Bournemouth’s story is quite incredible and all the more so because I can remember a time when the Premier League was a pipedream for them.
A few years ago Leeds United were playing at Bournemouth and taking an away crowd of about 3,000. We’d sold our full allocation but generally speaking the away club are given a few weeks to send the money on.
On this occasion Bournemouth asked for the cash immediately. Without putting too fine a point on things, I think they were desperate for it. I was the only board member travelling to the game so I took a cheque with me to Dean Court. The guy who took it from me couldn’t have been more grateful or more relieved.
The truth about Bournemouth is that they’ve come through some seriously hard times to make it out of the Championship. The fact that a club of that size is heading into the Premier League is a story in itself but it’s even more astonishing when you consider how much trouble they were in at one stage – pleading with Leeds to pay up pronto for tickets.
I know what’ll be happening amongst our supporters at the moment. They’ll be thinking ‘how the hell are Bournemouth going up when Leeds have been stuck in the Championship for ages?’
For what it’s worth I tipped Bournemouth at the start of this season. Watching them take us apart at Dean Court a year ago made me realise that they’d be a big threat. They’ve got pace in their team and they’re very attack-minded. That, in my view, is the best way out of the Championship – to smash everyone to bits, rather than hanging back and playing it safe.
It’s an interesting group of players down there. For one thing the majority are British and an awful lot of them came from relative obscurity. Eddie Howe hasn’t spent his time raiding the left-overs from top-flight clubs. He’s gone around the lower leagues and picked up footballers who fit his style of play and evidently have much more to offer than they’ve previously shown.
For me, this story shouldn’t cause frustration for anyone. It should give every other team in the Championship hope. Now that Bournemouth have gone up, there won’t be a single club in the division who settles happily for mid-table obscurity. Every manager will reckon that with a good summer behind them, next year could be a genuine opportunity.
Basically, there’s no longer any excuse for a team to climb into the Championship and aim for 21st place.
That doesn’t mean certain squads won’t need time to consolidate and adjust but it’s a negative mindset to think that the play-offs are impossible. And the evidence suggest otherwise. This season proves beyond any doubt that unfancied clubs can get there. In the case of Leeds, you couldn’t say that finishing 15th or thereabouts next season would be a positive thing. I’ll settle for that position this term because at the turn of the year I thought we were in major relegation trouble – and if I’m being totally honest, I don’t think we deserve to be much higher in the table. But now it’s time to draw a line under all that.
So can Leeds get it together this summer and do what Bournemouth have done in a year’s time? I genuinely think it’s possible. It’s going to take a huge amount of hard work and an awful lot of sorting out but the close season starts next week and we’ve got three months to prepare.
I’ve said before that I think this season’s been a massive learning curve for our owner. It’s made it pretty clear where the team is short and what the club need to do if we’re going to be successful going forward.
You obviously want a coach who’s safe in his position and has the confidence of the people above him. Eddie Howe is an example of that. And you want a team with the right amount of pace and firepower to mix it with other sides in the Championship. That doesn’t mean a tight defence isn’t very welcome too but Watford and Bournemouth have both scored 90 league goals this season. It can’t be a coincidence that when push came to shove, everyone else below them cracked.
But Bournemouth are evidence too of why big-name players aren’t always the answer. What you need is the right players with the right attributes in the right system. There are lots of successful players in the Championship who wouldn’t fit into Howe’s side at all. Their qualities or their style of play just wouldn’t suit Bournemouth. It’s horses for courses at the top of the league.
That’s where Leeds can really improve. We saw a massive flood of players into the club last summer and in fairness, it was always going to be difficult to fit them into a successful formation quickly. What the club have to do now is get their heads together, work out what assets they’ve got and decide how best to build around them. I’ve said before that this Leeds side doesn’t need ripping up and I stand by that. It just needs investment around the better players, and particularly around the youngsters.
What we also have to accept, however, is that the Championship is going to be another massive scrap next season. It’s got to the stage where it’s pointless predicting who will and won’t get promoted because the season is turning on split-seconds – like Middlesbrough conceding in the way they did at Fulham on Saturday.
I thought Middlesbrough had a great chance this season. They looked to be all set for promotion. And they might get there still. But the play-offs are tough and unpredictable so for all that Boro probably deserve to go up, it might be the Championship for them again next season.
That’s the league and sometimes it doesn’t go your way. But what everyone should strive for – and Leeds as much as anyone else – is to at least be in with a shout.