Goldsands Stadium, home of AFC Bournemouth
I heard it from the most unimpeachable of sources this week. Jeff Mostyn, the chairman of AFC Bournemouth, told me that there really is only one way for a football club to get on in the modern English game: they need a sugar daddy.
Mostyn knows what he is talking about. A Manchester-born businessman who made his money locally, he has been involved in Bournemouth for more than a decade. He was in charge of the boardroom when the club were so damaged by accumulated debts they twice went into administration in the noughties. In May 2009, undermined by a massive deduction of 17 points, the club was within an ace of losing its league status, on the very lip of slipping into the Conference, surviving on the penultimate Saturday of the season.
Spool forward five years, and they are mid-table in the Championship, about to host Liverpool in the FA Cup. They have a neat, progressive team playing neat, progressive football in a neat, progressive stadium. They have, in Eddie Howe, one of the league’s most coveted young managers, a coach who would be more than comfortable plying his trade in the Premier League. And it has all come about because of the money injected into the place by a very wealthy – and very reclusive – Russian called Maxim Demin.
“I think the answer is, if a club is ambitious the only way you can ever make progress from our level is to have a passionate benefactor,” Mostyn – who sold his shares to Demin in the summer of 2012 – told me. “You need someone willing to invest in equity. You can survive; look at Yeovil, a very good example. But you can only drive a football club on by investing in players.”
Demin brought his money to the club by chance. He was having a house built on Sandbanks (just down the road from Harry Redknapp’s place) by a local builder called Eddie Mitchell, Mostyn’s partner in the club. Mitchell got into conversation with him, discovered he was interested in football and suggested he might like to take a look at Bournemouth. He went one better than that and bought the place. Mostyn was invited by Demin to remain in day-to-day charge of the club after the takeover: his expertise was not something to be discarded lightly. And he says it was only through the injection of Russian capital that eyes on the Dorset coast could be raised above the horizon.
“Those were dark days,” Mostyn says of the period of administration. “Back then it was sheer survival, going from one crisis to another. I didn’t have any opportunity to manage the club.”
That has changed with Demin’s involvement. Now words like 'ambition', 'plan' and 'future' are part of the vocabulary at Bournemouth. You can see it in the stadium. It has been mightily spruced up to fit Demin’s vision. Since he likes to entertain his friends there, the hospitality areas are now astonishing. The Bubbles Champagne Lounge, decorated by pictures of George Best (briefly a Bournemouth old boy), looks as if it has been transported in wholesale from Soho, with its ankle deep carpet and jeroboams to trip over. There are now dozens of corporate boxes catering to the local butcher, baker and luxury yacht maker (Sunseeker has one).
Able to charge more for commercial tie-ins, the club is in a benevolent upwards cycle, attracting more money at every turn to add to Demin’s invstment. The televised game with Liverpool alone will bring in some quarter of a million pounds to the accounts. And Liverpool, as Mostyn is quick to point out, are not the first European Champions to visit the stadium this season. Real Madrid came for a pre-season friendly.
“That really laid down a marker for what we wanted to do,” says Mostyn of the visit by Ronaldo and company. “It set up our season in the Championship brilliantly. And it told the world where we want to be.”
Mostyn is not the only one enthused by what is happening on the Dorset Riviera. Howe, the careful, considered and articulate manager is, in his own quiet way, evidently excited.
“He’s invested a lot of money and full credit to him for that,” Howe says of the owner. “He’s turned things round, it’s down to him that we are where we are. But still, compared to most Championship clubs we’re not big spenders. Our wage bill is not high.
"We’re trying to build the proper way. Trying to be very conservative about what we do. We’re not splashing out millions on players. Conservative, but if we build in the right way I know he will back us to get there, get us to the Premier League. But it’s not going to be a short-term fix. It’s got to be done in the right way.”
The right way for Howe is organic growth, building his squad, educating them in the right way of playing football. When Liverpool step out on the neatly manicured pitch at the Goldsands, they need not fear being kicked up in the air. Howe, who spent a day studying Brendan Rodgers’s methodology at close quarters when the Liverpool boss was in charge of Swansea, will send his team out with instructions to pass and move, then pass again.
And Howe knows that the owner – who has invited a whole coterie of friends and associates to enjoy the big day with him – has his expectations. For everyone concerned at Bournemouth, there is a shared sense that tomorrow represents but the start of things.
“There’s pressure on me, for sure,” says Howe. “He’s expecting to win. And if we don’t he’ll want to know why. But then, fair enough: he’s invested a lot of money in the club. It’s a fitting reward for him that he’s able to showcase the club in this manner. And we want to make sure it’s the right showcase.”
A somewhat more rewarding a showcase, indeed, than the last time European Champions came to Boscombe Beach. In that friendly in August, Real Madrid won 6-0.