- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 28, 2015

BOURNEMOUTH, England (AP) - In this seaside town better known for its pier and pensioners than sports, the decades of fighting just to ensure its professional soccer club still exists have paid off. For the first time in its 116-year history, AFC Bournemouth will be playing in England’s topflight next season.

Bournemouth faced financial ruin twice in the last 20 years and was on the brink of relegation to the fifth tier six years ago, but is now preparing for the Premier League and a windfall of at least $180 million.

A place in the world’s richest league was unthinkable in 1997 when fans were forced to go around this south-coast town collecting cash with buckets to stop the banks closing the club.

Eddie Howe, back then a youth team player in awe of the supporters’ determination, is the manager who oversaw the victory over Bolton on Monday that effectively clinched a place in the Premier League.

And when supporters spilled onto the field at Goldsands Stadium to join in the promotion party with the players, Howe was quick to take control of the microphone to thank them.

“This club, not so long ago, was on the brink of going out of business many times over,” Howe said before stressing, as if they needed reminding: “It was the supporters who kept the club going.”

Firstly in 1997, when the cash ran out at Bournemouth, which was then in the third tier.

“The bank had enough, so it shut the club on the Friday morning with the team playing away at Bristol City the next day,” lifelong Bournemouth fan Trevor Watkins told The Associated Press. “It looked like it was going to be the last game.”

It was Watkins, a sports lawyer, who helped to spearhead the club’s recovery. Fans mobilized, gathering in the Winter Gardens theater along with players, including Howe, to show that bank that the club was worth saving, rather than using the ramshackle stadium’s valuable land to build houses on.

After emerging from bankruptcy protection, Bournemouth became Europe’s first community club with Watkins as chairman. But with a stadium which still has a limited capacity of 11,000, the only way to make money was from trading players. The club was forced into bankruptcy protection again in 2008 with debts of around 4 million pounds.

This time it was a Manchester City fan, Jeff Mostyn, who saved Bournemouth and became chairman.

“A lot of people at the football club wondered why a boy from Manchester had come to Bournemouth to support a team he had never really heard of before to fund the administration,” Mostyn recalled in an interview in the directors’ box on Monday.

Even after the club’s future was secured after being five minutes from being liquidated, Bournemouth had to contend with a 10-point penalty which resulted in relegation. Because the club was forced into administration for a second time, it also started in the fourth tier on minus 17 points. With Howe now in charge of the team, it made up the deficit and avoided dropping out of the professional leagues in 2009.

“If we had gone into the (fifth tier) Conference we would have died,” Mostyn said. “Even the greatest optimist in the world was struggling to think we could survive - and we did. That was a miracle. It was a catalyst for where we are today.

“The Premier League was just a fantasy. You had more chance of playing it on one of the (computer) games than participating.”

Rising from the bottom rung of the Football League has been utterly remarkable.

“We got off to a horrific start (in 2012),” captain Tommy Elphick recalled amid Monday’s euphoria. “It wasn’t really a good place to be, really hostile, and the manager wasn’t getting a load of support.

“But then the gaffer (Howe) came back (after a year at Burnley) and from day one things turned round so dramatically.”

In part, that has been due to the investment from Russian businessman Maxim Demin, who bought out Eddie Mitchell’s stake in the club in 2011 after having a house built in the area by the property tycoon.

The target was only reaching the second-tier Championship, with Mostyn explaining: “All the fans wanted was a club that existed.”

The rise has made 37-year-old Howe one of the most admired coaches in England. He received the Football League manager of the decade award this month, despite working in the dugout for only six years.

Howe has implemented a stylish, flowing brand of football that was showcased in Monday’s 3-0 victory over former Premier League team Bolton, while exuding a calmness at odds with his relative inexperience.

And by living through Bournemouth’s decades of pain, Howe ensures the fighting spirit of the fans is instilled in the players. On the eve of the Bolton match, a video was shown to the squad of the incredible journey.

“It took us right back to what it means to people,” Elphick said. “We all came out of there pretty emotional.”

Technically, Bournemouth’s promotion will be confirmed only on the final day of the season on Saturday - unless they lose and third-place Middlesbrough wins with an unheard-of 19-goal swing.

Which means, instead of Ipswich, Derby and Brentford coming to town, Bournemouth will be welcoming Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United to its stadium which is seven times smaller than Old Trafford.

“I look back and think where we were six years ago, how difficult it was to run the football club with bailiffs coming in near enough every day, people were not getting paid, people being made redundant, players not getting paid,” Howe said. “To now be in this position doesn’t seem real.”


Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris

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