You’d be harder pressed than an Anfield opponent to name a manager in the Premier League as revered by his own fans as Eddie Howe. The only man who’s been at their club longer is Wenger, infamously marmite towards his own supporters, and across the other big cheeses of the league – Guardiola, Pochettino, Klopp, Mourinho and Conte – the fans reckon the jury’s either still out on the man in charge, or they’re yet to experience any huge disappointment. Whether you look at Koeman or Karanka, Pulis or Puel, there’s always someone who isn’t overly keen.
At Bournemouth however, there probably wouldn’t even be a club without the manager. Gaffers of days gone by at Dean Court – including one Harry Redknapp – overspent, leaving the club with no option but to hire Eddie. He took them from the foot of the football league to the Prem, via an unhappy gap year with Burnley, so not it’s no surprise that he’s adored by 99% of his fans (there are arseholes wherever you go in football).
Bournemouth’s chequered financial past is masked these days by the cash that inevitably gets thrown around in the big time. The Cherries were one of a handful of top-flight teams to smash their transfer record the summer just gone; weirdly, for Jordon Ibe. In the last couple of seasons the club has paid big for Benik Afobe, Lewis Grabban – yet to score since returning for seven million whole English pounds – loan wages for Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, and a hefty financial fair play fine. They’ve reportedly enquired about Chelsea trio John Terry, Asmir Begovic and Nathan Aké, reportedly bidding a combined £28m for the latter two. Though we’re in the age of fake news, all the rumours point towards Eddie Howe clearly having a pot or two more to piss in than he had in League 2.
But the past still lingers at the Vitality. The Steve Fletcher Stand was named so after club legend Fletch returned to the south coast, free of charge, to help fight on the pitch against a -17 point deficit that the club faced during the 2008-09 season. He scored the goal that kept the club up: it really did come down to one moment, in the last game of the season, and it’s honoured by a quarter of the ground being named after the man himself. It’s a constant reminder to the club about how close they came to not being a club at all.
It makes sense then that every move Bournemouth have made since promotion to the Premier League, has been about the future. The talk of whether a 12,000 seater stadium was fit for the top tier quickly died down, as the club themselves admitted that hey, let’s see how long we stay in the division. The first summer signings Bournemouth made in the Premier League were a highly-rated, young, English defender in Tyrone Mings, a cheap, Championship attacker that Eddie could mould in Josh King, and the experience of Sylvain Distin and Artur Boruc, both on free transfers. When Callum Wilson and Max Gradel were faced with long-term layoffs even before September, Howe shuffled his pack to bring in Glenn Murray, a relatively cheap plan B to work with King, that could be offloaded when his star striker came back.
Even in January of last season, Howe bought sensibly in Benik Afobe, a striker who would either kickstart their Premier League survival or become a valuable Championship player – to either sell on or keep – when the team were relegated. Hell, Grabban for £7m is inflation at its finest, but at least he was a striker Eddie had a proven record of getting good form out of in the Championship. Last summer, midfielders Lewis Cook and Emerson Hyndman were both sought-after starlets in the Championship, who could still be poached by midtable sides should the Cherries go down this season. Though Jordon Ibe was pricey at £15m, it’s money that’s basically come from Mike Ashley’s bank account, as Matt Ritchie was sold to Newcastle for the same amount just weeks earlier.
In fact, the summer just gone seemed like a rebuilding exercise for the future. Cook, Hyndman, Lys Mousset, Brad Smith and even record signing Ibe were all signings intended to grow into the club, rather than assume starting spots automatically. Jack Wilshere was only a gamble because of his injury record, but Arsenal were going to pay most of the deal, and there was no clause for Wenger to take back the playmaker at any point.
The worry now is that steady Eddie, a manager who’s played it so safe since he’s been in the big time, played it too safe in the last transfer window. Nathan Aké, arguably the club’s best player up until that point, was recalled a week into January. No one was brought in to replace him. The club have struggled at the back, sure, but Callum Wilson has looked a lonely figure up top. Bournemouth signed no one, in defence or attack, and just days later, Wilson was ruled out for the campaign.
It’s almost complacent; the club have been slipping down the league, but it wasn’t deemed enough of a worry for the club to reinforce the squad, as they did last year. They bought cleverly last year, but it was still £17m of hard cash to keep them in the division. This year: nothing.
Eddie Howe is a manager who looked his club’s extinction in the eye and fought it: he’s faced much worse odds than this, especially as his side aren’t as close to the danger zone as this time twelve months ago. So it’s no wonder that he’s careful with the balance of his squad, that he goes for Championship stars he knows well over big names he doesn’t, and that every risk he’s bought in the Premier League has been calculated. His predecessors made big money mistakes, but under Howe, Bournemouth are ready for every eventuality: if they stay up, they have a young, British core to build on, but should they finish in the bottom three, they have players proven in their new league. Should Eddie stay, he can work with this group: should he go, they have decent resale value for the next boss.
But Howe isn’t just any boss to the Bournemouth faithful: he’s the one that saved them. He’s led them from their darkest days to their highest ever league finish. He’s brought a brand of football to Dean Court that the fans are proud of, and he’s competed with the best of them in the Premier League. Bournemouth’s time at the top has been littered with “What if” questions; if Wilson had been fit for all of last season, the club could well have finished higher. If the club had replaced Aké and built on the defence in January this year, they could well have finished above local rivals Southampton this season.
Should the club remain in the league, it would be nice for Bournemouth to truly build on the squad with a few players who can immediately improve the first team. A goalkeeper is perhaps needed, as suggested by the Begovic interest. A quality centre-back is definitely worth investing in and a defensive midfielder might be needed. The club will no doubt follow the same recruitment pattern as they have done for the most part, but if there’s one man they wouldn’t begrudge a little gamble, it’s Eddie Howe. A player who can add instant impact to the club is just the kind of boost they need; just as it was when Yann Kermogant joined years ago, or when Wilshere joined on deadline day. It might be the only way to progress in the Premier League.