“I think we’re capable of beating anybody when we’re on the top of our game. I don’t think we were on top of our game today, so that’s good because there’s room to grow and improve.” Eddie Howe’s comments after Bournemouth’ last outing before the international break spoke volumes about the high standard the Cherries boss has set for his players. At Vicarage Road, against a side that have enjoyed their own surprising start to the season, Bournemouth were ruthless; killing the game before half-time as Christian Kabasele and his Watford team-mates pushed the self-destruct button. For Howe, the biggest disappointment of the afternoon was that his team were only able to add one further goal after the break, rather than ruthlessly racking up a bigger score against a team there for the taking. That 4-0 victory was one of a handful of impressive performances from the Cherries this season, made all the more remarkable by the contribution of Bournemouth’s young British contingent. While the rest of the Premier League continues to spend big on foreign imports, Howe has looked closer to home.
The story of the Premier League’s youngest (and longest-serving) manager and his inexorable rise at its smallest club is well worn. Forced to retire with a persistent knee injury at the age of 29, Howe was invited onto the Bournemouth coaching staff by Kevin Bond, and eventually succeeded Jimmy Quinn on New Years Day in 2009. At the tender age of 31, the former Cherries and Portsmouth defender was tasked with avoiding relegation from the Football League, a mountainous challenge given the club’s precarious situation. A seventeen point deduction at the start of the season had left them adrift in the relegation zone, but eight wins and three draws from Howe’s first thirteen games pulled them out of trouble. From there, momentum did the rest.
The fabled Six Year Plan came to pass as, a sabbatical at Burnley aside, Howe led Bournemouth to three swift promotions, winning the Championship title in 2015 and watching on as his stock in English football sky-rocketed. Since their arrival in the Premier League, Bournemouth have been nothing but a breath of fresh air. Though pragmatism played a large part in their first-season survival, they’re now a well-established mid-table outfit that play attractive, free-flowing attacking football, all in spite of a stadium smaller than many in League One. Across their three seasons in the top flight, Howe has shown serious acumen in the transfer market, with rough diamonds Josh King and Nathan Ake impressing at the Vitality Stadium. It’s his recruitment and improvement of young British players, however, that has set him apart from his contemporaries.
Bournemouth’s preference for home-grown talent is nothing new. At the end of last season a study into Premier League minutes given to English players revealed that Bournemouth outstripped the rest of the league with 24,202 minutes given to their English contingent. With the addition of Scottish winger Ryan Fraser, the total for British players rises to 26,212 - almost 3,500 minutes more than second placed Everton - or 51% of all available minutes. Ahead of this season, Howe’s squad was named the most British in the Premier League, with 68% hailing from the home nations compared to next-best Southampton’s 50%. Of the Cherries average starting XI across the opening eight games, seven first-teamers are British, while, tellingly, nine of that eleven were signed before their 24th birthday.
“We want players who are coachable. That is one of my first requirements, because we are very hands-on on the training ground. You can’t do that if you are obstructive to wanting to learn.”
Talented youngsters aren’t typically handed to football clubs on a plate and, particularly for a club like Bournemouth, will either require nurture to reach their full potential, or persuasion to turn their backs on tantalising offers from the country’s biggest teams. Fraser, one of the Cherries’ outstanding performers in the first two months of the season, falls into the former category. At 5’4”, the Aberdeen born winger was never likely to rely on his physicality to make it as a professional. Eventually signed by his hometown club at the age of 16, Fraser was quick to impress in Scotland, and Howe snapped him up to help the Cherries’ League One promotion challenge in 2013. A key member of the Championship winning squad, Howe’s reservations over the young winger’s diet and stamina for the Premier League led to a season on-loan at Ipswich Town under Mick McCarthy, but his break in the big-time eventually arrived a year later.
“[Howe] said to me: ‘You’re not playing for me again until you work all this crap off. I’m 70kg now. I reckon I was about 85kg before. The thing is, I was still quick, but I couldn’t last games. The first 30 minutes I used to be flying, but then you wouldn’t see me after it.”
