How AFC Bournemouth climbed four divisions to the Premier League

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For years, Bournemouth has traveled to big clubs like Liverpool for cup games, as it will Wednesday in the League Cup Round of 16. But this year, it's the squad's second trip to Anfield -- the first was its second-ever Premier League game, in August. As the Cherries head back to Anfield for a rematch, and attempt to weather the storm of their debut Premier League season, we revisit that first EPL away game, which the writer attended after a trip to see how the coastal town was enjoying its new reality.

IT'S A TYPICAL November day in Dorset, on England's southern coast, except that it's August. The wind is blowing hard from the Channel. Raindrops pelt the tourists on Bournemouth Pier. The temperature hovers in the low 50s. "Football weather," says a man in a puffy jacket outside the AFC Bournemouth shop in Vitality Stadium. That is far from ideal for a beach resort, but you won't hear the locals complain. They have been waiting for this season for nearly a hundred years.

Six days earlier, on Aug. 8, Bournemouth played Aston Villa in an English Premier League match. It marked the club's first game in English soccer's top classification in the 85 seasons in which it has competed nationally. In doing so, Bournemouth became one of the smallest towns (population: 180,000) ever to play in the EPL, and Vitality the smallest venue (capacity: 11,464) to stage a Premier League event. Imagine the Toledo Mud Hens suddenly showing up in the standings with the Yankees and Red Sox, wearing their goofy cartoon hats on national television at the Big A or Safeco or Camden Yards. Then understand that Toledo has a population one-third larger than Bournemouth.

And such superlatives -- or, in this case, diminutives -- tell only part of the story. The 1-0 loss to Villa culminated a journey so improbable that it pushes the limits of conventional narrative. The idea of a team advancing through England's 92-club, four-tier league system to the EPL is surprising enough. It rarely happens, even over a generation -- let alone in the span of five years. In English soccer, the same marginal sides tend to bob up and down from the top of the second-highest division to the bottom of the first.

But if any club could do it ... well, Bournemouth would not be it. Let's get straight from the start that this isn't a football town. Beyond London, football towns are mostly set in England's industrial north, where the sport has its roots. Grime-covered factory workers would take Saturdays off from their Dickensian labors to boot a ball around, one village against another. Greater Bournemouth, by contrast, is known for budget travelers on holiday, English-language schools for aspirational Eastern Europeans, bachelorette parties for Londoners in platform heels and -- more than anything -- elderly retirees. That's hardly the demographic for sports fervor. "When I first came here," says Jeff Mostyn, the club's chairman, "the chief executive told me, 'We're going to start a park-and-ride to help get people to the stadium.' After I saw the crowd at the first game, I said to him, 'You didn't tell me we'd need ambulances instead of buses.'"

At one point a few years ago, the club's marketing department decided spontaneously to give a season ticket to the first person spotted wearing a Cherries jersey. Employees set up downtown one morning and waited -- and this is not apocryphal -- all day and into a second afternoon before an appropriately attired fan wandered by. Last winter, when a club of hardy swimmers met for their Christmas plunge in the frigid Channel, Bournemouth's then-mayor turned up in a Southampton jersey. Even on the buses that carry fans to away games, evidence of affection was elusive. "You'd have thought you were on the wrong coach," Mostyn says. "Because they'd be wearing Manchester United shirts, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea."

Somehow, the Rasputin of the Football Association managed to survive. In 2009, the club faced a pivotal game that would ensure its place in professional soccer -- and it won. And then that fall, the strangest thing happened. Led by the youngest football manager in the country and with no players anyone had heard of, Bournemouth's Cherries kept winning.

"HOW CAN ANYONE imagine the unimaginable?" asks Lance Phayer, looking up from his beer on a Saturday afternoon. A middle-aged man who owns a decorating company, Phayer is drinking at the Queens Park Hotel -- which is far less a hotel than a faded pub near the stadium, and serves as the unofficial headquarters of the Bournemouth faithful. He's anticipating his trip to Liverpool on Monday, six hours by bus if you include bathroom stops. In three decades of following the Cherries, he has visited 75 of the 92 venues that currently house Football Association teams. "It's the Premier League I don't have," he says.

That's about to change. Bournemouth's first away-game venue, Liverpool's historic Anfield, is the closest that soccer gets to Wrigley or Fenway. Asked about his team's chances, Phayer takes a drink and comes up with flashing eyes. He seems ready to predict what fans call "a result" -- either an outright Bournemouth win or a valuable road draw. He does something else entirely. "I don't care," he says, "if they don't score a goal. I don't care if they don't score all season. We're mixing with the big boys now. We're there." His voice drops to a whisper. "There's a lot of us who've been following the club for years who think, 'That'll do.'"

