Welcome back to Cherry Picking, where I will be attempting to turn AFC Bournemouth into something slightly more than ‘that plucky south coast side’.
If you’ve been following the series so far, then you’ll probably be sharing a mutual feeling with me: one of complete and utter astonishment. Not only have I pulled the side away from a relegation scrap, but with less than half a season remaining we are now fighting for a European place, whether it be Europa League or even better.
With just one summer signing, a defensive midfielder, the squad I took control of after Eddie Howe’s departure is largely the same as in reality, but with one slight difference. My players are controlling the majority of games, whilst scoring goals and playing some simply beautiful football.
But we can spend time looking back at past successes this campaign, or kick on and try and lift some silverware…not really a choice is it?
We pick up this save at Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace. And, if I’m honest, they battered us for 90 minutes but we still somehow managed to come out unscathed, and with another three points. Hendrix and King grabbed the goals, our versatile Norwegian forward putting us into the lead after an hour, following Christian Benteke’s scrappy equaliser on the stroke of half time. Palace had nine shots on target compared to our four, but thankfully most were easy pickings for Asmir Begovic.
We then travelled to struggling West Ham. A dismal first half was capped off my Mark Noble’s penalty, leaving me no choice but to tear into the lads at half-time. Something must have stuck with them, as a brace from Jordon Ibe and late effort from Callum Wilson fired us into fourth place.
But the next game ensured we were brought back down to earth once again.
There’s no other way to describe this game, apart from rightly labelling it as a shocking display. Huddersfield have been in a relegation scrap all season, but made light work of beating us, Elias Kachunga’s early setback was frustrating, as was the lack of a comeback from the players for the rest of the game. Definitely a bad day at the office, this one.
Thankfully, the next game saw us ease past Newcastle 3-1 at home, with some players rested for the FA Cup third round clash with Oxford, and Carabao Cup semi-final first leg against Preston. Two easily winnable games on paper, but in football nothing is ever simple…
We were three minutes away from prematurely crashing out of the FA Cup to lower league opposition – before the ever reliable Luciano Narsingh cropped up late on to equalise and force a replay, still not an ideal outcome considering the hectic fixture list facing our relatively small squad.
Our next crucial knockout game against Preston resulted in a 3-1 win. Despite Preston taking the lead into half-time, three late efforts from Lewis Cook, Narsingh and Wilson saw us in good stead for the return leg at the Vitality.
Victories over Swansea and Brighton in the league saw us retain our fourth-place position, with the gap to sixth place now almost ten points! It surely couldn’t be happening, could it?
And to further add to the good news, we successfully traversed the FA Cup replay at Oxford, coming out comprehensive 4-1 winners. In truth, there never really looked as though there would be a cup upset from the first whistle, and goals from Jermain Defoe, Ibe, Ryan Fraser and Charlie Daniels set up a fourth round clash with Championship strugglers Birmingham City.
The final game for this episode is the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg. Did we make it to Wembley, the club’s first ever appearance in this trophy’s final?
Of course we did! Was it ever really in doubt?
Another easy victory and solid performance against lower league opposition has sent us into the final, where we will take on Newcastle United in the next episode.
Stay tuned for that!