A cameo appearance at home to Tottenham had seen Fraser reintroduced to the first team at Dean Court and two months later against Liverpool his game-changing introduction from the bench earned him cult-hero status. Arriving ten minutes after half-time with Bournemouth two goals down, Fraser won a penalty almost immediately, before scoring a second and setting Steve Cook up for the third. The Cherries won 4-3, on their way to a club record ninth place finish. Since then, the Scotsman hasn’t looked back, racking up eight goals and eight assists in the last two seasons, and starting this one in irresistible form. Across the opening eight games, Fraser ranked fourth for key passes per game (2.6), and has already matched his assist count from last season.
His performances have garnered admiring glances from the Premier League establishment, but the Aberdonian isn’t oblivious to the root of his progress, “My mindset was not as positive as [Howe’s] and that has changed now. But it’s not just about football with the gaffer. I think we like each other as people. On a morning, we don’t shake hands; he always hugs me. I came here when I was young, I didn’t have any family down here and I suppose he felt that he’d better look after me”.
That familial atmosphere has also played a key part in the early season form of the man on the opposite flank. Eyebrows were raised in pre-season when Bournemouth spent the significant sum of £11.5m on Sheffield United starlet David Brooks, despite the midfielder having just one Championship season under his belt, but once again Howe’s faith has been rewarded by a string of impressive outings. Less of an out-and-out winger than Fraser, Brooks is a player with the attributes of a classic #10, capable of flicks and tricks but armed with a killer pass - along with teammate Dan Gosling, Brooks has played the third most through-balls in the Premier League this season. His maiden goal for the club at West Ham was followed up by a poacher’s finish at Watford, and Brooks is already being spoken of as one of the bargains of the season.
“I’ve said many times that we aren’t able to bring in the established player who is excelling at this level – they just simply aren’t available within our financial bracket. So we try and bring in young players and develop them.”
Eddie Howe on signing young players
Besides the care and attention of the coaching staff, Brooks was also convinced to move down to the south-coast by Bournemouth’s brand of football. “One of the reasons I came here was because they play attractive football. They try and get it on the deck and pass it round. It was the perfect fit for me to come here and hopefully I kick on with my career now.”
The Welsh international’s comments echoed those of another youngster brought to Dorset for big money. When Raheem Sterling swapped Merseyside for Manchester in 2015, Liverpool supporters took solace in his heir apparent. According to the Anfield faithful, Jordon Ibe was “better than Sterling anyway”, but the Bermondsey-born winger’s promise never translated to performances in the North-West. After half a season under Jurgen Klopp, Ibe was deemed surplus to requirements. Thankfully, there was a club on the south-coast tailor-made for his talents and will to stump up £15m to secure them.
“I like the philosophy the manager has got here and there are a lot of good, young players so it’s a good place for me to kick on and do well. The team play the same style of football as Brendan Rodgers used to play at Liverpool, which is something that I like.”
Unlike Brooks, Ibe took time to adjust at Dean Court. His first season, in the words of his manager, was disappointing, with 25 outings producing no goals and no assists. Last year, determined to silence the Bournemouth boo-boys, Ibe’s form improved dramatically. The winner against Arsenal provided his first goal in red and black, and an equaliser against West Brom in March set the Cherries on their way to another three points. Though currently being kept out of the first team by the form of Brooks and Fraser, Ibe’s pace and directness from the bench offers Howe an effective Plan B.
While Wales and Scotland are already benefiting from the nurturement of Bournemouth’s set-up, its the Cherries’ Golden Boy that offers a long-term solution to one of England’s biggest dilemmas. Lewis Cook has already made his debut for Gareth Southgate’s team, against Italy last November, but has been earmarked as the dynamic, game-changing midfielder the Three Lions are crying out for. Brought up through the academy at Leeds, and touted as one of the most exciting young players in English football, Cook could have had his pick of Premier League sides when he decided to leave Elland Road. Bournemouth, though, was a natural move, since it offered the 19 year old the opportunity to play regularly, under a manager that could not only improve on his raw talent but actively played the kind of system that Cook could excel in.
Last season was Cook’s breakthrough, and unsurprisingly the big clubs came knocking in the summer, with both Liverpool and Tottenham alledgedly offering up to £30m for the 21 year-old’s services. Bournemouth, though, are not a selling club, and quickly moved to tie the young Yorkshireman down, offering an improved four-year contract that Cook signed without hesitation, “It came as a nice surprise. I was just concentrating on my football and playing games, but when it was spoken about I couldn’t wait to get it signed.”
