Elphick on allegiances with Albion, Cherries and Villa

Tommy Elphick is one of our own. But he has also belonged to our next two opponents, Aston Villa and AFC Bournemouth.

By Nick Szczepanik • 15 January 2020

By Paul Hazlewood
Tommy Elphick and Gordon Greer celebrate the League One title.

The first player contracted to play at the Amex, he found his career at the Albion cruelly interrupted by injury. Instead of becoming a big part of our future, he ended up captaining the Cherries into the Premier League then taking the armband at Villa Park before moving on to Huddersfield Town last summer.

Now 32, he was given his league debut at 18 by Mark McGhee as a substitute in a 5-1 defeat at Reading in December 2005, his brother Gary having been red-carded earlier in the match. His first start came under Dean Wilkins in a 2-0 home defeat by Doncaster at Withdean in April 2007, and he was soon established in the first team, playing alongside Guy Butters, Joel Lynch and later Adam El Abd and Gordon Greer.

By Paul Hazlewood
Gordon Greer, Elliott Bennett and Tommy Elphick celebrate promotion from League One.

He played some of his best football under Gus Poyet. With the 2010-11 League One title secured, he was looking forward to stepping out at the newly-opened Amex the following season when his Achilles tendon ruptured during the final match of the campaign, a 1-1 draw at Notts County.

“I relished the way we played in that season,” he says. “I was brought up to play that way in the youth teams under Vic Bragg, Martin Hinshelwood and Dean Wilkins, who all wanted the game played in the right way.

“We lost our way a little after Dean left and we didn’t really have any style until Gus Poyet came to the club and revolutionised it. It was something I was enjoying until I got that injury. But if I hadn’t been injured, would I have ended up at Bournemouth?”

An infection and then a repeat of the initial injury ruled out any chance of a comeback during the 2011-12 season. He was operated on in Finland by Professor Sakari Orava, a specialist who had performed similar surgery on David Beckham before playing 45 minutes of a pre-season friendly at Lewes in July 2012. “I had two Achilles ruptures, so from game to game it was about 16 months, including our first season at the Amex in the Championship,” he recalls.

He had signed a new contract with Albion when the offer of a move to Bournemouth in League One came up. “In theory it was a step down, but for me it was important to get back playing again,” he says.

“The idea had been to go out on loan and there were four or five different options, but Bournemouth were looking to have a right go at getting promoted and when I went down to meet the manager, Paul Groves, and the chairman, I was taken by the plans they had for the club.

“Paul’s assistant, Shaun Brooks, was quite close to Dean Wilkins, and used to come and watch the Brighton youth team, so there was a connection there. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out for Paul and Shaun but that led to Eddie Howe coming back to the club.

“And of course, it was Bournemouth who got to the Premier League before Brighton, which looked a million miles away at that stage. To say it worked out well for me was an understatement.”

By Paul Hazlewood
Tommy Elphick applauds the Albion away supporters after a game with AFC Bournemouth.

It was the return of Howe from Burnley in October 2012 to replace Groves that kick-started Bournemouth’s rise up through the divisions. “Richard Hughes was back at Bournemouth, coming towards the end of a playing career that had taken him to the highest level.

“He had grown up playing with Eddie and when the rumours of him coming back from Burnley started, Richard was the one who told us all what we had to look forward to and how good it would be.

“And Eddie didn’t disappoint us. The hours and effort he puts in, and the time he gives everyone, are ridiculous. He is all about making everyone and everything better, whether that is improving the training facilities or pushing an individual or the team on. His work rate is something you have to get to grips with quickly and you either follow or you don’t. And if you follow him you are in for a good ride.”

One of the more unexpected moments of that ride was the summer 2013 friendly against Real Madrid at Dean Court, leading to what seemed at the time the surreal sight of Woodingdean’s Tommy Elphick in a pre-match handshake with world superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.

He went on to form a formidable partnership with another ex-Albion man, Steve Cook, who had made the move west ten months before, initially on loan.

By Paul Hazlewood
Steve Cook in action against Albion last season.

“Cookie was always someone that I was aware of, a lad who worked hard and was always trying to better himself.  He was a year or two below me in the Albion setup, but he was always keen to go out on loan and play in men’s football. I respected what he was doing to make his way in the game.

“We’d never actually played together at any level before I went down to Bournemouth, but our relationship really took off from day one. Because we had both been schooled in the same sort of football, it was easy to create a partnership – probably the best one I’ve had.”

And Tommy did eventually get to play at the Amex, but in red and black stripes as Bournemouth drew 1-1 on New Year’s Day 2014 and won 2-0 in April 2015 during their promotion run-in. “I’d been the first player to sign a new contract to play at The Amex and although there had been some interest elsewhere, playing there was a big draw for me, so I decided to commit to it.

