It’s a statement that illustrates the frustration, and also the confusion. “We all put a lot of work in. For it to unravel in 12 months…”
The sentiment sums up the feeling around Bournemouth, as they’re on the brink of going down – but wasn’t actually said by anyone at the club. They were the words of West Brom chief executive Mark Jenkins, as he faced up to a similar situation in 2018.
It illustrates how, as Eddie Howe strives to figure out all manner of problems in his team, they might be suffering from a wider issue.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
Bournemouth may well be the latest in a long line of Premier League sides – and especially promoted sides – who looked a model club as regards to how you operate, only to hit a ceiling that very quickly sent them back through the trapdoor. Years of stability abruptly followed by a quick and chaotic relegation.
It happened to West Brom, to Stoke City, to Swansea City, to Fulham, to Bolton Wanderers and to Charlton Athletic. It may well happen to Burnley in the future, too, given some of Sean Dyche’s recent comments. It certainly feels like it’s happening to Bournemouth now.
This isn’t to either absolve Howe, or overlook the many injuries his squad have suffered, but there are broader issues that have been common to all of these clubs.
It is as if years of exemplary work at a certain status gradually lead to a stagnation, that brings some strident decisions, that are far too removed from what they’ve done at their best.
Charlton were perhaps the first to suffer from this, and remain the ultimate example. After years when Alan Curbishley had the club ticking along so nicely, there were constant questions about the “next level”. They instead went down a level to the Championship in the very first season after Curbishley left.
Matt Holland was there throughout some of the club’s best Premier League seasons and that 2006-07 relegation and feels that ceiling was an issue.
“I think it’s one of the reasons he did go in the end,” Holland tells The Independent. “I think Alan probably looked at it thinking ‘I can’t do much more with what I’ve got. I’ve got a pretty stable side, mid-table Premier League, but I don’t know whether I can go to the next step.’
“But the fans see that for three or four years and start thinking ‘we want to go eighth’, ‘we want to get into Europe’, and that’s really difficult to sustain year in year out.”
That does raise the question of whether Howe should have left earlier, to prevent this eventuality, but there are similar stories at many of the other clubs.
“Boredom” was said to take hold at Stoke, and was a word used a lot, even of manager Mark Hughes.
Huw Jenkins, after years of prudent decisions at Swansea City, suddenly started to make many that seemed out of kilter with everything the club was about. The worst, and a genuine turning point, was the appointment of Francesco Guidolin over Brendan Rodgers.
“They seem to run into issues when they stop seeing themselves as what they are and think they are bigger,” says one source, who has been involved in the decision-making at three of these clubs. “They get higher opinions of themselves and suddenly think they have an elevated status. That leads to sweeping changes or decisions, that purely seem to be made because they think that’s what ‘big clubs’ do… when, in fact, stopping doing what got you to where you are is the biggest mistake you can make.”
That is the common link with all of these. It’s usually most visible, and most consequential, in signings. “That’s where the problem starts and finishes,” one figure who has worked with such clubs says. “Recruitment.”
It’s been a big issue at Bournemouth, and exacerbated Howe’s injury problems. The alternatives haven’t stepped up. The recent signings just haven’t fit what was there.
Again, that was the same at West Brom and Swansea. Players were brought in that represented a clear deviation from the successful approach. And they weren’t so much as attempts at evolution as abrupt switches.
Other clubs illustrated the same problem in a different way. They signed too many players, as if trying to force a cultural change en masse. This was what happened at Fulham, and at Charlton in 2006.
The latter made 11 signings in the summer that Curbishley left, with many of them well-paid “names” such as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Djimi Traore and Souleymaine Diawara. While there were few problems with any of them individually, it proved too difficult to integrate at a time when the club was struggling to adjust.
“It was such a big cultural change,” Holland says. “There was too much change in one hit. We were given money to spend, but it takes a while to get used to.”
All of this touches on a philosophical issue, but one the goes way beyond style of play. Football, like life, requires a sense of hope; that you can keep growing and progressing. This is something that the Premier League denies. There is a hard financial ceiling at seventh place, that is very difficult to smash through without mountains of cash.
“That’s what Sean Dyche is seeing now at Burnley,” Holland says. “Without real investment, where are you realistically going to take Burnley? Where is Alan Curbishley realistically going to take Charlton? Ultimately, the feeling is, if you said at the start of the season to 12 clubs that they’re going to finish 10th, they’d snap your hand off.
It’s the point when just surviving gives way to just existing, and cuts to the core of what the Premier League is: a highly tiered competition, with limited internal mobility.
Consider this perspective. A total of 49 clubs have competed in the Premier League, across 101 different spells. Only 20 of those – naturally – have not yet ended in relegation, with eight of those clubs never having been relegated at all. One of those clubs is Bournemouth.
The brutal reality of the Premier League is that you can’t come up without generally going down. It has happened in over 86 per cent of cases, a proportion that will inevitably increase as time goes on. The average length of those cases is a mere 3.84 seasons.
At 18 seasons, Manchester City are currently on the longest ever Premier League run of any club promoted into the competition, but that was only after a takeover that changed football itself. That isn’t available to the vast majority. It isn’t available to Bournemouth.
They’re now on their fifth season, a spell in which it had seemed like they were a new fixture in the division. They’re learning there are very few fixtures in the competition, and that you can never think you are one.
There are no “model clubs” for long. There’s only really a financial model that eventually finishes you. Howe is battling that as much as the problems in his team.
The true model club is maybe one that has prepared for going down, as Burnley and Norwich City have done. That, however, throws up far bigger questions than how quickly a Premier League spell went wrong.