With this weekend marking the anniversary of one of the Cherries’ greatest days out, manager Sean O’Driscoll talks through his side’s 2002/03 promotion campaign.
At 3pm on Sunday, the club will be showing the full 90 minutes from AFC Bournemouth’s 5-2 play-off final win over Lincoln City as the latest in our series of Cherries Repicked events. [link here]
O’Driscoll spoke with afcb.co.uk earlier this week to recall his memories of the season, the challenges he and his squad faced and the ultimate success with lifting the play-off winners’ trophy in Cardiff.
Relegated from the third tier at the end of the previous season, hopes were high of a quick return, the manager assembling a squad largely of young, hungry players with a high level of technique who set to their task by looking to play attractive attacking football.
However, just four points from the opening five games didn’t constitute the start anticipated, O’Driscoll explaining that patience was initially needed with his potential-filled side.
He explained: “We were in the midst of trying to restructure the club and everything was about trying to put an attractive team on the pitch, and that takes a bit of time.
“We had a really good nucleus of players which had come through, either through our own system or as young players we’d got from other clubs.
“We had a good reputation and were quite good at attracting youngsters, but financially we were strapped and it took a little bit of time for the team to gel.
“By the time we’d played at Lincoln in October, we were in the top six positions and then we went on from there.”
Striker Steve Fletcher had returned from injury for that match at Sincil Bank, with O’Driscoll’s major headache throughout the first half of the campaign coming at the other end of the pitch.
In total, six goalkeepers donned the gloves for the Cherries in 2002/03 – including midfielder Marcus Browning on two occasions – with the problem only really being solved by the return of Neil Moss on loan, a move that would become permanent after the New Year.
“Most managers in most seasons will say they had problems with one thing or the other and it’s just something that we had to deal with, there was no point moaning about it,” remembered O’Driscoll.
“The fact that we got Neil in from Southampton was really fortuitous, a local boy who’d been at the club, that all fitted.”
An impressive FA Cup run took the Cherries as far as defeat in the fourth round at Stoke City, while in the league six wins from nine games in the springtime confirmed the Cherries’ place in the play-offs and setting up a two-legged tie with Bury.
The Cherries came back to Dorset with a 0-0 scoreline from the first leg and turned on the style at Dean Court as a Garreth O’Connor opener and a James Hayter brace swept Bournemouth into the showpiece event at the Millennium Stadium in late May.
“Play-off games are always stodgy, especially with teams in the lower divisions playing two-leg ties,” said O’Driscoll. “We’re not used to that, but playing the away fixture first is always a bonus because you can set your stall out, you’re away from home and not there to entertain anybody.
“We were quietly confident going into the play-offs as one of the teams that no-one else wanted to play, because on our day we could beat probably anybody.
“We had a really down-to-earth group of players, they were really determined and together, as happens when things go well. There was the disappointment of relegation the previous season and that was always in the back of our minds.”
On May 24th, over 32,000 fans descended on Cardiff and while the roof was closed at the home of Welsh football, it was raised by an electric Cherries performance between two teams displaying differing styles.
Steve Fletcher opened the scoring and after the Imps had equalised Carl Fletcher restored the advantage with a glanced finish, Stephen Purches, O’Connor and another Carl Fletcher header securing promotion, Purches’ goal coming after a stunning charge from one end of the pitch to the other.
“Lincoln were the most awkward team to play because of their style, but we’d beaten them at their place and I can remember going there and there was a lot of controversy about them letting the grass grow long and all that sort of business,” said O’Driscoll.
“We then got beaten by them at home 1-0 prior to the play-off final but on the day we played really well, getting done by a free-kick, one of their major strengths with the height they had in the team.
“But if you took the overall performance I think we knew that if we could defend set plays a little bit better we’d be okay, from a football point of view we were really confident.
“Before the final I remember doing some analysis work and actually saying to the players that they’re very good from set plays from an attacking point of view, but I felt they weren’t that good at defending them.
“You’d think that would correlate as a big, strong side that were good at attacking would be good at defending, but I didn’t feel they were. That proved to be the case with the goals that we scored.
“I was more pleased for Stephen than for the style of his goal. He was one of those unsung heroes, though I’m not sure that’s the right phrase as he was a really good player. On the day he got his just rewards for being really consistent.
“For him to score that goal and the way it was constructed, it was a case that if we could defend properly from a set play we’d have a chance going the other way because we had pace with James (Hayter) and Wade (Elliott) and then Stephen making that run.
“I haven’t seen the footage for a long time but I can remember looking back at it and from where he ran, the full-length of the pitch to get on the end of something and score a goal, that doesn’t happen too often.”
As players celebrated on the pitch and the fans celebrated in the stands, O’Driscoll lifted the trophy with chairman Peter Phillips, though he admitted his primary emotion wasn’t the joy of promotion.
“It was relief more than anything,” he said. “Most managers will get that. We had the disappointment of being relegated the previous season so looking back the club stuck with what we were trying to do, and trying to do it within the financial constraints that we had at the time.
“Doing it in the manner that we did, I think the supporters deserved a day out and winning in the style that we did cemented us as coming from a football place.
“Bournemouth probably isn’t recognised as a football town, but the supporters are every much as passionate as anybody in the country with their local team.”