Written by Akshay Kulkarni (@ImpatientPedant)
As AFC Bournemouth slumped to a ninth loss in 12 matches today, it may be finally time to ask: should the Cherries take cup competitions more seriously?
Another third-round elimination from a competition they have never even seen the quarter-final of is an indictment of an overriding mentality. A mentality which should not be at any side, let alone a club which is being seen as an established Premier League one.
That mentality is one of, simply, unimportance and apathy. The Cherries seem to value survival in the Premier League above all else. It says a lot that, for a club that had a fairytale rise to the top, their trophy haul is lacking any major cups.
True, the Cherries did win the Football League Trophy back in 1984, and the inaugural version of the tournament at that.
But that was when Bournemouth were slugging it out in the Third Division, when they finished 17th out of 24 teams.
That cup was the highlight of their season, and it remains one of the only major trophies in the club’s cabinet. The Cherries only got promoted to the Second Division for the first time four years later.
This is certainly not the same club now. Bournemouth have just started the second year of a fourth consecutive season in the Premier League. They have just splashed out £19 million on Dominic Solanke, an unthinkable fee even five years ago for the Cherries. They regularly achieve great results, including wins away at seasoned Premier League veterans.
Their brand of football is exciting and vibrant, and the investment in the club is increasing year-on-year.
It is thus tempting to wonder what a cup run would do to Bournemouth, who have never even seen a semi-final in their long history. Financial benefits aside, a trophy like the FA Cup would put Bournemouth on the map like no other. More than anything, it would give back to the fans who have seen and put so much of themselves into the club.
The Cherries have always been a family club and never fail to emphasise that. But once in a while, disappointing performances like today’s against Brighton seem to take away all that spirit and heart.
Brighton result an indictment
The counterpoint to all of this is that survival in the Premier League is far more valuable than any cup. Bournemouth have absolutely played out of their skin under Eddie Howe to reach the promised land of English football’s upper echelons, so why should they throw that away for some silverware?
That argument, while having some merit, is more capitalistic than anything. For all the talk of playing big sides, and the opportunity to stage upsets, that argument boils down to the money in the division. Every year that Bournemouth play in the Premier League, the club’s coffers grow more and more.
Especially for a side who have already established themselves in the division, it does not make much sense to say that, then. Bournemouth, despite a torrid run over the past two months, are in no danger of relegation. And, over the past four seasons, they never have had anything more than a minor scare of going down.
The best argument for a deep cup run is embodied by two clubs: Wigan Athletic and Portsmouth. Both teams won the FA Cup, and then subsequently got relegated (Wigan in the same season). If they would have focused on the league, they might still be up there.
But ask any fan of either club and they will tell you that piece of silverware is one of their best memories as a fan. They will tell you where they were when Watson scored, how they celebrated when Harry Redknapp lifted that famous trophy. Football is, despite what anyone tells you, about the fans. And silverware is the best way to repay every adoring supporter.
Bournemouth seem to have forgotten that in recent seasons. Their record in the FA Cup especially is poor – a 3-0 elimination against Millwall two seasons ago, a drubbing by Wigan last season.
This season’s loss was as dire. Especially defensively, Bournemouth looked clueless. All three goals were preventable, and so easy for the Seagulls to score.
Anthony Knockaert’s opener was emblematic of this. As Steve Cook half-cleared the ball, Jurgen Locadia picked it up and slipped it to the Frenchman. As the Bournemouth defence stood static, Knockaert expertly arrowed it past Boruc in the Bournemouth goal, nutmegging Cook for good measure.
If that was not bad enough, a few minutes later, Yves Bissouma’s strike was as easy to stop. If only one player – anyone – had closed down the Malian, he would not have been able to get off a fizzing shot that went in off Boruc’s near post. But by then Brighton were cruising, and should have added more in the first half.
Marc Pugh’s long-range drive was only a false dawn for the Cherries, and Florin Andone’s third was a comedy of errors. The fact that three Bournemouth outfield players were on the line and failed to keep out the Romanian’s shot says all you need to know about Bournemouth’s sorry performance.
You can argue that the lack of defensive cohesion was due to the fact that Jack Simpson and Steve Cook were starting together for the first time. But the selection of Simpson was evidence enough of Bournemouth’s mentality getting in the way – despite the Cherries being ravaged by injuries in recent weeks, Simpson was never trusted with a start in the Premier League. Charlie Daniels, a natural full-back, was trusted ahead of him.
The club and manager who need to realise that, despite everything that has happened, Bournemouth are not ‘plucky little Bournemouth’ anymore. They are a Premier League side, who need to establish themselves in English football’s pantheon sooner rather than later.
And the only way to do that is to wholeheartedly challenge for a domestic cup.