If the start of this season in League One has been notable for one thing, it has been for the under-achievement of those clubs which arguably over-achieved last season. After seven matches, the bottom four of Rochdale, Bournemouth, Leyton Orient and Exeter City are all clubs did extremely well when swimming against the current last season, but all are finding the going to be considerably more difficult this time around. This in itself shouldn’t be too much of a cause to be troubled over their well-being in a broader context, but in the case of one of them, AFC Bournemouth, a degree of discontent over the way that the club is being managed at present has, over the last seven days or so, blown up into something all the more extraordinary.
Over the last decade or so, AFC Bournemouth has been a club which has had more than its fair share of financial difficulties. After its last stay in administration, the club’s take-over by local businessman Eddie Mitchell, who had previously been involved at Blue Square South club Dorchester Town, in June 2009 was supposed to usher in a new era of relative harmony and stability at the club. A little more than two years later, however, even though the club only narrowly missed out on a place in the League One play-offs at the end of last season – they were only beaten on penalty kicks by Huddersfield Town after drawing over two legs – it is starting to feel as if there is something going quite terribly wrong at Dean Court.
Disquiet has been in the air for some time. The departure of popular manager Eddie Howe at the start of the year hit the club hard and, although his replacement Lee Bradbury did well to keep his team in the play-off places until the end of last season, the new manager has been working with one hand tied behind his back on account of the club’s transfer policy over the last few months or so. Over this time, this transfer policy seems to have resembled a perpetual fire sale, with a threadbare looking squad now struggling to keep its head above water in a division in which it looked more than comfortable just a few months ago. While some have turned their ire towards the manager, it certainly looks as if Bradbury is doing what he can under very trying circumstances and the target of most of the criticism has been Mitchell himself. Considering everything that Bournemouth has been through over the last few years, we might expect the supporters to be more finely attuned to the possibility of further financial problems and the need to keep income and expenditure in check than most, but over the last week or so Mitchell has managed to infuriate many of them and drag the name of the club through the mud in the public eye to such an extent that it difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that the pressure of the job is starting to get to him.
His first black mark came with an appearance at a fans forum that was held by BBC Radio Solent last week. Mitchell reacted angrily to a question regarding the whereabouts of transfer fees from the player sales that the club has made over the course of the last twelve months or so, culminating in a sentence that may in term come to be regarded as the epitaph for his time in charge at Dean Court: “if you don’t like it, go and support Southampton.” Elsewhere in this forum, he may have made some salient points in relation to the club’s financial position and the need to make it self-supportive – his claim that “my son has actually paid the wages three times this season – not this season, last season” may not win many English language awards, but it does hint at the scale of the work required to ensure the future of the club. Reasoned debate, however, has a tendency to go out of the window when inflammatory statements such as “if you don’t like it, go and support Southampton” start getting thrown around.
There was, therefore, a somewhat tense atmosphere around Dean Court for yesterday’s League One match against Chesterfield. Bournemouth went into the match having won just once in the league all season, and the visitors ended up strolling to a comfortable 3-0 win. The full-time whistle should probably have been a time for calm heads and taking stock of the club’s position – for clear and lucid thinking. What the Bournemouth supporters got instead was Mitchell, microphone in hand and surrounded by stewards, offering, “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?”, while the stewards seemed to be imploring him to keep a lid on it and crowd sang “come back when you’re sober”. You can see the full extraordinary events here:
Rumours are circulating today that Mitchell may be in official trouble of some description, and that this will be reported more fully at the beginning of next week. What good he could possibly have thought would come from such a confrontational attitude is a question that only he can answer, though. That he should choose such a course of action does, however, cast serious doubts about his suitability for the ownership of the club and, while the question of who else might want to take it over – which he attempted to articulate yesterday before being shuffled away from the supporters and further embarrassment – may be a valid one, the ultimate fact of the matter is that a football club the size of Bournemouth will always have buyers if it is a healthy financial position and that the responsibility for it being in a healthy financial position rests with the chairman. He cannot have it both ways – either the club has been selling players to balance the books and is in a relatively healthy position, or it has been selling players and is still in a mess, the responsibility for which can only lay squarely at his door. None of this, however, is particularly relevant to the matter of the decorum of a football club chairman, and Mitchell’s antics have, no matter what has been said about him or the death threats which he has claimed to receive (he also claimed to have received death threats while in charge at Dorchester Town), been wholly unbecoming of somebody in his position.
The position in which Mitchell finds himself today is now largely one of his own creation. Not only is this morning’s media taking an interest in his behaviour over the last few days which can only be regarded as wholly unhealthy for the club, he has also been acting in a way that has played directly into the hands of his loudest detractors and served only further alienate those of a more moderate disposition amongst the club’s support. If he is wavering under the pressure to the extent that he seems to have been displaying over the last few days or so, he should perhaps take a break from it and allow a situation that is now threatening to spiral out of all control to calm down a little. If he is incapable of managing the club or himself in a fitting manner in the long term, though, he should start looking elsewhere because, at the moment, his behaviour is not only an embarrassment to AFC Bournemouth, but to himself as well.
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