Richard Fleming: My memories of Bournemouth the EPL’s newest Premier League club

Fleming' doubts Design by Brent Diskin

Richard Fleming covered Bournemouth for 2 years for the BBC
Design by Brent Diskin

AFC Bournemouth will play in the top flight of English football next season for the first time in their history. For much of the past 100-plus years, this humble club on England’s south coast has endured many more downs than ups. They have – as recently as 2009 – avoided relegation from the Football League by the skin of their teeth.

Financial pressures forced out the likes of Harry Redknapp and Tony Pulis from the manager’s seat. Pulis’s successor, Mel Machin, was at the helm, when the club came within 15 minutes of going out of business altogether. That was 1997.

It was 1998, and I was working for BBC Radio Solent, a local station based in Southampton. As part of the sports team, our main job was to cover the local football clubs, including Southampton, Portsmouth and AFC Bournemouth.

AFC Bournemouth were the lowest of the three professional clubs, under the guidance of former Manchester City manager, Machin. Their squad included Eddie Howe, Jason Tindall and Steve Fletcher. The chairman was long-time supporter, Trevor Watkins, who had instigated a supporters’ trust fund that had ultimately staved-off receivers.

Today, as manager and assistant manager, Howe and Tindall have taken the club from the bottom of the Football League to the top of the Championship, and now into the Barclays Premier League. It is the stuff of dreams. Both, when unavailable to Machin, would sit alongside me in the radio commentary box, as did long-serving player, fan-favorite and now Club Ambassador, Fletcher.

Watkins has been a Bournemouth fan since the early 1970s, and the epitome of the loyal, local fan. I recall him being a post-match guest on BBC Radio Solent following a match at York City. We stood in the Spring sunshine in one of England’s finest cities, as the Cherries won their penultimate game of the 1998-99 season 1-0, to keep alive their playoff hopes. They would ultimately miss out on goal difference to Wigan Athletic, after being held to a 0-0 draw at home to Wrexham a week later. Manchester City would go up from the division that season via the playoff route.

During my two seasons covering the Cherries, I recall watching them doing their pre-season ‘beep test’ in the car park of their simple stadium, Dean Court. They would train on local playing fields. Interviews would be conducted in my BBC-branded car. The average attendance for the 98-99 campaign was less than 5,000.

Two elderly ladies would always welcome me to the stadium, asking how I thought that day’s match would unfold. They positioned themselves at the top of a flight of steps, beside a plastic tub in which they would place the counterfoil of ticket stubs. It was a small club, in a seaside resort, aware of its place in the English game. Crowds flocked to Bournemouth for the sun and the sand, rather than the soccer.

The team were playing in Division Two at the time, now League One (the third tier of English football). Opponents included Luton Town, Wycombe Wanderers, and the Uniteds of Oxford, Cambridge and Scunthorpe.

Next season, they will play in front of up to 70,000 fans, and face the elite of the English and European game in Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City.

Bournemouth were within a whisker of going out of existence, with debts of around $6.7 million as recently as six years ago. Promotion to the Premier League guarantees them a minimum of almost $200 million, and recognition for the right reasons all around the world.

This is a day nobody could have imagined during those turbulent times, but it is testament to the hard work, resilience, faith and blind loyalty shown by Watkins and Co.

Yes the investment of Russian billionaire Maxim Demin has certainly helped in recent times, but the fact that he had a club to invest in at all is due to those that have gone before.

Now, like so many AFC Bournemouth fans, I’ll be keenly awaiting the release of the fixture list for the 2015-2016 season, when the Cherries will make their debut in the Premier League.

Good people, celebrating a great day, and I couldn’t be happier for them.

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