howe from Burnley, and his relationship with the club’s Russian owner, Demin.

    Having led the Cherries to promotion to League One, Howe felt compelled to take on the challenge of managing at a higher level, leaving for Burnley in January 2011.

    However, a difficult time on and off the pitch was compounded by the death of his mother, and just 19 months later Howe returned.

    Although Cherries supporters were only too happy to roll out the red carpet, some in football saw it as a backward step. Yet, Howe has been aided by the changing shape of the club’s ownership.

    Demin, a secretive Russian millionaire, had been introduced to the club by then-owner Eddie Mitchell, when he built him a £5 million (Dh28.3m) house on Sandbanks. The story goes, Demin had bought a mansion on the exclusive Dorset peninsula, but unhappy with it, had it bulldozed and instructed Mitchell to construct him a new one. By October, the Swiss-based businessman, who made his money in petrochemicals, had bought a 50 per cent stake in the club. Less than two years later, as Howe and the Cherries were beginning life in the Championship, he purchased the other half.

    “Howe felt by turning down Burnley it would show a lack of ambition, which he now realises was misplaced,” says journalist Pat Symes of the M&Y News Agency, who has covered Bournemouth for the last four decades.

    “He’s been united with Maxim Demin, and the pair of them are both very ambitious but ambitious for Bournemouth. Howe wants to be his own master which he very definitely is.”

    Little is known about Demin – whose wife sparked controversy in February 2012 after reportedly visiting the players’ dressing room at half-time of a defeat to MK Dons – and he is yet to give an interview since investing in the club.

    The fact he does not permanently reside in the UK means he is not often seen at games, either, instead keeping in touch with Howe before games via text message.

    What is certain, though, is his chequebook has allowed his manager to back his eye for a bargain.

    The team that drew with Huddersfield cost just £5.25m (Dh29.7m), with £3m of that accounted for by the acquisition of Callum Wilson from Coventry.

    Wilson’s arrival last summer was funded by Lewis Grabban’s sale to Norwich City, though, while no other player on display on Saturday cost the Cherries more than £500,000 (Dh3m).

    “He’s not wasted his money, he tends to shop in the £400,000 to £500,000 bracket, in the main that’s where he’s bought most of his players,” Symes adds.

    “He’s sufficiently pleased with his own squad not to have indulged in the transfer window while all his rivals were throwing money in all directions.”

    Fan-favourite manager Eddie Howe has been at the forefront of Bournemouth's revival.

    Although the club may have enjoyed a quiet January – Artur Boruc’s loan extension their only business – they did hint at their ambition with a club-record £5m bid for Birmingham City’s 18-year-old winger Demarai Gray.

    It proved unsuccessful, but would have been a considerable statement of intent, not only of their long-term ambition, but also in the context of Financial Fair Play (FFP).

    Despite the club’s last published accounts showing they owed Demin £15.3m (Dh86.5m) in loans by the end of the 2012/13 they complied with the December audit, largely due to the money they received from the deal that took Adam Lallana from Southampton to Liverpool. And while they were thwarted by Birmingham, their approach highlights not only Demin’s deep pockets but also Howe’s desire to work with players he feels he can improve.

    He has set about building a squad not only to challenge for promotion to the Premier League, but also survive once they get there.

    If you were to name Bournemouth’s strongest side it would more than likely include at least six, if not seven, players who had played under Howe in League One.

    They have taken the step up to the Championship in their stride, and in turn, Howe would be confident of them progressing still further in the top flight.

    “I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here and the job he’s done so far has been amazing. I’ve got nothing but respect for him,” Surman says.

    “The way that he’s developed the players, he’s got a lot of belief in what he’s doing here and he’s got a lot of belief in the players. And I think that shows as well.”

    Should Bournemouth maintain their stunning form and take their place among England’s elite then fans should expect more studied recruitment in the mould, ironically, of Burnley this summer.

    That approach is designed to soften the financial impact should relegation quickly follow, but hasn’t stopped supporters dreaming.

    “It would be weird and odd to think about,” editor of fan site Tales from the South End and sup-porter for more than 30 years Steve Jennings says as he contemplates promotion. “We’ve never, ever been this successful.”