BOURNEMOUTH’S promotion through the Football League can be made to look like a rapid cakewalk but Eunan O’Kane knows differently.
When the club won the Championship title, they did so at the second attempt. O’Kane still remembers the hard knocks dished out at the very start. In their first month back in the league, Bournemouth took some beatings: 6-1 away at Watford and 5-1 away at Huddersfield Town, both in the space of two weeks. There were games which Eddie Howe’s squad should have seen out and nights when a ruthless streak deserted them; not unlike Leeds United’s draw with Wigan Athletic on Tuesday.
Leeds have been in the Championship for longer than Bournemouth were but, after years without any continuity, they feel like a club starting again under Garry Monk. O’Kane, who played 40 times in the 2013-14 season and felt Bournemouth grow over time, hopes Wigan’s injury-time equaliser is part of the same learning curve. The midfielder subscribes to the view that Leeds won’t bridge the gap from mid-table overnight.
“At Bournemouth, when we came into the Championship, we were a very young team,” O’Kane said. “There were very few of us who had Championship experience.
“If you look at the results, especially early in that season, there were times when we were clinging on or conceding goals to drop points or get beat. But if you go forward to the year when we were promoted, there were very few results where Bournemouth conceded late goals which cost them. It was 3-0, 4-0, 3-1 – and that’s the lesson learned.
“In that squad, we learned from the early mistakes. That was a big factor in us getting promoted.
“I don’t really see any huge difference from then to us here now. It takes time to get there. You don’t just click your fingers and things happen overnight. It’s a long, winding road that hopefully we’ll go forward on quite quickly.”
On Tuesday evening, when Leeds led for an hour but conceded from a corner in the 91st minute, head coach Garry Monk was looking for a win by a margin of two or three goals.
Missed chances and United’s inability to put Wigan away haunted Monk amid questions about the effectiveness of his substitutions in the second half. At his weekly press conference yesterday, Monk took the time to speak at length about those alterations, defending them calmly in a way which revealed how aware he was of criticism of them.
“The mentality at Bournemouth was not to let people off the hook,” O’Kane said. “It was to go and score five or six goals. On Tuesday it wasn’t like we planned to do this but after we scored we took a backwards step rather than another step forward. If we learn and stop it happening again then it was worthwhile it happening. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned quickly because if you don’t, you can end up at the wrong end of the table off the back of things like that.”
It is still a far cry from the days of August when Monk was reflecting on genuine capitulations at Queens Park Rangers and Nottingham Forest. United’s last two games have produced one point but Wolverhampton Wanderers, tomorrow’s opponents at Molineux, are themselves on a run of one from four. Wolves showed some early-season form, springing forward from their Chinese takeover and the appointment of Walter Zenga as head coach before hitting an autumn slump.
Leeds are still without Liam Bridcutt and won’t have their captain back from a foot injury until after the next international break. His absence from the centre of midfield has made the presence of O’Kane – Leeds’ last summer signing from Bournemouth – essential. Leeds won five of the first six games in which O’Kane played and his busy style has helped to keep Monk’s team competitive. He has also provided an older head alongside Kalvin Phillips.
“It’s been okay for me,” O’Kane said. “I came in and the team hit a run of form and as a group we’ve been good. On personal terms, I feel like I’m not quite myself yet. It’s been a long time since I played this many games but the more I play the better I’ll become. That’s the plan anyway.
“Something people don’t realise is that we do have a very young group. There’s a bit of experience in the dressing room but if you take one or two people out of there, there’s not an awful lot. But the fans have been great with us. It was frustrating on Tuesday and there was a little reaction at the final whistle but I think all of the players felt the same. It’s not that we don’t care.
“If you’re honest with the supporters then I think they’ll be honest back and you’re seeing honest performances from the team. There’s no-one hiding or bluffing.”
Molineux is no place for bluffing tomorrow. Leeds want a win and Zenga needs one. O’Kane said redeeming Tuesday’s late concession was essential. “That result is the first thing that needs to be put right,” O’Kane said. “In terms of this game, it’s the only thing.
“But we’re playing well on the whole – maybe after the goal on Tuesday not so well – and we’re in quite a good run of form. The last two results were results we didn’t deserve but they’re the results we got. Wolves is a chance to put that right. We’re very confident going there.”