Cherry Poppin’ Baddies


On Bournemouth’s Ascendance, Media Darlings, and the Dark Art of Avoiding Relegation

By Kevin Alexander | Image via AFC Bournemouth
[M]onths ago, I previewed the teams that had been promoted from the Championship to the Premier League. To do said preview, I watched a lot of Championship soccer via the Internet. And much to the detriment of my objectivity, I found myself repeatedly fascinated by only one of these teams: The A.F.C. Bournemouth Cherries.

Every year a promoted team comes along and captures the hearts and minds and published words of the international soccer media, usually A) because of the way they play, and B) because their story of making it into the EPL allows writers to use terms like “gritty,” “unheralded,” and “like that team from Hoosiers but with much more handsome track suits.” Burnley, last year, was the press’s most frequent date to the word prom (myself included), mainly because of how hard they played, and how Sean Dyche refused to let them just give in to the feeling that they were playing well out of their league. Especially considering that feeling would’ve been entirely justified, when you learned that they’ve only spent £45m on transfer fees IN 132 YEARS OF EXISTENCE. Manchester City spends that much on players they only plan to use in the last twenty minutes of preseason co-ed exhibition matches.

But Bournemouth is not Burnley. Both literally, because they are actually different physical places in England, and with regards to their style of play, which is what most of the ballyhoo is about. Eddie Howe’s Cherries, you see, play composed, forward-thinking football. They pass and move and keep the ball, and feature offensive-minded wingbacks like Charlie Daniels (Important digression: if things ever get really bad for Daniels and he ends up playing in the Umaglesi Liga for FC Dinamo Tbilisi, the headline has to be “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”), wildly talented wingers with hep haircuts (Matt Ritchie), and a pair of strikers in Joshua King and Callum Wilson who could probably beat Robert Huth in a 55m sprint by 38m. They play an organized, pressing defense that works hard until they regain possession. And they have my third favorite Polish goalkeeper of all time.

They pass and move and keep the ball, and feature offensive-minded wingbacks like Charlie Daniels , wildly talented wingers with hep haircuts (Matt Ritchie), and a pair of strikers in Joshua King and Callum Wilson who could probably beat Robert Huth in a 55m sprint by 38m.

The team they’re most often likened to is 2011 Swansea, who came into the league featuring their own young popular manager in Brendan Rodgers playing his iteration of the Total Football strategy originally employed by their former manager Roberto Martinez. The Swans quickly became the trendy team to tell people wearing trilby hats you supported, because they were essentially Welsh Arsenal, as much the quick passing of Leon Britton and the flashy stylings of Scott Sinclair and Danny Graham as they were the hard tackles of now-manager Garry Monk.

Saying you supported Swansea in 2011 was a classic soccer hipster move, because it said that you cared about the style and quality of play, but didn’t just go for the big, obvious clubs. But throwing all your support behind Swansea came with certain risks. For one, unless you were Welsh and celebrated the Christmas Eve toffee-making tradition of Noson Gyflaith, everyone who knew anything about the EPL would know you were a band-wagoner. And second, despite their swagger, there was always the risk that they would immediately be sent back down (like 2010 darling Blackpool), and you’d have to content yourself to refreshing GameCast updates of Championship matches versus the Milton Keynes Dons. Not to ruin it for anyone who has four seasons of Premier League saved on their DVR, but they did succeed and the Swans now remain the sterling example of what could be for many a lower league side who plays an enlightened form of football.

And now here we are, two matches into the season, and the glory boys of 2015 have two brutal 1–0 losses to show for it. The Cherries were first popped (sorry) by the middling middlers of Aston Villa, a team whose most interesting player, Jack Grealish, spent his offseason lying in streets apparently acting in very confusing guerrilla anti-smoking advertisements. Bournemouth went down on a set piece, and never fully seemed able to shake the adrenaline of their debut, touches long, passes a yard far, shots wide, cherry puns not hilarious upon execution.

The next match, away at Liverpool, seemed the much bleaker scenario, but Howe’s boys were unfazed by the thousands of chubby drunk men at Anfield doing a respectable karaoke Gerry and the Pacemakers and, for much of the match, looked the more aggressive side, getting a goal called back on a questionable call, and conceding one which actually should’ve been ruled offsides given a recent very exciting and sexy rule tweak I will not get into.

Will they succumb to one of the dark truths that teams like Sunderland and West Brom and Stoke have known for years — that sometimes, winning and staying in the Premier League can be an unseemly pragmatic business.

Despite the losses, there should be no cause for alarm — at least not yet. The Cherries’ next few matches, versus West Ham, Leicester, Norwich City, Sunderland, Stoke, and Watford, will be extremely telling as to what Eddie Howe’s master plan is going forward. Will they try to adhere to their style no matter what? Or will they succumb to one of the dark truths that teams like Sunderland and West Brom and Stoke have known for years — that sometimes, winning and staying in the Premier League can be an unseemly pragmatic business.

My hope, and the hope of many others who’ve recently purchased unlimited rides on the Bournemouth bandwagon, is that Good Football will prevail. That their quality, open-play and amazingly tiny stadium will ultimately be rewarded with at least enough points to ensure I can make horrible cherry puns for another couple seasons. But when Bournemouth are playing away on a cold, rainy night at Stoke, the field is a layered Tiramisu of mud, the fans are chanting “we only score from a throw-in,” and Peter Crouch is in the game, will Howe be able to resist the cynical voices in his head urging him to park the bus? And perhaps more importantly: should he?

The H

Check back every couple of weeks for more EPL pseudo-analysis and references to Polish goalkeepers. Or just follow Kevin on Twitter @KAlexander03, and he’ll privately DM you about Jerzy Dudek.