It is the perennial problem for every chairman, how to manage fans’ ambitions on a budget, but at Bournemouth it is turning nasty. In May the Cherries were a penalty shoot-out away from reaching the League One play-off final. This morning they are in the relegation zone with Saturday’s loss to Notts County their fifth in six league matches. It is by no means unusual for play-off teams to suffer a hangover, but in Bournemouth’s case it was almost inevitable after a year in which they have sold almost a team’s worth of talent and, in February, lost manager Eddie Howe to Burnley.
Unsurprisingly supporters are disgruntled, but it was still a surprise to hear the level of vitriol at a Fans’ Forum last week hosted by the club and BBC Radio Solent. Chairman Eddie Mitchell responded in kind telling critics to “go and support Southampton”. The evening ended in undisguised hostility with the dispute continued on the web and in local media.
Mitchell is the developer behind some of the more spectacular properties on Poole’s exclusive Sandbanks peninsula. Locally-born he told The Independent he watched Bournemouth in his youth even being thrown out “for knocking off a policeman’s helmet”.
He took over at Bournemouth in 2009 after two years in control of at Dorchester Town. Mitchell, who had said his family was at Dorchester for the long-term, initially handed control of the non-League club to his sons but they had to withdraw because FA Cup regulations do not permit one family to own two clubs.
When Mitchell arrived Bournemouth had just survived relegation to the Conference, overcoming a 17-point penalty for being in administration. They won promotion in his first season and reached the play-offs last May. In the meantime, often using his own contractors, Mitchell has overhauled the facilities at Dean Court (now known as Seward Stadium after a major sponsorship deal with a local car dealers). However, the constant player sales and Howe’s departure - to be replaced by another rookie, Lee Bradbury – mean mid-table is the only realistic ambition this season. Nevertheless, the ‘Mitchell out’ campaign seems premature.
Part of the problem is that football fans have an innate suspicion of property developers and chairmen who change clubs. Yet Mitchell does not appear an asset-stripper. He left Dorchester with a vote of thanks from the Supporters Trust and has not called in a debt of £400,000 the club owes to his company. Since Bournemouth do not own their own ground there is no significant asset to strip. The club have banked £4m on player sales but no one takes over a League Two club on the basis they will make a fortune selling players. Critics suggest he is ‘milking’ the club by using his own company to do refurbishment works but logically a builder would use his own people to do such work, especially with the housing market in a slowdown. No one says Delia Smith should not provide catering at Norwich.
Mitchell’s combative personality may not help, but when we spoke over the weekend he sounded perplexed and saddened rather than angry. “I feel for the fans,” he said. “I don’t want to go to Carlisle [a 600-mile round-trip] and lose. I want to win matches and we will not do that if we sell our best players, but I have been pushed into a corner by circumstances.”
Those are Bournemouth’s relative poverty. Twice in 15 years it has been in administration. The first time a supporters’ trust took over but even they felt they had to sell the ground, then the club, to maintain its survival. Last season’s success was double-edged as players were offered longer contracts at treble the pay by clubs in higher divisions. Mitchell told the forum of players being refusing to perform if they were not sold. Several putative replacements were then vetoed through high salary demands.
“If more cash goes out than we bring in we are in trouble,” said Mitchell. “It would be irresponsible to spend more. I think there are clubs which do so, there is pressure from fans to spend as was seen the other night, but if we did there won’t be a club for people to bring their children and grandchildren to. The loan period opens in a few weeks and we can get players in, but they have to be the right ones. The club’s already had two receiverships and I’m not going to jeopardise it’s future after working so hard.
“No one else wanted to come forward when this club was £1.8m in debt. That debt has gone, we are £1.4m in credit and in a higher division. We are only six games into the season with 40 to go and that is what I get? Of course I react angrily. What more do people want?
“I’ve not taken a penny from the club. I even pay for all my coffees and food. My son [Tom, who is on the board] has paid the wages when there’s been a cashflow shortage. I do 40 hours a week and it’s has put great strain on me. I am going to snap if people make insinuations that are not true.”
Regarding the Southampton comment, which in full was: “The club has to be built from the bottom upwards, that is how I am going to build it and if you don’t like it go and support Southampton”, Mitchell said: “There is a minority who want to stir up trouble, but I owe an apology to the 95 per cent of our fans who are fantastic and understand we can’t always be at the forefront, that we have to take a step back sometimes to take two steps forward.”
Some fans clearly do not trust Mitchell, others believe his philosophy makes sense at a club that nearly went bust. Which view predominates may become clearer on Saturday when Bournemouth play Chesterfield at home, the first of three matches against fellow bottom-five teams. There is talk of a fans’ boycott, which would not seem to help anyone. Mitchell says he will not walk away, and there is no queue of buyers if he did. Who is right will only become clear in the long term, but the club are certainly better placed than two years ago.