The story behind Eddie Howe making exceptional the norm at Bournemouth 3 months ago

The story behind Eddie Howe making exceptional the norm at Bournemouth

A ‘throw of the dice...’

It is New Year’s Eve 2008, hours before households engage in the customary countdown and trumpeting of fanciful resolutions, when Eddie Howe’s ringtone sounds.

He answers and is offered - initially on a caretaker basis - the managerial position at Bournemouth: the club he has loved since childhood, whom he has represented 311 times as a defender, and whose supporters were once unwavering in accumulating £21,000 to pay for for his transfer fee from Portsmouth.

Howe has only recently turned 31, and while coaching has long been a fascination, he considers himself too much of an introvert to become the focal point in a dugout.

He accepts the job, regardless, but this is no pinch-yourself moment.

And it is certainly no dream segue way into a high-powered career, rather a navigation of football hell: trying to overturn a 17-point financial mismanagement deficit, guarding against the genuine threat of the club being disbanded, while having to shift these twin nightmares without the capacity to pay players or the rent for the training facility.

Bournemouth sit 91st out of the 92 clubs in England’s top-four divisions, seven points from safety. Conversations about keeping the water and electricity on are as frequent as discussions over possible formations and passing drills.

Despite encouraging performances, Howe loses his first two games in charge against Darlington and Rotherham. The new board, however, have seen enough endeavour to entrust their former Centre of Excellence boss with the role permanently.

In truth, their options are severely limited. As chairman Jeff Mostyn would later admit on the decision: “What we saw was someone who we already employed. And not for a lot of money.”

So on 19 January, the full-time Howe gamble commences. Grimsby Town count a comfortable 10-point lead over Bournemouth, who are 22nd in League Two and lie 17 adrift of 18th-placed Chester.

By mid-March, without being fully paid, Howe’s charges overhaul both following eight wins and three draws in 13 games.

A portion of their wages awaits in the dressing room after a home stalemate with Port Vale. It is in a plastic Marks & Spencer bag, but no-one fusses over the packaging when they haven't had money for so long.

The rest of the team’s earnings are eventually satisfied courtesy of a PFA loan and despite bank balances being low, the spirit at the south-coast club is swelling.

Bournemouth, despite having to master financial gymnastics, flip the middle finger to logic and secure their safety.

In the space of six years, they scale the “edge of the abyss” - Mostyn’s succinct assessment - to reach the Premier League, where they remain.

“Fighting to win football matches was a lot easier than fighting to guard our existence as a club,” Howe tells SportsJOE a decade on from his defining appointment.

“It was an unreal few months in terms of what we had to deal with. What we are about - our tenacity, determination, togetherness, the mentality that we can rise above any difficulty with hard work and belief in ourselves - it was shaped then and remains strong. That period was very crucial to everything we have achieved since.

“We had nothing really and had to give everything.

“I learnt so much in those difficult months and I wouldn’t trade it.”

Family values...

That Howe is able to extract the gold dust from that distressing period is typical. Carved from humble Chesham beginnings, on the border of his birthplace Amersham in Buckinghamshire, he was one of five children to his mother, Anne.

“A very good kid in school, probably too good,” per his own description, Howe had a tight bond with his sister Rowena and brothers Dan and Charlie - all older than him - as well as his younger half-sibling Steve Lovell.

The first life lesson “the shy boy in the corner” would absorb was the value of a close, caring family.

“When I look back, with more understanding and older eyes, we were very poor in terms of money,” Howe reflects on his formative years.

“Despite that, I never wanted for anything. So if I had the chance to go back to my childhood, I would happily do it all again and not change a thing.

“I had the love of a brilliant mum, the company of brothers and one sister, which you don't really appreciate properly at the time, but when you have your siblings around, you watch them, learn off them, develop with them. 

“I had brilliant grandparents too, who made up maybe for what I lacked in terms of a father figure growing up. I consider myself very fortunate to have had that and I would say the values I got from my family still inform what I do today.”

Howe excelled as a cricketer as a kid - an all-rounder, but more of a batsman - and at 13, he had a choice to make after being called up by Dorset County.

“With four boys in the family, kicking a ball around makes up my earliest memories,” he recalls. “It was Steve, who also become a footballer, and I that were really passionate about the game. My older brothers fell out of love with it quickly, and my mum would always join us if we needed.

“In Amersham and Chesham, cricket was a much bigger sport so I’d play a lot of it too and I enjoyed it. When we moved to Bournemouth, though, there was a greater emphasis on football, which suited me better as I was more passionate about it, so when it came time to choose between the two, it wasn’t a difficult decision.