In English football, the top teams in each classification at the end of a season jump to the next one up, while the bottom teams fall to the one below. It's theoretically a fluid system, but economics provide stability. Arsenal, with its 60,000-seat venue and worldwide fan base, isn't in danger of dropping from the Premier League any time soon. For the same reason, the likes of Torquay, Hartlepool and Scunthorpe have little chance of getting in.

For decades, that was Bournemouth. The team needed 57 seasons of professional football to get as far as the second-highest classification, in 1987. After three years, it returned to the third. Then it slid back into the fourth. As soccer became a bigger business in Britain, Bournemouth proved inept at that too. "There've been three or four occasions that it ain't looked good," says Ronnie Finch, 57, a retired pipe fitter who says he has been going to Bournemouth matches, home and away, since the 1960s. "Not that it ever looked brilliant."

By 1997, the team was insolvent. A local lawyer named Trevor Watkins went from providing free advice to serving as the team's chairman after pleading for funds on a local radio station. He saved the club, re-signed Cherries defender Eddie Howe, a local boy, to a seven-year deal, then moved to London to do sports-transaction work.

But Bournemouth didn't stay saved. In 2008, the owner announced that without the immediate investment of 100,000 pounds, the club would cease to exist. "Buckets went 'round," says Chris Millar, now a contributor to Cherries chat rooms, who was a teenager then. "People were contributing 20 quid, 50 quid. I took everything in my pocket and threw it in."

The club hit bottom in 2009. It was millions of dollars in debt -- again -- and a few defeats from falling out of the fourth division into competition with weekend wingers and glorified amateurs. And that actually would have been the second-worst option. The worst, and most likely, was disbanding entirely. The league's governing body had penalized the team 17 points for financial mismanagement, saddling the club with an almost insurmountable disadvantage in League Two, the lowest of England's classifications.

The Cherries' fate could be determined against Grimsby Town in the season's second-to-last week. The only way to secure their safety -- and guarantee that they wouldn't essentially cease to exist, at least in any recognizable form -- was a win. They fell behind 1-0 but tied the game. Then they scored a late goal to win. As time expired, the grateful fans of England's 89th-best team rushed the field.

A few years later, in 2011, Russian businessman Maxim Demin bought a 50 percent stake in the club, by then in England's third division, from the contractor who'd been building him a mansion nearby, as if a failing football team was an optional add-on to the marble countertops. By 2013, Demin was the full owner, and he brought back Mostyn, who'd owned the club at one point along the way, to serve as the face of the team. The mysterious Russian did it with his typical aplomb. "You're listening, I'm talking," he said when Mostyn picked up the phone. "We've just had a board meeting. Congratulations, you are the chairman of the football club again.'"

From the outside, Vitality Stadium looks like a mail-order fulfillment center, except with a few banks of lights overhead. Inside, it feels like the practice facility that might be tucked behind a full-sized stadium. Liverpool's Anfield, known for its intimacy and charm, is almost four times larger -- and is currently undergoing an expansion. The scale at Vitality is clearly unsustainable for the Premier League, but there has been one benefit. Because so few seats exist, the amount of income gained over the course of the season by even doubling ticket prices wouldn't buy an aging halfback. Accordingly, prices have been largely left alone.

Two days before the Liverpool game, Howe fidgets in the media room, telling the cameras and notepads what it will mean to play at Anfield in the team's first-ever Premier League away game. The answer: Not much. Despite attempts to get him to wax nostalgic about the bad old days, that leap from insolvency to international renown in half a decade, he won't budge. "I'm not really a reflective kind of person," he says. "I rarely look back."

It's probably just as well. Howe started with Bournemouth's junior teams at age 13. He'd already been there half his life when former Cherries manager Harry Redknapp snatched him away in 2002 to play for a Portsmouth club on its way to the EPL. But Howe would have no role in the promotion. In his first game, he tore up his knee. In his return game a year later, it happened again. So he came back to the only place that would take him, playing three more years at Bournemouth on ailing legs. On Dec. 31, 2008, Mostyn named the 31-year-old the club's manager. "People ask, 'What did you see in Eddie at that age to make you think he could manage?'" Mostyn says. "I tell them, and they think I'm joking, 'What we saw was someone who we already employed. And not for a lot of money.'"

It's tempting to perceive Demin's resources as the reason for Bournemouth's revival. But really, the credit goes to Howe. The core of the team has remained stable. Demin has signed a few players -- notably Callum Wilson, who led Bournemouth in scoring with 20 league goals last season, and Scottish international Matt Ritchie -- but no major names. Instead of overarching talent, the Cherries have relied on possession football: sliding the ball from wing to wing, patiently waiting for an opening, playing a defensive brand of offense, understanding that ball control is the best defense.

