After surviving their first campaign of Premier League football against all odds, many observers expected AFC Bournemouth to suffer from the dreaded ‘second-season syndrome’.
It didn’t materialise. Under the stewardship of Eddie Howe, the Cherries finished in the dizzying heights of ninth place – closer to a European spot than the relegation zone. As a result, expectations have never been higher at the modest south coast club.
As they prepare to enter their third campaign in England’s top-flight, it is fair to claim that Bournemouth are now an established Premier League outfit, something that would have been unthinkable just a handful of years ago.
They may be small in stature, but the Cherries are big on ambition. This summer, they have smashed their transfer record with the £20 million signing of versatile Dutch defender Nathan Ake, who enjoyed a fruitful loan spell from Chelsea last season.
Also arriving from the reigning domestic champions for £10 million is goalkeeper Asmir Begovic, keen to play regular football having spent several years on the bench as Thibaut Courtois’ understudy.
If that wasn’t enough, Bournemouth have secured the services of Jermain Defoe on a free transfer from Sunderland. The 34-year-old, a current England international, put pen to paper on a three-year-deal at the Vitality Stadium. He is the most high-profile signing in the club’s history and is reunited with Howe, alongside whom he played for the Cherries as a teenager when he famously scored 10 league goals in successive games.
Howe has performed miracles at Bournemouth and the story of how he masterminded the club’s rise from the bottom of the Football League to the Premier League is well known. Strengthening the spine of the team was a priority and having landed his top three transfer targets, he will go into Saturday’s curtain-raiser at West Bromwich Albion with cause for real optimism.
Among Howe’s greatest strengths is his ability to keep his players on an even keel, in good times or bad. A top class man-manager, the 39-year-old always speaks with a calm authority. He has a very specific way of working, which has proved to be successful. Those who fully commit to his methods are rewarded, while those who don’t find themselves marginalised.
Joshua King is a perfect example of Howe’s skill for identifying, trusting and maximising talent.
Snapped up from Blackburn Rovers in 2015, for a fee of around £1 million which had been decided by a tribunal, he looked totally out of his depth and completely shorn of confidence during his initial appearances for Bournemouth. He was even dubbed by some fans as the worst player ever to wear the red-and-black shirt. But Howe had seen raw potential in the Norwegian and, over a period of time, unlocked and harnessed it.
King scored 16 Premier League goals last season and is arguably the first name on the team-sheet. His current value is estimated at £25 million and despite admiring glances from Tottenham Hotspur, as reported by the Telegraph, he is expected to remain at Bournemouth, who have no need or desire to sell. The secret to King’s transformation? Hard work on the training pitch.
Surely, not even Howe could have imagined that his squad would finish ninth last season. A by-product of success is growing expectations and the Bournemouth boss will manage them by insisting that, once again, avoiding relegation is all that matters.
As the elite clubs continue to splash an extraordinary amount of money on players, so the gulf between the top seven and the rest is likely to widen. For that reason, improving on last season in terms of league position would be monumental achievement. But then this is AFC Bournemouth – the football club that doesn’t follow the script.