“I joined a football team immediately in Bournemouth, and that was me then. I do sort of kick myself a little, because I feel I wasted some good learning by not playing competitively as a younger kid.”

The studious theme is an overarching one in Howe’s story. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any bad stories of what I was like at school,” he laughs. “I was totally focused, very driven with my work, I wanted to be good, I wanted to be successful and I was always trying to be as dedicated as possible.

“I was verging on being too good, which invited criticism from my brothers - as you can imagine - and other people for being nerdy and not doing anything wrong. So yeah, what you see now really is how I’ve always been.

“My personality has been quite level. I haven't had to change, nor have I wanted to change who I am.

“I’m fortunate as I've had really good opportunities to get my teeth stuck into. I’ve never been wandering around in my life not knowing what I wanted to do, which I think is hugely beneficial. 

“There was my football career, coaching, then my management career - I’ve always had a focus and that suits the way I am.”

Howe’s diligence is a product of watching his mum undertake multiple jobs in order to support the family. Her sacrifices and the ability to assume so many roles - the man and woman of the house, the goalkeeper in park kickabouts, the spine of the family and the shoulder to learn on - ignited his assiduity.

“She was incredible, she had such strength and she lived to better our lives,” Howe says.

“Her love more than made up for anything we didn’t have growing up. She provided the foundation and the values to carry us through and give us a good grounding.”

Anne suddenly passed away in March 2012 after a short illness, while Howe was a year and two months into his spell as Burnley manager after guiding Bournemouth into League One. 

He was 250 miles away from home, living in Manchester at the time, and the loss fractured his world. Months later, Howe would return to Dorset to help the healing process for himself and his siblings.

“I found that period just after my mum died so difficult. It was tough on me personally, it was tough on me professionally,” he says.

“I knew my family needed me and the team needed their manager. A team is used to seeing the manager every day in training and being there for games, and suddenly, I didn’t know what to do anymore. There’s no manual for how you deal with everything. 

“I didn't know how to handle the situation, because I felt I probably needed to be somewhere else - at home - and so I wasn't emotionally ok.

“There was an expectation to be at work and so there was a period where I just worked. Worked and worked. Worked as if nothing had happened, but the reality was I wasn’t doing myself any favours.

“I’m not the first person to be in the situation and I’ve read several managers have gone through similar things, but it’s very quickly forgotten. People look at a manager as though they’re bulletproof, as though they’re superhuman in a way and can just carry on regardless of what happens. But we’re all human, we all have things going in life that makes it quite difficult for us at times too.”

Howe is grateful that his wife, Vicky, understands the exacting demands and consuming pressures of the role. A self-confessed football obsessive, he finds it near impossible to switch off and uses a timetable to ensure he strikes up as much of a work-life balance as is possible.

His sons Harry (six) and Rocky (three), however, case him about the job as soon as he walks through the door - or more accurately, wait to give him selection pointers.

“They’re so well into football, that they give me tactical advice and tell me what team to pick,” Howe reveals. “They only disagree with what I’ve done after the game - they’re like most supporters! They say, ‘oh I wouldn’t have picked him, I would have gone for him.’ When we win, they don’t have anything to say, it’s high-fives and hugs.

“They love the Match Attax cards and they have an unbelievable knowledge of the Premier League at their age.

“The passion they have for the game is already so big, and from my perspective, it’s great that they’ve caught the football bug on their own.”

There is an important member of the family that isn’t concerned with scorelines or starting line-ups: a Boxer named Eric, who is Howe’s companion for late night runs on the beach.

Rodney, the black Labrador the 40-year-old owned as an apprentice and who features in several old Bournemouth squad photographs, is commemorated with an ‘R’ tattooed on his right wrist.

Finding his way...

From the solitary ink on his body, to the speed in which he illuminates while discussing management, Howe wears his passions openly.

In a meeting space adjacent to his office, which is an all-encompassing sphere of statistical data, tactical strategies and motivational messages, he is very much in his element.

Howe's playing career was disrupted and ultimately ended by a micro-fracture in his left-knee, sustained in his second game for Portsmouth after Harry Redknapp had parted with £400k for the ball-playing centre-half.

The problem hadn’t properly been diagnosed even after two operations in 2002, and at 24, one surgeon concluded he’d never be able to kick a ball competitively again.

With the help of renowned knee-specialist Dr. Richard Steadman, Howe defied that assessment and only retired five years later, but coaching started to dominate his thoughts as his endurance began to fade.

On December 3, 2006, the route to management would arrive in an unorthodox manner at the Raymond McEnhill Stadium.

Kevin Bond, then the Bournemouth boss, and his assistant Rob Newman were unable to attend Salisbury’s second-round FA Cup hosting of Nottingham Forest, who were the club’s next opponents. 

