Written by Akshay Kulkarni (@ImpatientPedant)
Going into Christmas, it seemed like Bournemouth supporters would have little to cheer. Their team’s form had taken a nosedive since the start of the month, with six losses in seven matches.
They faced South Coast rivals Brighton to round off a year which promised so much, but seemed like it would end badly.
What was more surprising was just how inept Bournemouth were during that sorry run.The team that had raced to their best-ever start to the Premier League, playing vibrant attacking football, looked like shadows of their former selves.
It said a lot about Bournemouth’s form when they only managed six goals in those seven matches. A team prided on attacking and fast transitions were clueless and stodgy.
Their second-last home match of the year, against leaders Liverpool, was the depths of this malaise. The Cherries barely troubled the opposition defence, and were dismantled comprehensively at the other end by Mohamed Salah.
But in their match against Brighton, it was another left-footed magician that graced the Vitality. David Brooks, who netted his fourth and fifth goals for the club, was dazzling in his attacking display.
It is surprising to many just how fast the Welshman has settled in. Even his manager, Eddie Howe, admitted as much in his post-match press conference.
The 21-year-old has shown no nerves since his £11.5 million signing from Sheffield United. It is testament to a player who has seen the worst side of the football machine.
Released from the Man City academy programme as a 17-year-old, the Warrington-born Brooks was rejected from Bolton for being ‘too small’. He spent time at non-league Halifax in the Conference, and admitted to ‘a few tears and things like that’ after his contract at City was ended.
What a difference a few years makes. Against Brighton, the now 5’10” Brooks leapt highest to flick home an amazing header in the second half. It capped a great individual performance, and already that £11.5 million looks like a bargain.
His time at Sheffield flew under many radars, but now Brooks is firmly making his own waves.
For a player who had to borrow kit off the under-7s when he was nine years old, the header was a majestic one – looping tantalisingly over the flailing Mat Ryan. It may be too soon, but a header from a small left-footed attacker almost made you think of Messi.
His first-half finish was Messi-esque as well. Receiving it on the edge of the box, Brooks showed no hesitation as he dropped one shoulder and then the other. His low drive beat Ryan for sheer power, and the comparisons make themselves more and more obvious.
Brooks’s brilliant individual performance was significant in multiple ways. Not only did it increase his burgeoning profile, it snapped a poor streak of performances for his side and sent Cherries fans home happy for Christmas.
Crucial Seagulls wins
The parallels between this season’s win over Brighton and last season’s is obvious for Bournemouth.
Last year, the Cherries had lost their first four on the bounce. It was an ignominious start, and many were convinced they had finally been found out in their third season in the Premier League.
Morale was low going into their home fixture against the Seagulls, five places above the Cherries in 14th.
But goals from Jermain Defoe and Andrew Surman got the Cherries off their feet, and it kickstarted a campaign in which they eventually finished a creditable 12th. It was a great come-from-behind win, and symbolised everything about Bournemouth’s fairytale rise to the top.
Much like that day, Bournemouth were ragged initially against the Seagulls this season.
Yves Bissouma and Solly March saw thunderous strikes fly over the bar, and Asmir Begovic pulled off a fingertip save to deny a Jurgen Locadia shot. To say Bournemouth, nervous from a month of demoralising defeats, were under the cosh was an understatement.
But Brooks’s brilliant first goal changed all that. Brighton slowly faded away after that, and Shane Duffy’s sending-off in the second half summed up an ultimately poor performance from the Seagulls.
The result might have been very different if Duffy’s header late on in the first half crept in, but Begovic pulled off a brilliant save again.
But that is the margins that top-division football is played on, and Bournemouth took full advantage to lift spirits all around Dorset. It will prove to be a base to build on for the rest of the season, just like it did last year.
Eddie Howe said before the match, “We are in a spell where nothing seems to be going our way. But we will never make excuses and only hard work and collective strength will change this.”
And a twinkle-toed Welshman, ‘too small’ for Man City and Bolton, rose highest of all to prove that right. His journey to Premier League stardom with Bournemouth embodies that hard work and collective strength to no end.