Few can claim they were the replacements for Fernando Hierro and Thierry Henry. In a sense, Jonathan Woodgate is both, the man Real Madrid bought as the belated successor to one of their greatest captains, the manager Bournemouth appointed after they did not extricate Henry from Montreal Impact.
If it all sounds somewhat surreal, odd elements abound. When Jason Tindall was sacked three weeks ago, the presumption was that Bournemouth had someone else lined up. The message was that Woodgate, who had only been at the club for two days, was not a candidate. Five games into a largely impressive caretaker stint, he is in charge for the rest of the season.
A manager who took Middlesbrough down to 21st place has fallen on his feet. When Woodgate left his hometown club in June, it was tempting to wonder if he would return to the dugout again. The LMA likes to cite the percentage of managers who do not get a second chance or a second job; some of them are accustomed to playing at higher level and thus perhaps ill-suited to League One and League Two coaching.
Instead, Woodgate could be 18 games – including the play-offs, considering Bournemouth’s hopes of automatic promotion are fading – from the Premier League. Or, as Bournemouth are only three points ahead of Mick McCarthy’s rejuvenated Cardiff and his old employers Middlesbrough, targeting the ninth promotion of Neil Warnock’s never-ending career, 15 from missing out on the play-offs and presumably losing his position.
Bournemouth’s continued willingness to entrust their future to a relative rookie represents a risk. Tindall was Eddie Howe’s long-time lieutenant but his only previous managerial experience was with Weymouth. Henry’s time in the technical area has come in France and Canada and, if some managerial imports have proved that a grounding in the Championship is not required, it can be a culture shock to others. Woodgate’s 21.95 per cent win rate with Middlesbrough suggested he found it hard enough to adapt after playing and coaching in it.
The gamble is greater because the stakes are higher for Bournemouth. Clubs who benefit from parachute payments have a particular need to get promotion within that timespan when they lack the sizeable support to generate much of an income beyond broadcast money. Blackpool, Wigan and Huddersfield went down and never came back up. In 2018/19, 88 per cent of Bournemouth’s revenue came from the Premier League’s television rights and they spent 85 per cent of it on wages. They were accused of overpaying for some of the squad they assembled, but it has given them something of a cushion this season: they banked around £80 million for Nathan Ake, Aaron Ramsdale and Callum Wilson alone.
They also benefited from an inherent advantage in a division where others’ ability to spend was affected by football’s financial crunch: better players. In a different environment, perhaps David Brooks or Jefferson Lerma might already have left. If Bournemouth do not go up, they – or Philip Billing, or Dominic Solanke, or Lewis Cook, or Arnaut Danjuma, or Adam Smith – might. Stay in the Championship and Bournemouth’s Premier League-quality footballers will go, either by choice or financial necessity. Their current position represents underachievement for the squad they have: they outclassed an admittedly weakened Burnley team in the FA Cup two weeks ago. Adding Jack Wilshere and Ben Pearson to Billing, Lerma and Cook gives them surely the best collection of central midfielders in the division.
Time will tell how pertinent it is that Woodgate’s first two league wins came against stragglers, in Birmingham and Rotherham. None of their next seven league games are against any of the bottom nine. Most are against the sort of sides Bournemouth’s talent ought to equip them to beat.
They are a club at a crossroads, between a swift return to the Premier League and an extended stay in the Football League. The way they stumbled into appointing Woodgate scarcely bodes well. But they know that injury-hit centre-backs and accidental caretakers can become inspired choices. It isn’t Fernando Hierro Woodgate needs to emulate now, but Eddie Howe.
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