There was no budget for a scout to do the opposition analysis, so Howe attended the game to compile a dossier. His observations proved vital as Bournemouth beat Forest and the reward was a place on Bond's coaching staff.

The manager was axed in September 2008, with Howe being let go too, but weeks later Jimmy Quinn - whom he'd quickly replace at the helm - brought back the fan favourite to head the youth set-up.

The progress was no slow process and required constant adaptation.

“Growing up, I was always the shy one in the room,” Howe admits. “I was the one in the corner, I never wanted to be the centre of attention and that didn’t change when I became a footballer. 

“I didn't really chase the limelight so that's why I felt football management probably wouldn’t be for me, because I think you have to put yourself in positions that do make you the focal point. You can’t be an introvert in the role.

“But I found that once I started coaching, I focused on developing players and wanted to get the best out of a training session so that quiet element of personality took a backseat.”

Howe's aura certainly fills the place. The Vitality Stadium is small, not just in terms of its 11,360 capacity, but in limitations to expanding the facilities.

There are designs on building a new ground at the current location, while the club’s plans for a training complex at Canford Magna have been ratified.

That is for the future, but right now Bournemouth have capitalised on what they have, applying a cutting edge.

There is a well-structured presentation room to highlight the rights and wrongs of performances to the group with short clips, as well as an analysis and statistics centre where players can draw individual evaluations.

There is also a wall with a wheel, termed ‘Spin City’, through which fines are decided. Any football staffer - on the squad or otherwise - who breaks the rules will find out their fate and financial penalty after a whirl, with the punishments ranging from dressing up like a dinosaur to having to perform a song on a chair in front of everyone. Bournemouth then make a monthly donation to charity from the money collected.

From the stadium’s main reception through to the manager’s office, there are two clear messages in operation: the desire to shatter ceilings professionally, but also, the importance of personal advancement.

“You’re trying to build human values and make sure that players are not just developing their football skills, but are growing as people as well,” Howe, who has been incredibly generous with his time, says.

“We try to do that in a whole host of that ways. You can’t suddenly change someone's personality overnight, but I think you can drip feed stuff to them every day that you hope will educate them and make a difference to their lives.

“Empathy is critical for management. I’m quite sympathetic, because I understand what it was like to be a footballer, with the disappointments and especially the mental turmoil of having to retire due to injury.

“I’ve got no shortage of experience of tough times, so I can relate to different situations.

“I had instances in my playing career, nothing major, that I’d have liked to have been handled differently by management.

“So there are little things that I thought, ‘right I'm gonna make this part of what I do, I’m going to speak to a player here every time I suss a similar situation'.  

“That is man management - just trying to put yourself in a player’s position, understand it, find a resolution. It doesn't mean I get it all right all the time, I'm sure I’ve made loads and loads of mistakes, but I try to relate to how the other person feels.”

One of the trickiest facets of Howe’s spell in management has been convincing players they are worthy of being among the game's elite.

“Building up from League One to the Championship, we actually found very hard. It was a difficult league,” he explains.

“The bridge to the Premier League is even bigger again and there was was a lot of work to remind the players that they were here on merit.

“It’s easy and automatic to look at all these clubs, these big names and think ‘we’re not as good as them.’ We had to reinforce that they earned and deserved to be part of the same fight. Once we beat Manchester United and Chelsea - that historic period for us - then the message really got to them. They had the proof and so they had the belief.”

There have been attempts to undercut Bournemouth’s extraordinary rise by references to the financial backing of Russian businessman Maxim Demin, who first bought a 50 per cent stake in the club in 2011 and is now their majority shareholder.

That, however, is myopic. His investment was desperately needed and acted as a fillip, but Bournemouth’s success has been underpinned by hard work, a clear vision and a sharp, collaborative backroom team that have refused to deviate from their football principles.

“You never quite realise the struggle with yourself to keep going when results aren’t falling your way, when things are really difficult and everyone's doubting what you're doing, but changing the philosophy has never been considered an option,” Howe explains.

“I always maintain that when you don't win games, there's nothing wrong with your method as such if it’s served you well, it's just the execution of it. So we make sure that we work at the training ground to improve ourselves, the players and the idea, rather than just throwing everything out the window and moaning when there’s a tough period.

“I am proud of the fact that the players have stuck to that way, because it's very easy for them to fall into bad habits or traps when things get hard - especially with opinions from outside only getting louder and stronger through social media.

“How you lead the team when waters are choppy and when you’re being questioned is the real test of this job. The negative reaction can be immediate and everything you’ve built for years can be forgotten and erased in an instant. You have to be very strong and use adversity as your asset to prove people wrong.”

