“The best decision I ever made.”
Those are the words of Alan Connell who today celebrates the 20th anniversary of first signing for AFC Bournemouth.
The date has a special place in Connell’s scrapbook, a souvenir of milestones from his playing career kept by his proud father Vic.
Connell was 19 when he sat down in Sean O’Driscoll’s office at Dean Court and penned his first professional contract.
Previously on the books at Tottenham and Ipswich, he impressed during a trial spell having been recommended to O’Driscoll by club scout Mike Corderoy.
Connell made an eye-catching start to his Cherries career, scoring seven goals during an eight-game purple patch before suffering a serious knee injury just 11 weeks into his debut season.
Looking back over his career, Connell told afcb.co.uk: “I was released by Ipswich in February 2002 and attended the exit trials at Lilleshall.
“I had a good few days there and had offers of trials from Macclesfield, Doncaster Rovers and AFC Bournemouth.
“I came on trial here, played a few reserve games and, fortunately, Sean O’Driscoll liked me. Signing here was the best decision I have ever made.
“All of a sudden, I went from being a youth-team player to a first-team player and absolutely loved it.
“I was thrown into the team quickly because there were a lot of injuries and had a really good start to my career.
“I scored seven goals in eight games, I was the highest-scoring teenager in the country and apparently clubs were watching me. It was an amazing time.
“Rupturing my ACL was a huge setback and it took me a year-and-a-half to get back. I had a cartilage tear as well and it was 18 months before I was anywhere near my best again.
“It was unfortunate for it to happen so early in my career. But I was delighted I went on to play more than 400 games after the injury.”
A frustrated onlooker as O’Driscoll’s team won the Division Three play-off final against Lincoln City in May 2003, Connell returned to action following ten months on the sidelines, playing a further 50 games for the Cherries before joining Torquay in the summer of 2005.
Following spells with Hereford and Brentford, Connell rejoined the Cherries in November 2008 and played his part in the 2008/09 Greatest Escape under Eddie Howe.
He was also on target the day the Cherries memorably clinched promotion to League One at Burton Albion in April 2010 and netted almost 100 goals in 400 career appearances.
Connell added: “When I came back from my injury, I found myself behind James Hayter and Steve Fletcher in the pecking order for most of the 2004/05 season. We just missed out in the League One play-offs on the last day.
“I felt I had contributed that season but I wasn’t playing every week and that was what I had really wanted.
“I was offered a new contract by Sean and, in hindsight, maybe I should have stayed because of my affection for the club. It was a really difficult decision.
“As soon as I left, I questioned whether it was the right decision or not. But I went away and had some great experiences at other clubs so I can’t really regret it.
“To come back and sign permanently in 2008 was an amazing feeling and I couldn’t get here quickly enough.
“But in my first training session, I tore the cartilage in my other knee. I hadn’t had any injuries at my other clubs, they all came at Bournemouth.
“It meant I was a bit-part player for the Greatest Escape season. I was in and out of the team and gave my all when I was involved but my form wasn’t great.
“I remember warming up before we played Barnet at home just after Christmas when we were in a really difficult position.
“My knee was so swollen that I couldn’t bend it properly and the game was starting in half-an-hour. It was needs-must at that time but I didn’t do myself justice that season.
“I delayed having an operation until we were safe. I had a really good summer of rehab and came back fit and sharp for the League Two promotion season. I played quite a lot of games and flited between playing up front and left midfield.
“It was an incredible season and it was great to be part of the first of the three promotions on the way to the Premier League.
“I felt I contributed along the way and scored some important goals, culminating in the one at Burton which people still talk about and remember.
“I look back with huge pride at scoring a big goal in the club’s history and followed up with two against Port Vale at a packed Dean Court in the final home game of the season. I loved it. We had a great group of players and a lot of us are still friends now.”
After leaving in the summer of 2010, Connell won further promotions with Swindon Town and Bradford City and featured as the Bantams reached the final of the League Cup in 2013.
He joined the academy coaching staff at Vitality Stadium in 2015 and is now manager of AFC Bournemouth’s successful under-18s, guiding them to the EFL Youth Alliance title and the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup in 2021/22.
“I couldn’t be happier working for the club I love and in a role that I love,” said Connell. “Our ultimate aim is to try to get players into the first team here.
“But if we can’t do that, we would love to see them have professional careers elsewhere. Seeing the boys develop as young people is also very important to us.
“The past 20 years have gone in a flash for me and that’s something I try to drum into the young players – make the most of everything in life because it goes so quickly.
“I have loved every minute of my time playing and working for this club and I am so pleased to see us back in the Premier League.
“The club has given me everything. Twenty years ago, I was a boy leaving London, now my life is down here with my family and I’ll be forever grateful to the club I love and the special relationships I’ve built here.”