The rise and rise of AFC Bournemouth over the past few years has made for a fascinating story.
Twice the club has faced going out of existence – in 1997 and 2009, on both occasions being within minutes of extinction – relying on the community and fierce determination from individuals to survive.
Fast forward 18 years and the club are now about to grace the English Premier League for the first time. One of those integral to their survival in 1997 is Trevor Watkins, one of the world’s leading sports lawyers, who as a lifelong supporter lead a community rescue of the club and became chairman eventually stepping down in 2001.
The club were in a precarious financial position. Mid-way through a season, Lloyds Bank appointed receivers in January 1997. With the Football League demanding that the loss making club demonstrate that it had enough money to complete the season or be thrown out of the league, it was only the supporters that were prepared to do something to save their club. Yet these were the days before social media and smartphones, when news had to travel by slower, more conventional methods.
Trevor explained: “We didn’t have Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or anything like that – we just about had mobile phones. The whole process was archaic. We didn’t have a quick way to distribute the information to inform people about what needed to be done to save the club. We had to use very traditional methods like radio, TV and print media and they were key to us getting the message out.
“The Sports section on the radio publicised the fact that there was a need to raise funds to keep the club alive which in turn led to a small gathering of fans. At that point in time, there was no easy way of reaching out beyond that group. Luckily the council heard that and offered us a huge theatre in the town centre to hold a rally – we accepted but the only way we could communicate that was through traditional media.
“We didn’t have a fax, a laptop or an office to use – we were in a world where there were substantial time would pass where we couldn’t easily be in touch with people, especially if we were travelling. The club helped by sending faxes to media to spread the message and those resources were particularly important to us. We relied on newswires and news agencies as well to get the message out there. That was the most important way of circulating the news.
“Once we got though the first 72 hours there was an upsurge in coverage in national media and that became the oxygen on which the campaign breathed.”
In June 1997 Bournemouth became Europe’s first community club, coming out of administration thanks to the collective effort. Trevor believes that the community and his own understanding of the media were integral to its survival. He added: “The local community were right at the heart of it. They were the ones who were driving the whole campaign to save the club and it was vital that the manager, team, supporters, council, sponsors, even the Football League and Football Association in a wider sense, all worked together to play their part.
“We didn’t have any PR advisers. One large company was introduced to us but wanted more money than we could afford so we relied on our own contacts. We created the story that was front and centre from January 1997 to the following June when we took the club over.
“I’d been part of a radio show in the mid-1980s so I understood what was important to the media. I knew that five soundbite quotes in a 30 second interview was critical and that short sharp key messages helped considerably. Without that experience it would have been very difficult for me to know how to proceed.
“The story burnt bright, because this was the first time that this (a club being taken over by its fans) had happened. The media were determined to cover the story and we created the story for them, developing themes, refreshing the message and providing hooks for the media to latch on to.”
“We live in a very different world now, where we would not have had the resource to cope with the vast amount of media outlets that now exist. It’s not very difficult to manage your profile, especially with the resources that we had available back then.
“I learnt to never underestimate the importance of strong relationships with media – they want good stories and good copy and the relationships you develop enable you to place those stories front and centre and equally, when something requires some balance it helps to be able to reach out directly or through a trusted PR advisor. Those strong relationships enable clubs, directors and owners to build their story and influence.”
The Premier League was only a few years old when Bournemouth faced their first administration and they would face similar financial challenges a decade later. At that time a wealthy businessman, Jeff Mostyn used his own money to enable the club to survive administration. With the club starting a season on – 17 points and looking doomed, it was the appointment of Eddie Howe as manager that was a masterstroke.
The emergence of Eddie Howe, who had helped fundraise back in 1997 when he was a player with the club, as one of the most exciting young managers in the country has no doubt been integral to their recent success – he oversaw the club's survival in League 2 that season despite the huge points penalty and has now delivered three promotions in five years.
Trevor commented: “It is amazing how the AFC Bournemouth story is being taken on board across the world. I did an interview about the club’s success recently which has been published in 30-40 countries. There is an intensity that comes with membership of the Premier League that should be expected – the club will be seen in 220 countries. That doesn’t happen in League One or even the lower reaches of Championship.
“The narrative for the club is extraordinary – a journey that has seen many lows as well as highs. But without the fans, the current chairman Jeff Mostyn using his personal funds in 2009 and the arrival of Max Demin, the current owner, the club wouldn’t be in existence. Without the astute management of Eddie Howe, it is extremely unlikely that the club would be looking forward to the Premier League next season.
“And he is the constant throughout the story. From being a young player in 1997 who witnessed the developments at the club and much later took over as manager when it was on its knees in terms of footballing success, he has now lead it to the promised land.
“Bournemouth’s success underlines the importance of communication with the community – nobody knows that better than Eddie and that is what he has done throughout. My money is very much on him ensuring that the supporters see their team remain in the Premier League well beyond one season. And for me a lifelong fan, it is a reality I never thought would happen. Up the Cherries!”
Trevor Watkins is the Global Head of Sport at Pinsent Masons, leading a team of over 90 lawyers who advise on matters across the business of sport on a national and international basis. Best known for their work in commercial rights, finance, media, digital and infrastructure, the firm operates in 20 locations globally. Trevor remains a dedicated fan and season ticket holder at the Cherries.