The Watford defeat was a new low for Eddie Howe in 11 years as Bournemouth manager. Not because they were woeful – and particularly so – but because of how flammable they looked in the fire of battle.
This is a side that has avoided the whirlpool of the bottom three every year, just by out-scoring and out-running everyone. Sunday was a sorry surrender however, the slow collapse of a circus tent: no panic, just resignation that relegation beckons.
Worry is growing and for the first time, there is talk of whether Howe is fit for office. If this soulless, goalless season does defeat him, there will be questions asked – of his sieve-like 4-4-2 and his players’ work ethic, not to mention defensive frailties that Bournemouth still can’t shake.
On-pitch issues, however, are only half the story. Page numbers, if you like, in the recent history of this club. Really, a Premier League crisis is relative.
A little over a decade ago, Bournemouth’s league status – possibly their status full-stop – was confirmed by one half-volley on the penultimate day of the season. All the fan-organised whip-rounds, loanees playing for nothing and club staff rerouting family finances, was justified, by one strike from Steve Fletcher.
Today, a quarter of Bournemouth’s ground is a reminder of how close they really came to the edge. The Steve Fletcher stand usually leads the chorus of ‘Eddie had a dream’ at the Vitality, the faithful’s favourite chant in their ascension up the echelons, that tells of Howe taking the side from League Two survival to the top tier.
It’s barely appreciated just how magnificent a job a rookie with no prior experience has done. It’s even more impressive when you consider how little the furniture has changed around him.
Bournemouth’s entire operation is still confined to a small patch of grass in King’s Park, Boscombe: it’s starting to catch up with them, though. Plans to move the training ground 15 minutes away are underway and overdue – the club currently have 10 senior players out injured, not including the two rushed back last weekend. Serious knee injuries have been a recurring theme, with over a dozen vital players sidelined for months on end at one point or another. As the intensity of football has increased, so have the casualties.
Such is the speed of Bournemouth’s rise, the academy hasn’t caught up either, and hasn’t produced a first team regular in five years of top flight football. Recruitment also hasn’t been revolutionised in the Premier League: Howe still mainly plucks from the lower leagues. Pots of money has been invested, but Francis, Fraser and Steve Cook – who all joined in League 1 – have been refined and reshaped into the linchpins of the era, rather than replaced.
This is what Eddie Howe has achieved. He didn’t just save his boyhood club, he remodelled them with his possession-oriented philosophy, got them promoted three times and kept them up for five years – comfortably, too. All in a decade. It’s an unprecedented feat for a modern English coach and he’s still just 42.
Where would Bournemouth even begin to move on from that, halfway through a campaign? Sacking their greatest ever manager would leave them in a winless conundrum. It crowbars them into short-termism and re-aligns the entire club philosophy – and anyway, there’s no guarantee that any attainable replacement could possibly retain the club’s Premier League status, especially with the current infrastructure. At best, it keeps the Cherries in the big time with the same surroundings for 12 more months – and then what? – at worst, it leads to a sharp drop back down the pyramid.
Eddie Howe’s biggest strength has always been in generating a greater fight from his team than the sum of the parts should be able to muster on paper. But for the first time under him, Bournemouth look devoid of that spirit. Howe needs goals, he desperately needs Wilson and Fraser to perform and he needs collective effort. It’s harder than it looks, but a lot easier than a mid-season shake-up of the club’s entire identity.
Eddie Howe peers over the precipice with a fearlessness that few other managers can muster. He’s been here before, after all.
Going down would be a blow for Bournemouth. But at least it wouldn’t throw both the short and long-term future of the club into jeopardy.
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