The anguish is written all over Eddie Howe’s face. The Bournemouth manager, one arm nervously tucked behind his head, grimaces as he fears the inevitable. Then it arrives.
Sam Surridge’s late equaliser has been ruled out for offside. Howe releases a sound of derision before closing his eyes, bowing his head and taking up a new pose. Hands on hips, disconsolately looking into the middle distance.
It’s not the first time this season Howe’s emotions have been clear to see as the Cherries have plummeted towards relegation this season. Countless despairing looks, gritted teeth and post-match interviews where it looks as though he’s holding back the tears.
If there’s one thing the 42-year-old can’t be accused of as Bournemouth have plummeted towards relegation this season, it’s not caring.
Yet that hasn’t stopped Howe becoming the butt of a series of stinging criticisms and social media jibes, as everything he’s carefully built across 12 – briefly interrupted – years in the Dean Court hotseat slowly crumbles. But for all the debate over Howe’s failings this season, one evaluation seems to be increasing in volume among Twitter’s fickle opinionists: relegation goes to show the Bournemouth boss wasn’t much cop in the first place.
The notion that one swallow doesn’t make a summer may be too positive given the circumstances. But, by the same token, one raven doesn’t make a winter, either.
I remember sitting in a post-match press conference with Howe towards the end of Bournemouth’s promotion campaign and being impressed by his verve and energy. He was a shining light, seen as the prototype for a young English manager destined for great things.
His side had a clear, positive identity, which he refused to abandon upon reaching the Premier League, and was the antithesis for long-in-the-tooth compatriots who’d had their time. Yet this same stick is now being used to beat Howe with.
He’s accused of having “no plan B” and has earned disparaging comparisons to Roberto Martinez, which is unfair on either man, despite the sides they’ve managed always having some undoubted defensive deficiencies.
But this is what Howe was meant to be an outlier against. He was celebrated for not being a down-and-dirty manager as he led the Cherries to survival without abandoning their philosophy in their first season after promotion, then to a top-half finish the year after.
Nobody wanted to see perceived old-school managers such as Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce be given “another” job and keep teams up by simply plugging up their defences and being hard to beat. Although it’s a lack of those qualities that Howe is now being criticised for.
Of course, balance is paramount for any manager and if Bournemouth had shown a bit more grit at times this season, they’d probably have halted a run of 15 defeats in 20 as the relegation trapdoor closed around them. But there’s certainly some hypocrisy to the charges laid at Howe’s door.
The former defender can’t remain completely blameless, though. And the questions over a shaky defence that’s conceded an average of 65 goals in each of the five Premier League campaigns and some questionable transfer dealings are founded.
Although to say demotion is the end for Howe is wide of the mark. Sean Dyche’s Burnley were relegated in 2015 after only a single season in the Premier League, but bounced back immediately as a stronger outfit that has earned their manager plenty of plaudits – despite playing a more pragmatic style to Bournemouth.
Other managers, including Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Martinez and Gareth Southgate, have gone on to bigger and better things following Premier League relegation. Others including Harry Redknapp and Steve Bruce enjoyed career highs after going down in the mid-noughties.
Many in the Twitter-sphere are already speculating that Howe won’t get the same post-relegation opportunities to the names above, pointing towards his failing to land a bigger job in the few years he’s been managing in the Premier League.
But it’s hardly Howe’s fault we’re currently living in a time of the Premier League super coach. Jobs at the traditional big six are almost reserved for those who have racked up a formidable CV of elite trophies or a returning club legend who understands their ethos. Even the next tier of sides are gravitating towards big names with a bulging collection of medals, as can be seen by Everton’s appointment of Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez and Mauricio Pellegrini’s stints at Newcastle and West Ham respectively.
It’s hard to see where Howe would have found that next step up or seen a club he’d willingly have jumped ship for while Bournemouth were in the Premier League. Not least because he’s made them his club and until this season, they appeared to be consolidating themselves as permanent fixtures at this level.
Relegation may change that after a period of introspection, as may the state of the financial hardships alleged to be heading the club’s way. Yet if the emotion that has characterised Howe’s demeanour as the struggles mounted this year are anything to go by, he may wish to make amends on the south coast.
One thing’s for sure: to write Howe off after a single season of decline feels a bit hasty.