The disappointment which accompanied Bournemouth’s draw away at Premier League Wigan on Saturday says a lot about the Cherries’ improvement since the return of Eddie Howe as manager.
Bournemouth were denied a memorable FA Cup victory at the DW Stadium by a 70th minute Jordi Gomez equaliser. Former Torquay man, Eunan O’Kane, put the visitors ahead with a blistering first half effort, but they couldn’t hold on and will now have to face Wigan again on January 15.
But Bournemouth won’t fear Roberto Martinez’s team when they visit Dean Court, after all, they are unbeaten since Eddie Howe rejoined the club in mid-October.
Howe’s arrival after nearly two years at Burnley triggered a turnaround which has lifted the Cherries from the League 1 relegation zone to the edge of the play-off spots. Now fans and players alike are targeting promotion to the second tier for the first time since Harry Redknapp’s era, over two decades ago.
The first time round
Howe shot to prominence during his first spell in charge on the South coast. Then the youngest manager in the Football League at 31 years old, he led unfancied Bournemouth to promotion from League 2 in his first full season.
The following season, despite fierce competition and a miniscule budget, Bournemouth flourished in League 1. However halfway through the season Howe broke Cherries fans’ hearts by moving to Championship Burnley.
Howe was universally adored at Dean Court and fans believed he’d accomplished miracles during his time at the helm. But the events of the second half of the season raised questions about Howe’s ability.
Bournemouth, under the leadership of striker Lee Bradbury, went on to reach the play-offs, agonisingly losing their semi-final against Huddersfield on penalties. Howe on the other hand had an inconsistent and largely unspectacular time at Burnley.
Throughout his tenure at Turf Moor, Howe failed to build momentum and Burnley were stranded in mid-table. People quickly forgot about his feats at Bournemouth and much of the earlier buzz surrounding the young manager evaporated.
Fast-forward to October 2012 and Burnley were once again threatening to push for a play-off spot, but were looking unconvincing. Bournemouth on the other hand had won one of their first 11 games, and appeared to be in deep trouble.
Howe made an extremely brave decision to leave the comfort and safety of Championship Burnley, so that he could drop down a division for a battle against the drop at his old club.
The second coming
His gamble looks to have paid off spectacularly.
Ten wins, four draws and no losses have catapulted Bournemouth from the relegation zone to 7th, level on points with the MK Dons, and outside the top six on goal-difference. In the 14 league games played since Howe’s arrival, the Cherries have scored 31 goals and they’ve now kept four straight clean-sheets in the league.
Howe’s inspired the players and got them playing some stylish and intelligent football. The current Bournemouth team, with its vibrancy, confidence and audacity, seems unrecognisable compared to the stuttering, goal-shy outfit which slipped into the bottom four in October.
One of the main ways Howe’s achieved success is by getting the best out of his big names and big personalities.
Summer signing, Lewis Grabban, has been netting regularly for Bournemouth, and he’s hit the kind of form which got him recognised at Rotherham. Other attack-minded players have also raised their games substantially, including Eunan O’Kane, Marc Pugh and highly-rated Harry Arter.
Other experienced figures such as Simon Francis and Miles Addison have played well, while the presence of veterans Steve Fletcher and David Jamesin the dressing room has benefited the young manager.
Another masterstroke was the decision to bring Brett Pitman back to the club. Pitman was a key player in Howe’s first spell at the Dean Court helm, and in December he was brought in on loan from Bristol City, where he’s struggled for form. He’s since scored three goals and signed a permanent deal with Bournemouth.
Perhaps a promotion?
Howe has reminded the football world why he generated such hype during his first spell in charge at Bournemouth.
Attendances are up substantially, and there’s a belief Bournemouth can bypass the play-offs altogether, and finish in the top two. They’re the form team in League 1 and opponents are dreading their visits to Dean Court, where the Cherries have lost just once all season.
Howe’s time at Burnley will be judged a failure because he never managed to ignite excitement at the club, and never looked like getting the Clarets promoted.
Howe seems at home on the South coast, and after his unsuccessful venture in Lancashire, he will probably be less willing to leave Bournemouth this time round. He knows and understands the club having spent a total of 15 years at Bournemouth as a player and manager.
Howe’s affinity with the club is key to his success, and under the former player’s management, Bournemouth could undoubtedly challenge the top two this season. Howe’s returned to the club to finish a job he started in 2008 and the second coming has provoked the question, Howe far can Eddie take Bournemouth?