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2015-2016: AFC Bournemouth in the Premier League. I'll let that sink in for a few more minutes...
This doesn't seem real. Even given all the things that have gone in our favour over the last few years, this was always something that was never remotely anticipated. Of course, the fat lady hasn't quite sung yet - although she's definitely taken a very deep breath. A goal difference that seems insurmountable for the teams below the Cherries on the final day of the season and now it could actually be happening.
People around me at the game summed up the sensation quite well on Monday... "It's like we've all woken up in Eddie Howe's Football Manager game. He's had the editor up and we've suddenly had things we've never had before, and done things we've never done before. And there's been plenty of saves and restarts to get the results we've needed."
Genuinely, this is something to behold.
I'm going to try and avoid emulating the general media with too much hyperbole. Although as a fan of this club, who has been to countless games home and away since mid-teens taking in plenty of the more unfashionable footballing locations of this country's great Football League, it is going to be difficult.
Supporting this football club was never mainstream in the area. Now I look around and there are children everywhere wearing shirts. You can't go to shopping or to work without seeing people around in club gear. Little AFCB are almost fashionable! But I find myself asking where has this all come from, and why are we apparently heading to the untold riches of the most gluttinous league in the world?
The answer comes down to the patience and determination of a fan base that had to keep the club alive, the arrival of the finances to bring about the dream and the chance appointment (and glorious reappointment) of a manager that embodies all that is good about AFC Bournemouth.
Money is the root of all evil... especially if you have none. For two decades through the 90s and up until the last few years it was the one thing lacking at Dean Court. There was a dedicated hardcore of supporters (small, but not insignificant in number), a lot of industrious directors and club personnel, but never the business nouse (at least at the right times) or financial clout to sustain anything beyond financial insecurity and at best mediocrity. The club seemed headed into becoming one of the sides that flicked between the bottom two divisions of the Football League - itself a failure for a side who had spent the longest out of any team in the third tier of English football. One financial disaster (followed by relevant point deduction) followed by another would come along, the team forced to sell it's prized assets each time a good side was assembled by a reasonable manager and the cycle recommencing between top half League One and top half League Two every decade(at best).
Along came Eddie Mitchell, with a brash demeanour and extravagant approach. Time passed and he was replaced by a man he invited to the party in Maxim Demin. From Russia with Love... petrochemicals mogul by day, football club builder in available time (and cash). Cash was now readily available, and being spent building up the areas of the club that most required it. Most on club infrastructure, building a training ground and developing facilities suitable for a team at the bottom end of the Championship, at the very least. Investment was also pumped into the team, with new acquisitions in the form of Charlie Daniels, Matt Richie, Lewis Grabban etc. all coming in over a period of time for cash. Players actually being bought - rather than sold - by the Football club as a result of the money that came along.
To argue that the success in League One was all down to cash would be complete disservice in particular to the management team - Eddie Howe and Jason Tindall. Since their return in October 2012, the improvements the team has made on the pitch have been dizzying. Largely with the squad assembled in the months before they arrived, they turned the performances around and the team were destined for the Championship.
Which is where most of us thought we could sustain things, just about. Financial Fair Play makes things difficult for a team who lack the infrastructure and support to sustain a successful playing operation. It may well be, for example, that only good fortune in the transfer market - with the sale of Lewis Grabban and Adam Lallana's transfer from Southampton to Liverpool in particular - prevented AFC Bournemouth from being hit with a transfer embargo in January 2015. But shrewd investment, in the right areas, with players acquired at the right time, would prove important.
The last few months have been built on the back of this. Money from television rights, transfer market dealings and increased season ticket prices (an unpopular move at the time) have been invested back into the club to help create something which has been special.
On the field, the team has been improved by the odd player. The squad was added to only in key areas and when the time was right to do so. The core of the League One side remains... it is not the invested cash that would see the players take to the field and perform so admirably but the way the team is organised. It is young, hungry and ambitious - much in the mould of the off-field staff. There are some older,cooler heads in there but the team have been built with one goal in mind over a long period of time and have grown together.
Much has been made of the playing ethos... slick passing, good movement, a real style and swagger which has typified the football at a club that historically had a reputation for 'playing the right way.' Now there is an edge to this, a little more bite and more awareness to the game around them. Taking the odd card to keep the opposition at bay is no longer frowned upon in exchange for success. Now it is playing with style AND winning which dominates the way the team play.
Along the way, there have been times where some of the more ugly elements of this have come to the fore. As a team of smaller, quicker players with less strength than some of the less technically gifted opponents, it kind of goes hand in hand that there has been some rough treatment of some of the Cherries players over the season. And some of the players have played upon that at times. When a team is so geared up to win with whatever approach they can take, it is no real surprise that sometimes they will take advantage of that. This has been the background story of the season amongst fans of many teams in the league...
Winning penalties and seeing players sent off may be an advantage, but it does not guarantee success for a team. And to argue that it is a key reason for the team's success would be doing the side - and those they have played against - a massive disservice.
And so, it will be. You can't please everyone, especially when you take points off their side. Some will bemoan the 'game management' or 'conning' of the ref, some will say that not being in financial ruin currently is playing the game with Financial Fair Play, some that their side deserves it because they have more history and a bigger budget with more established players... Fact remains, I could very well be supporting a Premier League club next season.
Just one season, mind... (Unless we can edit in another success story in our FM16 campaign)...
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