The grass isn’t necessarily greener away from Bournemouth for Eddie Howe

Words By Nick Miller Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 15, 2017
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Projecting ambition is always a tricky business, particularly in football. The assumption is that every non-league player wants to play in the Football League, every Football League player in the Premier League, every Premier League player in the Champions League. Anything less than that is almost viewed as a curiosity, or some sort of weakness, a character failing of some description.

But of course, that assumes everyone has the same standard of professional satisfaction, and the idea that someone might be perfectly happy where they are is barely considered. Achievement and contentedness are not necessarily measured through the accumulation of trophies or money.

The perfect example of that is Eddie Howe. Bournemouth’s achievements in the last couple of seasons have almost been underplayed: this is a tiny club on the south coast who before 2015 had never been in the top flight. They survived with relative comfort in their first season and came ninth in their second. All of which was broadly achieved with three-quarters of a defence that played for them in League One.

Howe should have been at the top of every club with a managerial vacancy’s list for the last couple of years. Despite their promising start to life under David Moyes, Howe would have been a much more inspiring appointment for West Ham. He would have probably got Crystal Palace out of trouble too. Everton, understandably to an extent, played things safe with Sam Allardyce, but Howe would have been a more forward-thinking choice.

But this is all based on the idea that Howe wants to leave Bournemouth, to ‘move up’ in the world and manage a team with theoretically loftier ambitions. The obvious difference between him and any other manager in his position is that he has the experience of having done it before.

Howe left Bournemouth for Burnley back in 2011, spending 22 months in Lancashire before returning, partly for personal reasons. Howe’s mother died in March 2012, and the disconnect he felt from the rest of his family at such a traumatic time in part prompted the return. “The more I had the chance to think about where I was at mentally with everything I knew that returning home was what I needed to do,” Howe told the Guardian in 2013.

It wasn’t the first time he was called home, either. He made the vast majority of his 273 playing appearances for Bournemouth, and after a short sabbatical at Portsmouth he returned for the first time, supporters raising the £21,000 transfer fee – the ‘Eddieshare’ scheme, as it was called – to bring him back. This is not just some young manager using a smaller club as a stepping stone: the old cliche says that no individual is bigger than a club, but in this case it’s closer to the truth than most. It’s hard to spot where Howe ends and Bournemouth begins. 

All of this is worth keeping in mind, because most logic points to Howe having taken Bournemouth as far as he can. Leicester’s miracle in 2016 can skew perceptions of these things, but can anyone realistically expect Bournemouth to do much better than ninth in the Premier League? Football is full of glass ceilings, and Bournemouth are banging their collective head on theirs. Perhaps the only thing Howe can be expected to achieve is a good run, possibly a win, in a cup competition.

Howe has theoretically been at Bournemouth for too long. Bela Guttmann’s old line about the third season being “fatal” is in some respects a fairly meaningless maxim, but there’s certainly plenty to be said for freshening things up by not staying for too long. But Howe’s biggest achievement is probably simply ensuring that everyone at Bournemouth still listens to him after all these years.

Listening to him talk after their 1-0 defeat to Manchester United on Wednesday, there was the odd hint that Howe knows this too. His tactical plan was sound, his team dominated in the opening spells and kept United’s expensive attack quiet. But they couldn’t break through, the match a 90-minute example of the inevitable and slightly depressing knowledge that, under most circumstances, the team with the biggest players and budget will ultimately prevail.

It’s always very easy to read too much into these things, but there was something about Howe’s demeanour that suggested he knows, consciously or otherwise, that he has done all he can at Bournemouth. The accepted rules of ambition state he should look for a ‘new challenge.’

But Bournemouth is his home. Howe might have a burning ambition to manage at a higher level, but he still seems happy there, and they still seem happy with him. There’s some green, green grass temptingly in view on the horizon, but Howe’s ostensible reluctance to seek it out should be applauded.

Bela Guttmann’s old line about the third season being “fatal” is in some respects a fairly meaningless maxim, but there’s certainly plenty to be said for freshening things up by not staying for too long. But Howe’s biggest achievement is probably simply ensuring that everyone at Bournemouth still listens to him after all these years.

It wasn’t the first time he was called home, either. He made the vast majority of his 273 playing appearances for Bournemouth, and after a short sabbatical at Portsmouth he returned for the first time, supporters raising the £21,000 transfer fee – the ‘Eddieshare’ scheme, as it was called – to bring him back. This is not just some young manager using a smaller club as a stepping stone: the old cliche says that no individual is bigger than a club, but in this case it’s closer to the truth than most. It’s hard to spot where Howe ends and Bournemouth begins. 

All of this is worth keeping in mind, because most logic points to Howe having taken Bournemouth as far as he can. Leicester’s miracle in 2016 can skew perceptions of these things, but can anyone realistically expect Bournemouth to do much better than ninth in the Premier League? Football is full of glass ceilings, and Bournemouth are banging their collective head on theirs. Perhaps the only thing Howe can be expected to achieve is a good run, possibly a win, in a cup competition.

Howe has theoretically been at Bournemouth for too long. Bela Guttmann’s old line about the third season being “fatal” is in some respects a fairly meaningless maxim, but there’s certainly plenty to be said for freshening things up by not staying for too long. But Howe’s biggest achievement is probably simply ensuring that everyone at Bournemouth still listens to him after all these years.

Listening to him talk after their 1-0 defeat to Manchester United on Wednesday, there was the odd hint that Howe knows this too. His tactical plan was sound, his team dominated in the opening spells and kept United’s expensive attack quiet. But they couldn’t break through, the match a 90-minute example of the inevitable and slightly depressing knowledge that, under most circumstances, the team with the biggest players and budget will ultimately prevail.

It’s always very easy to read too much into these things, but there was something about Howe’s demeanour that suggested he knows, consciously or otherwise, that he has done all he can at Bournemouth. The accepted rules of ambition state he should look for a ‘new challenge.’

But Bournemouth is his home. Howe might have a burning ambition to manage at a higher level, but he still seems happy there, and they still seem happy with him. There’s some green, green grass temptingly in view on the horizon, but Howe’s ostensible reluctance to seek it out should be applauded.

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