Can Bournemouth make Championship promotion history?
Background image: Ungry Young Man, CC BY 2.0
In theatre, they say the show must go on. Still, the West End and Broadway both shut down as COVID-19 raged. Football, on the other hand, played on without fans in attendance. Television revenues eased the pain, especially for the Premier League. Its global broadcasting reach allowed the bigger clubs to profit despite the empty stands. Championship sides suffered, however, as did their fans. Unable to attend matches, supporters were forced to watch from a distance a competitive campaign that might conclude like no other has.
Setting the moment in context requires a brief history lesson. Beginning in 1973/74, the English First Division began relegating three teams rather than two. Coincidentally, that was the last time Manchester United was relegated. They went down with Southampton and Norwich City. The Red Devils won the Second Division in ‘74/75 and returned to the top flight at the first asking along with Norwich. So’ton remained in the lower tier with Aston Villa making the leap to the next level. Several times in the intervening 46 seasons, two clubs have made an immediate return to either the First Division or Premier League but never all three. Someone was always left behind.
With Norwich and Watford gaining automatic promotion this term and Bournemouth qualifying for the playoffs, the opportunity exists for an historic first. If the Cherries can fight their way through the playoffs and emerge victorious at Wembley on 29 May, history will be made. All three relegated clubs will return to the Premier League as quickly as humanly possible.
Still, the South Coast club doesn’t face an easy road. Seemingly every trend is moving away from them.
To start, the Cherries limped to the Championship finish line, losing their final three matches, beginning with a 0-1 reversal at home to Brentford, the side they will face in the two-legged tie to earn a trip to Wembley. Bryan Mbuemo struck the winner on 77 minutes for Thomas Frank’s Bees. That was fully 27 minutes after the visitors were left a man down when Pontius Jansson was sent off. May day alarms went off when Bournemouth suffered another one-goal defeat, this time away to relegation-bound Wycombe on the first of the month. Finally, they returned to Dean Court, where mid-table Stoke City bested them 0-2 on goals from William Forrester and Tommy Smith.
Not only have the Cherries lost three on the trot, they are goalless over that stretch. It’s been 293 minutes since Bournemouth last scored in a 4-1 route over Millwall. Ah, the good old days.
In addition, the news isn’t good for sixth-place finishers gaining promotion these days. During the Premier League/Championship era, the lowest seed has only reached Wembley a half-dozen times in 28 opportunities. The first four did win promotion. Crystal Palace managed it twice, in 1996/97 and 2003/04. West Ham pulled it off in ‘04/05 and finally Blackpool in ‘09/10. Then the bottom dropped out on the next two challengers. Sheffield Wednesday fell to Hull City in 2015/16 and Frank Lampard’s Derby County couldn’t overcome Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United two seasons ago.
For better or worse, Bournemouth parted ways with the man who brought them to the top flight for five seasons, winning two promotions in a three-year spell to get them there. Eddie Howe resigned when the Cherries were relegated last season. Although he’s recently been linked with the Celtic vacancy, the Englishman has been finding employment in the family job jar over the interim.
Howe’s second, Jason Tindall, replaced him. Life began well for the club man who donned the red and black 173 times during his playing career. Approaching the holidays, the former defender had the Cherries second in the table. Then the trap door was sprung. A lone win over the next eight matches sent the squad plummeting down the table to sixth. Intent on returning to the golden paradise of the Premier League at the earliest opportunity, ownership sacked Tindall, replacing him with Jonathan Woodgate.
The former Middlesbrough, Tottenham and Real Madrid centre-half had recently been brought to Dean Court as a first team coach. His only managerial experience was a failed stint as the Boro boss where he was sacked one game into the COVID restart with the Teessiders separated from the drop zone solely on goal difference.
To be fair, he’d struggled to change the culture at the Riverside upon replacing the uber-defensive Tony Pulis. Woodgate unlocked the cage to a more open style of play, but Pulis’ pigeons wouldn’t fly free.
Down south, Woodgate enjoyed greater success with a squad more comfortable with expressing themselves. Chairman Jeff Mostyn backed his new manager's attacking urge in the winter window. Veteran midfielder Dan Gosling was allowed to move on to Watford, where the 31-year-old contributed to the Hornets promotion with two goals and an assist in six starts and seven substitute appearances. Underperforming forward Joshua King was sold to Everton. Meanwhile, Woodgate signed Ben Pearson from Preston and unattached Arsenal legend Jack Wilshere. The pair have rotated through the midfield with Wilshere logging two goals and an assist and Pearson setting up teammates three times. Former Huddersfield man Philip Billing remains the primary conduit to top scorers Dominic Solanke and Arnaut Danjuma. His eight assists lead the club while Solanke and Danjuma evenly divide 30 goals between them.
After an ambiguous beginning, with two wins, two defeats and a draw in his first five matches, during which the squad also balanced the goal ledger with seven scored and conceded, Woodgate found traction. Even without evergreen midfielder Lewis Cook, who went down with a season-ending ACL rupture against Preston at Deepdale on 6 March, the Cherries ripped off seven league wins on the trot, amassing 21 goals in the process and shipping a meagre five. Only twice during that span did the rejuvenated side score fewer than three goals, notching two each against Huddersfield and Blackburn.
The run secured their playoff hopes but, with automatic promotion ruled out, the squad seemed to lose interest, leading to the three-match losing streak that ended the campaign.
Woodgate must reignite his attack if Bournemouth are to join Norwich and Watford for the return trip to the Premier League. That’s the problem with momentum, though. Getting the ball rolling is much more difficult than keeping it in motion.
The Cherries tallied 73 goals during the campaign, third-best in the competition. Scoring is their bread and butter. Unfortunately, their season-ending malaise paired them with the Championship’s most potent attack rather than a more favourable match-up with Swansea.
The Bees did the double over Bournemouth, stinging them three times with the aforementioned 1-0 victory at Dean Court and a 2-1 victory at the Brentford Community Stadium two days before the New Year. Conversely, the Cherries took four points from the Swans, with Steve Cooper’s Welsh side eking out a goalless draw at the Liberty Stadium before enduring a 3-0 battering in the return leg.
In every way you can conceive, Bournemouth has made achieving promotion harder on itself than it need be. They’ve either thrown their season away like fools or set the stage for an epic finish. The chance to make history beckons when they welcome Brentford to Dean Court tonight.