When Bournemouth became the 47th different side to play in the Premier League, not many gave them much of a prayer. Having gone from near football league extinction to gaining promotion to the top flight in just 10 years, their meteoric rise was undoubtedly a great story, but this season would likely prove one step too far.
But arriving in the Premier League they soon made many friends and attracted admiring glances from all quarters, their brand of attacking, passing football great to watch and a credit to manager Eddie Howe and his side. And despite only two wins from their first 14 fixtures, they continued to play their own game instead of adapting to suit the more demanding nature of the Premier League.
Their persistence was rewarded with a six-game unbeaten run at the end of 2015 however, the side picking up results whilst staying true to the philosophy. But despite adding to their points tally since the turn of the year, there are signs that the side will still fall foul of some of the naivety that has befallen similar sides in the past.
The most striking similarity that springs to mind is that of the Blackpool side that graced the Premier League just five seasons ago. A small club with an unlikely promotion to the top flight, playing attractive passing football and winning over many fans along the way.
The fellow seaside outfit lit up the 2010/11 season, charismatic manager Ian Holloway guiding them to seven wins during the first-half of the season. Playing on a small, tight pitch in a stadium more suited to lower league football, their manager and players were similarly lauded for playing open, attractive football, regardless of opponent or situation.
Sure, it won them fans and, to begin with at least, it won them games, too. But just three wins during the second-half of the campaign saw them slide down the league and they were eventually relegated, finishing second from bottom. During the latter part of the season, when fitness and squad depth become even more crucial, they were found wanting, unable to adapt or cope with the pressure of the Premier League spotlight.
The Cherries could face a worryingly similar fate during the final 12 games of this season if they are not careful. Currently just four points and three places above the relegation spots, Howe’s side still have four of the current top-six to play, as well as visits from Liverpool and Chelsea.
And while we all like to see a side that ‘plays the right way’ there remains a time and a place for this outlook. Sides that are to survive in the Premier League, particularly one the size of Bournemouth, must consider adapting philosophy, mentality and tactics in certain games, most crucially those during the all important run-in.
The final dozen games of the season will tell us a lot about Howe’s team. Obviously, if they can pick up points whilst continuing to play their brand of football, they should avoid relegation whilst also claiming a moral victory, having not wavering from their footballing style.
But for such a young, relatively inexperienced manager – Howe is just 38 – the demands of a relegation dogfight on both himself and the players may prove tough. If he shows the maturity to change tactics and mentality at key times, he may well keep the Cherries in the Premier League. But the dangers of only knowing ‘one way to play’ are magnified during a run-in, even more so in the nation’s top-flight.
We’ll never know how their season may have gone had Callum Wilson stayed fit and new signings Tyrone Mings and Max Gradel both avoided season-ending injuries themselves. Five goals in seven games suggest Wilson was likely to have an excellent campaign and would surely have finished off some of the flowing football produced by the side from Dean Court.
If we are to have the opportunity to see what he can do with a full season in the Premier League, his team-mates and manager must start to entertain other ways of approaching games in the coming weeks and months, and not just entertain the crowds. It’d be a great story if they can maintain their Premier League status and I don’t think anyone would begrudge them another shot at the big-time. After all, we all like to be beside the sea-side, don’t we?