Soccer Angles: Survival scramble forces Howe to cast prudence aside

Bournemouth manager has reluctantly entered transfer market in bid to avoid drop

Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson with manager Eddie Howe after his Premier League hat-trick against West Ham in August at Upton Park. Not long after the player joined Tyrone Mings and Max Gradel in succumbing to a season-long injury. Photograph:  Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson with manager Eddie Howe after his Premier League hat-trick against West Ham in August at Upton Park. Not long after the player joined Tyrone Mings and Max Gradel in succumbing to a season-long injury. Photograph: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

 

There was a change in tone. Sadness moved into the voice of Jean-Marc Bosman when he reflected on the times he enjoyed most in football, which came long before his surname entered the game’s history.

It was November, a month before the 20th anniversary of the Bosman ruling, and the man himself thought back to his youth team days at Standard Liege, then his early breakthrough into the first team as a teenager. Bosman was happy, carefree, playing football for the sake of playing.

But once inside the senior dressing- room, he saw professional football for what it was and is.

“The game became about pressure and money,” Bosman said.

It was a rueful declaration. It might seem an obvious one, but it is worth remembering there are days when the game is about enjoyment and participation. Sport.

The memory of that Bosman sentence was triggered by Eddie Howe this week. The Bournemouth manager is an impressive figure, up close as well as from a distance. Howe is thoughtful and intelligent, as reflected in the way Bournemouth play. Howe also knows his club inside out – he joined as an 11 year-old in 1988, was released at 16 and re-signed a year later.

When Howe was then appointed temporary manager in 2008, it was during a period of such financial crisis that Bournemouth had been deducted 17 points by the Football League. They had failed to exit a second administration, had a transfer embargo, were second bottom of League Two and staring at a future in non-League football – if they had a future.

“There were a lot of moments where I was told the club were 15 minutes away from going into liquidation,” Howe recalled as this – Premier League – season began.

In front of a crowd of 5,900, Bournemouth won their first home match under Howe. Somehow he kept them up. The rookie 31-year-old manager dipped into his own pocket at times during the last four months of that season to ensure players and bills were paid. Few managers have done for a club what Eddie Howe did for Bournemouth.

It means something to him. It is why he went back, from Burnley, in October 2012, despite Bournemouth being a division lower.

Transfer record

Bournemouth’s transfer record at the time was the £800,000 paid to Crawley Town for Matt Tubbs. As Burnley were relegated from the top flight last May, Bournemouth were being promoted and suddenly the club’s transfer record became £8 million – for Ipswich’s Tyrone Mings. In addition, Max Gradel, from St Etienne, cost £7 million.

Part of Howe’s achievement this season has been coping without those two signings. Mings was injured in his second game, Gradel in his fourth. Neither has been seen since. Then Callum Wilson, who had scored five in seven, was injured, out for the season too.

Howe had every right to moan. He didn’t, he knew he must wait until January to sign replacements.

And in the past week, Bournemouth have spent £16 million (€21 million) doing that, bringing in Benik Afobe from Wolves and bringing back Lewis Grabban from Norwich. Juan Iturbe, who cost Roma £17 million 18 months ago, has arrived on loan, and on big wages.

Howe might have been expected to be delighted, even feeling a little triumphant at the display of new economic muscle. Instead Howe said: “It is not a comfortable feeling for me.

“I have been right through the journey. The year that we were embargoed, we had 13 or 14 players to choose from.

Every penny

“I take every penny we spend very seriously and try to make good decisions for the football club, not just for now, but for the long term. It is important that we look beyond this season. It is not just about the here and now.”

Few people in the Premier League – or any league – talk this way. It is all about the here and now.

And, as Bosman said, pressure and money – this season in particular.

The Premier League, January 2016, is about cash, especially at the end of the table where Bournemouth are. It was notable that Louis van Gaal used the term “expensive points” to describe the two he felt Manchester United dropped this week at St James’ Park – and if Old Trafford is not a Champions League venue next season then such expense may cost Van Gaal his job.

But at least Manchester United are not threatened by relegation – not yet. This is where Bournemouth are and the three recruits arrived as Norwich and Sunderland are faced on consecutive Saturdays. With the new TV deal beginning next season, the estimate is that Premier League clubs will be guaranteed £150 million minimum before a ball is kicked or ticket sold. Compare this to the Championship where even a big club like Derby County had a turnover of just £20 million in 2013-14.

Desperation – pressure – is why Bournemouth, Newcastle and Sunderland have been spending already this month. Swansea and Norwich are both keen on Everton’s Steven Naismith. Even Aston Villa, from 20th place, are endeavouring to recruit.

This is different from the prudence of Burnley at this stage last season, when they had a point more than the bottom four do today. Burnley chose to sidestep transfer market pressure and Howe might feel more comfortable if Bournemouth did too.

Brutal fascination

But it’s done now and the brutal fascination of the league is that three clubs will be relegated regardless.

So we can expect the remaining fortnight of the transfer window to be even busier. The division has a rare grip this season because of its unforeseen unpredictability but also because of the TV dividend looming.

And then there is the desire to belong, to be part of the ‘EPL’. This is less novel. When Middlesbrough became the first club to spend a four-figure sum on a player – £1,000 for Sunderland’s Alf Common – there were questions asked in the House of Commons about sporting integrity.

Middlesbrough didn’t care – they were second bottom of the old First Division when they signed Common. He wasn’t signed to win the league, he was signed to avoid the financial wreckage of relegation. Sure enough, Alf Common, the world’s first £1,000 player, scored the goals that kept Middlesbrough up. That was in 1905.

Clubs have long reacted to pressure with money; it’s not new.

It was once to Jean-Marc Bosman, though, and it is today for Eddie Howe. What marks them out from the rest is their discomfort.

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