A very non-Premier League club is closing in on England’s top division

Forgive me for getting all Keanu circa 1989 about it, but Bournemouth — small, provincial Bournemouth — in the English Premier League? No way!

Yes way, if the team wins its last two games. It might not even need to do that, depending on others’ results at the logjammed summit of England’s second tier. Eddie Howe’s team, which has never reached the first division, is currently second in the Championship with two matches to play. It’d be in first, only it gave up a 95th-minute equalizer at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, which seems like a careless thing to do.

But Bournemouth’s last two fixtures are eminently winnable, and the team hasn’t lost in 11 games. Last month, Bournemouth spanked Fulham — a Premier League team last season, remember — 5-1. On the road.

A fan joins Callum Wilson as he celebrates with Andrew Surman and Matt Ritchie.  (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

A fan joins Callum Wilson as he celebrates with Andrew Surman and Matt Ritchie. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

So it appears the world’s biggest league is about to welcome its smalls member ever. As in, plankton-size small. As in, half the size of an average Major League Soccer club. Provincial underdogs sometimes put together a great year and complete an unlikely ascension — your Burnleys, Barnsleys, Bradfords, Swindons (holy crap, Swindon: that actually happened) — but it shouldn’t these days, with compensation payments for relegated EPL sides get when dropping down giving them a massive financial advantage, and with so many ex-Premier League teams in the division (18 of the 24).

Soon you may need to know who Bournemouth is, if only because you could be watching television this fall and wondering: who is this team losing 4-0 at home to Chelsea in a stadium that looks like it belongs in the NASL?

In a segment we’re not going to call The Bournemouth Identity, here are some Bournemouth facts you can used to impress hipster friends and attract members of the opposite sex at parties.

  • Bournemouth is a seaside resort 100 miles southwest of central London on England’s south coast, population under 200,000. It’s pretty nice, which is why former Cherries boss Harry Redknapp lives there, in a seafront mansion on one of the world’s most expensive strips of real estate.
  • Its soccer team has been in England’s Football League since 1923 and has never reached the top flight. It’s hardly spent any time in the second tier. In fact, in August 2008, the club was in the fourth division (the bottom of the Football League) and giving relegation a bug-eyed stare straight in the face. An insolvency-related punishment forced the team to begin the season with minus-17 points. (Rotherham, also now in the Championship, got the same penalty in the same division.)
  • The club’s stadium, the Goldsands, aka Dean Court, holds just 12,000 people, making it the smallest in the Championship. That’d be 6,000 less than the smallest MLS venue. Even after a renovation in 2001, it only had three permanent stands until 2013. The current Premier League record for lowest average attendance is 12,563 (Oldham, 1993-94). This year’s lowest? QPR, averaging 17,807 poor, tortured souls.
Eddie Howe looks on prior to the match between Brighton & Hove Albion and AFC Bournemouth  on April 10, 2015.  (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Eddie Howe looks on prior to the match between Brighton & Hove Albion and AFC Bournemouth on April 10, 2015. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images)

Back in 2009, a goal from 37-year-old striker Steve Fletcher in the penultimate game of the season secured Bournemouth’s status in the Football League, confirming the club’s remarkable recovery from that 17-point deficit.

Since then, the club’s destiny has been largely tied to Howe’s – a fan of the club who became England’s youngest manager in 2009 when Bournemouth appointed him at just 31 years old. He left for Burnley in 2011 but returned the next year. Still only 37 — and a month younger one-time Spurs whiz kid Andre Villas-Boas — Howe manages to look 10 years younger. (It’s all in the shaving.)

In interviews, he attributes his success to his attention to detail, such as covering the training center with motivational slogans and the tunnel with larger-than-life photographs of his players. He has a tattoo on his wrist that reads “R” in memory of Rodney, his pet Labrador.

With Howe’s help, Bournemouth’s gone from near-extinction, to near-relegation to the fifth division, to the brink of the Premier League in seven years. That would be quite the romantic tale, albeit a romantic tale bankrolled by an obscure Swiss-based Russian petrochemicals magnate named Maxim Demin, who’s financed the signings of players who’d normally be far beyond the club’s reach. But hey, this is England. What did you expect? A club rising to the pinnacle without being backed by a rich foreign businessman with opaque motives?

A Bournemouth fan looks at old team photos on April 6, 2015.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

A Bournemouth fan looks at old team photos on April 6, 2015. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

It’s a long way from the days of former chairman Eddie Mitchell, a man who was not known for his tact and diplomacy. The high (low) point for Mitchell: entering the field after a 3-0 home defeat, grabbing a microphone and inviting fans for some intense man-to-man interaction: “the lad in the leather jacket whose eyes seem to be popping out of his head – why don’t you jump over the fence and come and have a chat with me? Come on then. One to one?” This came mere days after he issued an apology for telling fans unhappy with his style that they should make the 30-mile journey to “go and support Southampton.”

These are strange times in the Championship, and not just thanks to Bournemouth. Brentford, another team from Lilliput, could make the playoffs. Meanwhile, two recent Premier League teams, Blackpool and Wigan, are getting ejected through the trapdoor, highlighting the trials in a division generally considered a violent battle full of pallid, debilitated and vaguely angry ex-EPL folks desperately trying to return to the land of milk and honey and billionaires. It’s like a zombie apocalypse, but one where everyone’s eating pity-given banknotes instead of brains.

The chaos could, of course, spark a lengthy discussion on the merits and consequences of promotion and relegation, but let’s leave that for another day. How about June 25th, 2021? My diary looks clear.

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