So beyond the team’s style of play and the atmosphere at the club, how exactly has Eddie Howe managed to create such a conducive environment for growth at Bournemouth? We spoke to Peter Bell, owner of AFC Bournemouth fansite Cherry Chimes, to find out what he thought the secret to Howe’s success was:
“The manager wanted experience when the team first reached the Premier League, so he signed Sylvan Distan from Everton. He has kept that kind of process going with Asmir Begovic and Jermain Defoe. Sometimes players need wise heads around them and the idea behind bringing in players like Jack Wilshere is that other players can learn from their game and their professionalism, as I’m sure Lewis Cook did. Callum Wilson and Lys Mousset, too, will learn from Defoe’s game, so even if squad players aren’t getting game time, they’re helping others improve.”
Understandably, Howe has received plenty of press attention since arriving in the Premier League, with writers and journalists desperate to discover the hidden formula behind his success with young players. Having had to retire at such a young age, Howe admits he is perhaps better able to relate to those embarking on their professional careers than older coaches are. Though keen to stress he is not interested in ‘being liked’, his attitude to discipline is a world away from the hard-nosed Proper Football Men of yesteryear. “If someone does something wrong within our systems then instead of paying a monetary fine they spin the wheel to find out what their forfeit is. I don’t know if the players see it as light relief, I think they would rather just pay a fine! But it’s a way of harnessing loads of good moments throughout the season that actually encourages team spirit, and develops people and leaders.”
It’s not just his work with young players that sets Howe’s squad apart. Since their promotion to the Premier League in 2015, Bournemouth’s back-four has mainly comprised four players that joined the club in League One. While right-back Adam Smith was only on loan at Dean Court for one season in the third tier, before signing permanently in the Championship, Steve Cook, Charlie Daniels and stalwart club captain Simon Francis made a combined 185 appearances on the way to the Cherries second promotion in three years. Along with recent arrivals Ake and Diego Rico, those four players remain the core of Bournemouth’s defence, with Cook currently sitting top for most clearances in the league this season (63). Speaking to The Set Pieces, Frances’ lay the plaudits for the improvement of him and his colleagues squarely at the door of the manager, “I have never known anything like the training sessions he puts on, and the hard work he puts into every single session. You go out and everything is marked out. We’ve got an exact allotted time on every single session and every drill. He’s so driven, passionate and obsessed.”
Peter Bell (Cherry Chimes), thinks credit for the individuals is also due: “Francis was always playing our of his skin in League One for us. Daniels also has a tremendous determination to be the best and he saw off some tough competition to be the number one left-back. I’d say those two players have always had the quality, but they have worked to get even better. Smith is technically gifted and is probably more naturally gifted. Cook has probably had to work hardest of them all at his game. He’s a player that wears his heart on his sleeve and will run through walls to stop a goal. You need a player like that in your team.”
In our very own Premier League Preview, we predicted the Cherries to struggle this season due to the over-reliance on their League One stalwarts and promising crop of youngsters. In fact, that unorthodox recipe has seen them emerge as unlikely challengers for that now-coveted 7th place. But does a Europa League place represent the ceiling of Bournemouth’s ambitions? And will Eddie Howe be tempted to look overseas to take his team to the next level? The manager says that keeping it British isn’t his priority, “I take immense pride when I see players like Nathan Ake and Lys Mousset playing for their respective countries. We want to see players develop, whether it is Lewis Cook for England or Nathan for Holland and Lys for France.”
Peter from Cherry Chimes, meanwhile, thinks the club are primed to achieve across the board, “I think the league is only one aspect of what the club is looking at. It would be great to get into Europe, but I would not be surprised if we found Bournemouth in the final of a League Cup or FA Cup in the next few seasons. Keeping pace with the top six in the league is much more difficult, but I am sure the Cherries will have a good go at trying to get into Europe this season if the team can be kept together in January.”
Therein lies the next challenge for the club as a whole. While the name of the game is success and progression, its only a matter of time before Bournemouth’s players and manager begin to court serious interest from the Premier League’s bigger fish. For the time being Howe seems driven by his current project, and for as long as he’s providing an atmosphere that fosters young talent, Bournemouth won’t want for exciting young players.
Massive thanks to Peter Bell from Cherry Chimes for offering the fan overview for this piece. You can read more of Peter’s perspective of life at Dean Court here.