By Toby Foster (@TobyFost)
AT the Vitality Stadium, emblazoned on a tarpaulin which covers swathes of empty seats, are the words: “Eddie Howe had a dream”.
Upon first assuming the role of manager at AFC Bournemouth in 2008, that famous dream of Howe’s, soon magically fulfilled, was to keep AFC Bournemouth in the EFL. His subsequent aspirations – to gain promotion from League One, to win the Championship, to achieve a top-half finish at the highest level of English football – have been realised too.
Howe’s personal reward has been to become a truly revered figure in Dorset over the past half-decade. On this part of the South Coast, Eddie Howe is unquestionably a local paragon; a miracle worker whose judgement it is almost blasphemous to question.
With that in mind, it must have been all the more galling for long-time Cherries boss to witness his side’s fateful slump this season, culminating in their crash-landing back into second-tier football last weekend.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
By the time Bournemouth’s final-day fixture at Goodison Park rolled around, the strong probability of relegation was accepted by most of those connected with the club – not least the players themselves, who have been mercilessly obliterated on more occasions this season than they would care to remember.
The outcome of this season had been on the cards since mid-February, when the Cherries fell to defeat at rock bottom placed Norwich.
And though Howe’s men went out with a bang via their valiant win over Everton, it was a sad day nonetheless as this once-proud team felt the luxury of Premier League football decisively wrenched from their grasp.
Just two seasons ago, Bournemouth achieved a ninth-placed finish in the top flight, and Eddie Howe was being touted as the apparent heir to Gareth Southgate for the England job . What has taken place since is evidence of the fragile foundations upon which footballing reputations are built.
To pinpoint exactly what went so horribly wrong for the Cherries this season, it is best to look at what, in the past, went so brilliantly right. An oft-cited source of Bournemouth’s successes during their time in the top flight has been Howe’s total immersion in almost every aspect of the club’s operation.
Since arriving for his second spell as manager in 2014, he has had significant input on the selection of signings, development of academy prospects and building of community ties – more so than many of his contemporaries at their respective sides.
As Jeff Stelling put it: “Eddie Howe is Mister Bournemouth”.
Using the rare levels of managerial longevity and power afforded to him to his advantage, the manager remade AFC Bournemouth in his own image – and crafted a team which became capable not just of surviving in the Premier League, but competing in it.
Yet, perhaps somewhat inevitably, continuity turned into complacency.
In the years when they were thriving, Howe received plaudits aplenty for his personal responsibility for his team’s successes – and rightly so.
But by the same token, as the Cherries enter choppier waters, the manager has nobody to hide behind when the critics come calling.
Since their promotion to the top-flight in 2015, AFC Bournemouth have benefitted from a kindly characterisation by the sports media as a ‘plucky’ club.
A relatively small stadium, a complete lack of Premier League experience and a gaggle of former League One footballers still plying their trade in the side gave more credence to this portrayal. And everyone loves an underdog – or so the saying goes.
Yet the Cherries have been far from paupers in the transfer market since becoming a Premier League club. Backed by plentiful Russian investment, they have reportedly spent almost a quarter of a billion pounds since their arrival in the top flight.
Their net spend is a reported £176m – nearly double that of runaway champions Liverpool in the same period.
And since Howe’s arrival, no less than 13 Bournemouth signings have come with price tags of £10m or more.
Compared to recent rivals in the bottom half of the Premier League, Bournemouth are unquestionably a club possessing serious financial clout.
This makes their relegation even more of an embarrassment. Unlike Norwich City, who can largely blame their relegation on a lack of funds, Bournemouth have always had the money to succeed in the top flight.
Questionable transfer decisions have been a weeping wound at the club for many years, and the Cherries have now paid the price as this lack of shrewdness came home to roost.
Two profligate purchases that particularly rankle involve the £35m paid to Liverpool for Jordon Ibe and Dominic Solanke – neither of whom able to live up to their billing as the country’s top young talents.
Striker Solanke has found the net three times for the Cherries in 40 league appearances, while 24-year-old Ibe was released from his pricey contract this summer after a deeply unimpressive spell.
Given that Liverpool acquired Andy Robertson for £8m, and Leicester bought Riyad Mahrez for £450,000, the wastefulness of Bournemouth’s recruitment policy has been a crying shame when more astute signings could have changed the course of this most soul-destroying of seasons.
The lack of talented new additions to Howe’s squad made it all the more crucial that the quality already present within the Cherries’ ranks was well-managed – and yet it is here where the manager has most categorically come unstuck.
An over-reliance on ageing ‘legacy players’ from the club’s League One days – think Dan Gosling, Steve Cook, Simon Francis, Andrew Surman and Charlie Daniels – has severely impacted the side’s ability to compete at the highest level.
Loyalty is an all-too-rare virtue in football, and often to be admired where it is found. But Howe has been loyal to a fault with many of his longest-serving players – to the extent that they have morphed from mainstays to mascots.
To put it bluntly, none of the aforementioned quintet are top-flight footballers any longer, and some may even find life difficult in the Championship later this year.
Besides, Howe did have experienced Premier League pros at his disposal. But the likes of Jermain Defoe and Asmir Begovic, each with hundreds of Premier League appearances under their belts and with their own ideas about the game, have been pushed out of the side in order to accommodate arguably more pliable alternatives.
Glen Johnson’s recent words gave many Cherries fans pause for thought: “It’s almost that Eddie doesn’t like anyone who has the authority to have a discussion with him or maybe challenge his beliefs.”
What’s more, Howe is a coach with a big reputation for developing young talents, and turning potential into proven quality. But in a season where he has needed a sparky youngster more than ever to revitalise his side’s diminishing performances, his squad have been found wanting.
Other relegation-threatened clubs have given opportunities to the best of their academy prospects, knowing full well that great young players can make a vital difference.
Tariq Lamptey at Brighton, Dwight McNeil at Burnley, Adam Idah at Norwich, and Sean Longstaff at Newcastle – all clubs, and players, looking to the future.
But Bournemouth’s top youngster Sam Surridge, who scored goals aplenty in the Championship earlier this season for Swansea City, is still yet to be trusted by Howe with a Premier League start.
Some will argue that the club’s relegation came down to just a few unlucky moments – and they don’t come much unluckier than Callum Wilson’s disallowed goal against Spurs, – but fans shouldn’t overlook the sheer scale of the club’s failure to make the most of their ample resources this season.
At the Cherries, Eddie Howe had the players, the financial backing and the necessary experience within the squad to enjoy another prosperous campaign.
Whether the manager stays or goes this summer, he must take a large share of the responsibility for a relegation which never should have happened.