In 2010, they were promoted to League One. Howe briefly left for Burnley but returned to Bournemouth in 2012. The Cherries finished second that season too and moved up to what is now called the Sky Bet Championship, one step below the Premier League. And last May, they clinched the championship of the Championship, scoring 98 goals and allowing just 45.

The celebration came in stages. Bournemouth's victory over Bolton on the penultimate weekend left Middlesbrough needing to outscore the Cherries by 20 goals to deny them a place in the 2015-16 Premier League. That wasn't going to happen, so fans flooded the field, carried players off on their shoulders and chanted in the streets late into the night. The season's final game, against Charlton, felt like a party from the start. That win, coupled with Watford's 1-1 draw, not only made promotion official but also clinched the title. Two days later, the team snaked through the town in open-top buses, past some 60,000 clamoring supporters who filled the sidewalks. It marked the first time since 1987, and only the second time ever, that Bournemouth had finished first at anything.

The Cherries' success is also helping change the town's image. The retirees still gather on weekdays at the bingo parlor, or for a 4 p.m. lamb's liver dinner at a nearby storefront café. But there are new boutiques and a bakery around the corner, and a funky fish-and-chips place, and a thriving new restaurant at the yacht club, and even a zip line on Bournemouth Pier, not far from where two new hotels are being built. "Bournemouth is moving up from a place where people came to die, or to build sandcastles, to a place that will be at the cutting edge of creativity in the 21st century," said Deryck Newland, the director of a local dance studio, when interviewed in August by The Guardian, one of England's national newspapers.

The renovation of Bournemouth's image had been set in motion before the club's precipitous rise, to be sure. But the Premier League success offers boosters a chance to crow. "It's not just football that has put the seaside town back on the map," The Guardian wrote. But football will make sure that they see that map in London, Manchester and everywhere the satellite networks and sports sections penetrate.

"You're finally part of the circus," says Watkins, who still won't miss a game. "And it's the circus everyone is watching."

THE CHERRIES DON'T win or even score at Anfield. At his postmatch news conference, Howe sounds both sanguine and aggrieved. A loss, even a 1-0 loss on a disputed goal against a top club away from home, is no cause for joy. Yet he understands that competitiveness comes through incremental gains. "It gives players confidence we can succeed at this level," he says. "It's a tough league, an unforgiving league, but we're playing the style of football we need to be successful."

"We want to play these big teams," said Dan Gosling, one of the few Cherries with Premier League experience following stints at Everton and Newcastle. "We did so well last year, and the aim was to get promoted and play the best teams in the world. ... But we're not there to collect souvenirs. We want to win."

Five days later, on Aug. 22, Bournemouth wins. At West Ham's Upton Park, Wilson scores his club's first Premier League goal, then its second and then its fourth as the Cherries hang on 4-3. And the following Saturday -- at the same time that West Ham is thrashing Liverpool 3-0, by the way -- Wilson scores against Leicester on an acrobatic overhead kick. Two seasons ago, he was scoring goals in League One. Suddenly he had four of them in four Premier League games. "It's made my confidence go sky-high," he says. At that moment, Bournemouth stood exactly in the middle of the Premier League table.

What followed were the usual vicissitudes of a newly promoted team. The draws and losses were punctuated by another win, against Sunderland. A run of injuries exposed a lack of depth that's typical for first-year EPL clubs, which don't want too many expensive players under contract in case their fortunes should turn. Yet somehow, the Cherries have remained competitive, game after game, except for a 5-1, welcome-to-the-big-time thrashing by Manchester City on Oct. 17 -- followed by another 5-1 loss to Tottenham the following week.

Those results put the club in a precarious position, just one place above the relegation zone. Accordingly, the team's supporters take nothing for granted. Millar attended his first Bournemouth game at age 4 and has resisted the allure of bigger clubs ever since. He has informed the supervisor at his engineering firm that he'll be absent periodically through May. "Any away game -- a Thursday up in Newcastle, whatever -- I'm going," he says. "It's basically one year. It may never happen again in my lifetime."

Sitting just off the main square, he's bundled in a faded AFC Bournemouth fleece from, like, three bankruptcies ago. He recites a litany of places he has visited in the service of supporting Bournemouth: "Hartlepool and Colchester. Rochdale. Exeter. Carlisle." The current itinerary, by contrast, includes Manchester, Liverpool and half a dozen visits to London.

"I used to say, 'I hate the Premier League,'" Millar says. "It was so big. Too much money in it. And Bournemouth hadn't been there. Now? I love it. This year, anyway."