I am not a romantic; the more I hear about fairytales, magic and ‘heartwarming stories’, the more I yearn for the opposite to happen. I was desperate for Liverpool not to win the title three years ago simply because it was apparently what ‘everybody in football’ wanted, I unashamedly hope Tottenham somehow win the Premier League this season because they are a wonderful team rather than a wonderful story, I despise the tales of postmen and insurance brokers on FA Cup third-round day and frankly I do not give a f*** how many leagues Rickie Lambert or Jamie Vardy have risen since being rejected by Premier League scouts for being too tall, short or hairy.
So talk of Bournemouth’s ‘fairytale’ promotion to the Premier League riled me. I instinctively wanted to point to the sums spent on this ‘fairytale’ rise and the Russian petrochemicals tycoon who bankrolled them. When it came to our pre-season predictions, I dismissed their chances of survival with a glib line that the Cherries would earn ‘lots of good will but not a lot of points’. It’s not quite as embarrassing as my colleagues who predicted Leicester’s relegation but still, this was not my finest hour; I made a judgement based on my own prejudices rather than anything I had actually seen from Bournemouth on the pitch.
As Bournemouth sit in 11th place with 41 points, I am happy to be proved wrong. Not because their side features x number of players who featured in League One or because they have the smallest ground in the Premier League, but because they have been an excellent footballing side who have survived with some ease despite having no outstanding individual players. They have no representative in the top 30 goalscorers, tacklers or passers in the Premier League and yet they are above established sides like Swansea, West Brom and Everton in the table. That simply does not happen unless you are extremely well-drilled, extremely fit and extremely dedicated. This is not a fairytale, it’s hard-hitting non-fiction.
To come into the Premier League and have the confidence and belief to keep the ball better than Stoke or Liverpool (Bournemouth’s pass completion rate is the Premier League’s eighth-highest) is astonishing. This extraordinary season has reminded us that you do not need to hog the ball to win games or indeed the title, but Leicester are largely an anomaly; six of the bottom seven in the pass completion table are six of the bottom seven in the Premier League – a perfect illustration of the under- and over-achievement of Everton and Leicester. By playing and passing and pressing, Eddie Howe’s side gave themselves an outstanding chance of survival.
To their immense credit, Bournemouth came into the Premier League without an inferiority complex – the media may have painted them as David thrown into a ring with 19 Goliaths, but their success is a product of believing – quite rightly – that they played better football than most clubs in the lower reaches of the Premier League. Sunderland? West Brom? Aston Villa? They must have watched videos from last season and grinned; even devastating injuries cannot shift your smile when your success is based on a clearly defined style and collective responsibility.
Bournemouth’s record against the division’s bottom-half sides exactly mirrors that of Manchester United: 27 points from 16 games. They have not lost to a team anywhere close to the relegation scrap since early November. The last team to stop Leicester scoring? Bournemouth. Reduced to ten men with over half an hour to play, the Cherries showed a different facet to their game and swapped passes for clearances. Judged as Premier League players rather than competition winners, they have been truly excellent. They have provided a blueprint for survival that should be issued to every promoted Championship club; Howe cited Swansea as an inspiration and Bournemouth could provide the same for Derby or Middlesbrough.
I am still not converted to romance but I am happy to report that I am belatedly a convert to a bloody good football team.