No standing still...

Bournemouth kicked off their fourth consecutive top-flight campaign with a 2-0 victory against Cardiff City on Saturday, with their ability to hold their own in the league referenced as a template by Huddersfield manager, David Wagner.

“That’s really nice to hear, it’s not often you get that kind of praise, but it means a lot coming a fellow manager who really understands the enormity of what it takes to compete and stay at this level,” Howe says, predicting a taxing 2018-19 season.

“The key for us is to still be that team that people respect and admire in upcoming years, because there's been loads of clubs from the past that we thought ‘we’d love to have some of their qualities’ and they may no longer be in the Premier League.

“So it is a real challenge for us to find that consistency to keep achieving. The quality of our work always has to show. And, I would say, most importantly, the culture of how we work in every aspect will define how successful we’ll be. 

“It starts with the mindset of the players when they come in: How much do they want to push themselves to truly be at their best? Are they going into analysis to review their performances? Are they concentrating on their recovery programme? Are we bringing fresh ideas to training? Are our expectations clear enough?

“Trying to get every little thing right gives you the chance to succeed, but if you neglect one thing, you’ll get found out.”

Howe is desperate to avoid a situation where anyone at Bournemouth slips into a comfort zone and counts their Premier League status as automatic.

“The desire to improve has to remain central and has to remain huge - whether that’s to do with me, a player, my coaching staff, the medical team - that’s non-negotiable for everyone at the club,” he says.

“As long as you have that, then you'll be fine, but the minute you lose it, you’re in trouble. If you have people sitting there thinking, ‘I’m a great player now,’ or ‘I’m a great coach’ or ‘I’m a great physio’ that’s when things unravel.”

Bar his 21-month spell at Burnley, Howe’s entire management career has been moulded at Bournemouth.

And the move to Turf Moor was largely born out of the pressure of people telling him he had to leave for a better opportunity after he had already turned down clubs like Southampton and Crystal Palace.

Howe is fiercely ambitious, but he is driven by improvement not ego. It is not about who he works for, but what he produces.

“The only way I'm going to give myself the best chance of having the best career possible is to focus on each day, and make that that day the best I can,” he says. 

“That's always been my outlook in management, it's never been ‘oh, I've got this great career path’ and ‘I must do this by this age’ - I didn't even know if I was going to be a manager for more than a season when I first took the job.

“I didn't know if I was going to be any good at it, or if the club would continue to want me, and I’ve sort of kept that mindset all the way through. I still think that I have to prove that I deserve to be in this seat.

“And one day if things change, then so be it, but I don’t have to actively push for it. I want to excel and challenge myself, which is exactly what I’m looking to do here every day. You don’t have to wait until you’re in a certain place or job to do that.”

Howe, touted as a future England manager, does not see interviews as an opportunity to enhance his job prospects.

His name is hardly ever linked to vacant positions, unless it is revealed by the clubs that have approached him. There is no personal PR plan, and a Bournemouth staffer reveals that while the manager understands and respects the work of the media, he’d prefer it if he didn’t have to do any press.

“He is all about his work,” the employee says. “He is so dedicated to what he does and that’s motivating to all of us. When the man at the top demands so much of himself, you want to do the same.”

That mentality is exactly what Howe wants to promote at the club. “You can't make someone be focused, you can't make someone arrive on time, you can't make someone eat right, and essentially, you can't force people to do things they are not committed to do,” he details.

“But when you see they have the talent to be maybe a real match-winner, a season-defining player and they're not doing the simple stuff they need to do, it is one of the most frustrating things for me as a manager. 

“You feel the scale of waste, realise the player is never going to reach his full potential, and that's extremely sad. A big part of my job is to try and change their mind, to get them onside and pushing themselves, but again, there's no guarantee that will work.

“The reverse of that is we’ve had so many players here, who are maybe not technically the greatest, but do everything to develop themselves and give their best for the football club every single day. They’ve gone on to have unbelievable careers, and from where they started, they probably would have been shocked to get to this level, but they did it on merit, with sweat and have deserved it. That is really rewarding.”

Howe is a very modern manager, in tune with data and welcoming of continental influences, but he is also a throwback: a champion of old-school values, who works with minimal fuss and maximum effort.

Whether he remains at Bournemouth or not, he will not be a victim of stasis.

“The thought that we could get complacent, underestimate how strong our competition are, lose our work ethic - that pushes me to not rest, to not be satisfied, to not just settle,” Howe says.

“We need to find every edge we can and give every inch we can. There are no shortcuts and there are no secrets.

“Standing still is absolutely not for me. It scares me.”