“We were all there when the first diggers moved in and Dick Knight took a penalty in a goal made of two JCBs but put it wide. We saw how good it was going to be. Adam [El-Abd] and I went down there a few times and did some interviews. So it wasn’t the way I envisioned it, but to have played there finally and to be unbeaten was nice.”

By then Tommy was Bournemouth captain and would lead them into the top flight at the end of the 2014-15 campaign, voted player of the season by the Cherries fans. Promotion was achieved with a 3-0 home victory over Bolton Wanderers, the image of Tommy celebrating post-match in front of the Steve Fletcher Stand at Dean Court is now part of that club’s folklore.

By REX/Shutterstock.
Elphick celebrates promotion with AFC Bournemouth.

“There was so much behind that, the long injury spell, getting back to the level I’d been at and then going up through the divisions,” Tommy says. “They say the Championship is the hardest division to get promoted from and it is, it is such a grind, and me and Cookie had played every minute together. It was the perfect end to the perfect season.”

The first season in the Premier League was more difficult and was again interrupted by injury, but the club’s second match at the top level was nearly a triumph for the boyhood Liverpool fan.

“It was our second game, against Liverpool at Anfield and it was on Monday Night Football. Brendan Rodgers was in charge of Liverpool, and people weren’t expecting much of us, but for us it was a massive game. 

“In our eyes we went 1-0 up and I scored,” he says. “It was disallowed for a foul on Dejan Lovren, but we played so well. In the end Christian Benteke scored the only goal in the last minute from a set play. He was clearly offside, so we were robbed a little bit. If things had been different I would have scored the winning goal.”

It was in June 2016 that he moved on to Villa Park, exchanging small but homely Dean Court for one of the great stadiums of the national game. “My agent knew that I had wanted to play for a really big club one day, especially after missing out on that first season at The Amex,” he says.

“I was sitting down with him talking about a possible contract extension with Bournemouth and he mentioned that Villa were interested. They had just been relegated, and that relegation had been very damaging to the club, and he said that they wanted to have a real go at going straight back up and were interested in signing me and making me captain.

“Straight away I just knew deep inside me that I wanted to go there. I had actually played in the Bournemouth side that had technically relegated them and I looked around at Villa Park and thought that a club of that size shouldn’t be going down.

“And it’s only when you are there that you fully appreciate how big it is – fans outside the gates of the training ground every day waiting to get stuff signed. Everywhere you go, there are Villa fans, everywhere in the world, and to captain that club was such an honour and a magnificent experience.

“When things aren’t going well of course, it is a challenge. It is a goldfish bowl, and every fan has an opinion.  I was the guy brought in to shake up the dressing room and set standards and lead the club back to the Premier League and it didn’t start too promisingly, so yes, it brings its own pressures. 

“But when things go well, there is nowhere better, no better experience in football than having the Holte End roaring you on. if you took me back to that talk with my agent and gave me the choice again of staying in the Premier League with Bournemouth or dropping down to the Championship to captain Villa, I would make the same choice again every time.”

By REX/Shutterstock.
Elphick in action for Aston Villa.

Albion will face a Villa side hit by injuries. “John McGinn will be a loss, and Wesley, the striker, but I think Tom Heaton could be the biggest miss. But they are a big, ambitious club and I think they will act to replace him.”

And of course, they have Jack Grealish, one of those players that rival fans love to hate, while secretly wishing he played for their club.  “The first day I saw Jack Grealish in training, I thought ‘Wow, this is someone special’.” Tommy says.

“Yes, he can look very confident, shall we say, but you have to have that self-belief, and arrogance almost. And he has the ability to back it up. He knows he has made mistakes but learning from them has brought him to where he is now. He has a heart of gold and he is a great family man.” 

By Paul Hazlewood
Jack Grealish in action against Albion.

Now with Huddersfield Town, he is sidelined once again with injury so had the time to visit the Amex as a TV pundit alongside Jamie Redknapp for the 2-0 victory over Bournemouth on December 28. 

“I was first invited to do it when I was out with the Achilles and we [Brighton] played Liverpool in the Cup. I was with Jamie Redknapp that day too.  I did it when I was at Bournemouth too during a spell out injured.  It is something a bit different and something I enjoy. I am a big advocate of using your time wisely if you have spells on the sidelines, looking at other parts and aspects of the game. “

The latest injury came in the Terriers’ visit to Preston in November. “It was a bit of a poor challenge,” he says diplomatically. “I ruptured my ACL and MCL. It means a year out and I’m two months into it.

“It will be another frustrating period. At Bournemouth I also dislocated my ankle during our first season in the Premier League.  I have been a victim of long-term injuries but luckily they have always led to new challenges and presented me with good opportunities.”

Every Albion fan will wish Tommy a speedy recovery, and good luck at Huddersfield. And the chance – even if with a different badge – to see him playing in blue and white stripes again.