Chris NeeComment


Chris NeeComment

The adventures of the Championship season have been mixed for AFC Bournemouth so far but the difficulties and crises of the past remain fresh in the memory. Since the early 1990s the story of the club has been one of promotions, relegations, takeovers and more than one instance of near financial oblivion.

Many of the supporters who were at the rebuilt stadium at King's Park for the first home game of this season will also have been at the town's Winter Gardens theatre throwing notes into buckets in an effort to save their club during the 1996/97 season. The Cherries became a community club - Europe's first, so it was said - but their problems were far from over.

Similarly, they were hardly just beginning. By the time Tony Pulis left Dean Court in 1994 after two seasons in the job after replacing Harry Redknapp, Bournemouth were in the third tier and set for a troublesome season. After losing their first seven matches and scoring just four goals before eventually drawing against Chester City, they turned to a former Manchester City manager with a promotion in his scrapbook alongside a famous brush with Alex Ferguson in 1989. 

Mel Machin was appointed over a year after leaving his previous managerial role at Barnsley. He had played for Bournemouth as well as Port Vale and Gillingham in the 1960s and '70s before joining Norwich City, for whom he played in the League Cup final in 1975. A warm and engaging Midlander, Machin was said to be a fine leader at Dean Court, a motivating presence whose influence was the driving force behind an incredible fight against the drop.

A week after holding Chester at Dean Court the Cherries hosted Cardiff City and won 3-2 but the optimism was shortlived. A long and painful autumn period began, with as yet unknowable symbolic significance, with consecutive defeats against Shrewsbury Town and Brentford in October. As winter reached its peak and advent began, Bournemouth were adrift.

Despite picking up a second win, they began December bottom of Division Two with just nine points to their name. In a division with five relegation spots Bournemouth were already eight points from safety thanks to a goal difference more than twice as bad as all but one of the other teams.

Machin's men refused to give up hope and showed throughout the festive period that they were beginning to dig their heels in and become more difficult to beat. A victory over Swansea City heralded the dawn of 1995 and was quickly followed by another three points at Bradford City. Bournemouth extended their unbeaten run to seven before a 3-0 home defeat against Brighton & Hove Albion halted their progress.

The good run of results had lifted Bournemouth to 21st but they were now nine points behind Cambridge United in 19th, accounting for the Cherries' woeful goal difference. Nevertheless, the battle was on and the prospect of the Great Escape, as it would soon be dubbed, was alive and well. The rest of the season was a slog. Bournemouth picked up vital wins, threw away points and scrapped to draws, backed all the while by noisy support from behind the southern goal at Dean Court.

The familiar chants from the die-hards on the terrace were as much a fixture during games as the late Buster Merryfield was before them, looking down over the old club shop from his lofty vantage point at the side of the stadium. On the pitch matters were less predictable but the points trickled in to set up a breathtaking finale and the culmination of a modern day football miracle.

Ultimately, Bournemouth's survival in that remarkable season came down to two wonderful matches, the last two of the season, against Brentford and Shrewsbury. Bournemouth visited Griffin Park on April 29th and the away end was a heaving, seething mass of red and black. From Dorset to West London it seemed the roads were a procession of Machin's acolytes, snaking its way to the capital brimming with excitement and optimism but fully aware that it was now or never for their team's survival chances.

After winning three consecutive home games 2-0 but losing at Swansea, Bournemouth were on one side of the dreaded dotted line but level on points with Cambridge on the other. A win against Brentford and a favourable result elsewhere would mean Bournemouth controlled their destiny and the deafening ranks behind the goal at Griffin Park knew it.

Decked out in black and blue stripes, the Cherries faced a difficult challenge. Brentford were slugging it out with Birmingham City at the top of the third tier, and had proven difficult to beat throughout the 1994/95 season. But Bournemouth's form had been superb, no surprise for a team now enjoying polished performances from their key players.

Scott Mean, a Dean Court favourite, was a livewire, always liable to generate a game-changing moment. Steve Robinson shared his creative knack and boasted an assured and stylish approach to the game. Steve Jones, perhaps better known for his time at some of the London clubs, was a popular striker and was the man who scored the dramatic winner against Brentford as Bournemouth won 2-1.

The Bees started well but Bournemouth fought their way into the game and escaped a couple of scares to reach half time with the score at 0-0. Ten minutes after the break Mean took his chance. 25 yards from goal, he volleyed the ball right-footed and looked on as it settled in the bottom corner to give Bournemouth a lifeline that was soon snuffed out by as unsatisfying a goal as you could ever hope to see. Brentford's Paul Abrahams' volley deflected past Ian Andrews to draw the hosts level and reinforce Bournemouth's precarious position.

Bournemouth's moment soon came. A routine clearance was dealt with extremely badly and Jones stole in behind the home defence, carried the ball into the box and dispatched it to restore the lead. A few more worrying Brentford attacks and some resolute defending later, Bournemouth were able to take a step back and enjoy a remarkable afternoon's work. Their fate, at long last, was in their own hands.

Three more points in the bank and his team finally out of the relegation zone thanks to Cambridge's draw at home to Huddersfield Town, the demands from the visiting supporters for Machin to join them to receive their appreciation rang out long and loud across the Brentford turf. He didn't disappoint. The fans returned to the south coast, hoarse and contented, and focused squarely on what lay ahead. The following Tuesday Fred Davies, a goalkeeper of some repute for the Cherries in the 1970s, brought his Shrewsbury Team to Dean Court to play an incidental part in the glorious end to Bournemouth's season.

The stadium was far fuller than usual and the mood was one of assured confidence. There was a feeling that fate had been favouring Machin's side for some time, slowly but surely enabling them to climb towards safety. The truth is that they had, against the odds, developed into a team worthy of survival under the manager's tutelage and they proved as much by sweeping the Shrews aside and having the game won by half time thanks to three early goals.

After Machin's complaints about the fixture scheduling, which allowed Cambridge to play the weekend after Bournemouth's game against the Shropshire side, the comfortable victory was sweet relief and Bournemouth were safe. It was a struggle all the way but their end of season form was sensational. In contrast to the travails of August and September, a Machin-inspired Bournemouth team won five of their last seven league games and lost only two of the last eleven.

The south coast club has been through worse seasons and more damaging times off the pitch since 1995, and have more than matched their Great Escape in the intervening years, but the original miracles are always the best. Machin stayed at Bournemouth as manager and then director of football until 2002, a man revered for masterminding one of English football's great comebacks.

Chris Nee is an IBWM content editor and is the host of the Aston Villa Review podcast.

Picture by DraXus (Flickr)