The biggest drawback of being a football writer is that you are often unable to report on the team you support.
Pat Symes ran the Hampshire-based M & Y News Agency for 40 years, covering mainly Southampton and Portsmouth, and his byline has appeared in every national newspaper above reports of Saints and Pompey home games. He even wrote a book on the rivalry between the two.
But his heart always lay miles to the west at Dean Court, the home of Saturday’s opponents, AFC Bournemouth.
Ironically, now that he has more or less retired, Bournemouth are the highest-placed of the three clubs and are often the biggest story thanks to their revival under Eddie Howe.
“Extraordinary, isn’t it?” he says. “Until 1990 I’d never covered a Bournemouth game, just Portsmouth, Southampton and a little bit of Reading and Swindon. And then at the turn of the century we started to cover them quite a bit.
“I suddenly had the curious feeling, which you will know, of trying to be impartial while one part of you desperately wants your team to sneak a goal. But most of my professional career was spent not covering Bournemouth.
“Oddly enough, now that I’m mainly going as a supporter I find it difficult to just be a fan. Fans around you hurl abuse at the referee for giving a free kick and you’re thinking: ‘Yes, that was a foul.’ They don’t see the same game. And I’m out of the habit of leaping to my feet when a goal goes in.”
His support for the Cherries, though, is genuine and deep-rooted. “My first Bournemouth game was almost exactly 60 years ago as an eight-year-old. I stood on what was known as the Brighton Beach End at the old Dean Court, now long demolished.
“It was the days of rivalries between seaside resorts rather than football clubs, and the original end was just made of shingle. At that age I neither knew or cared why it was called that, but it was Bournemouth in the 1920s sneering at Brighton’s failure to match our sandy beach!
“The game itself was a 3-3 draw against Swindon. I’ve been following Bournemouth through thin and thin ever since and we seem to have played Swindon an awful lot until recently. The club was a founder member of the third division in 1923 and we didn’t get out of it until 1970 and then it was at the wrong end.
“That changed a lot of things because in came John Bond as manager. He was a big fan of AC Milan and their methods so he changed the kit from red and white to Milan-style red and black stripes and the name from Bournemouth and Boscombe Athletic – which was the longest name in the Football League, and up to that point their only claim to fame – to the more continental-style AFC Bournemouth.
“There was also a new club crest, still in use today, based on a picture in the Bournemouth Echo of a player called Dickie Dowsett, who played a bit for Tottenham and a few lower-division clubs, heading the ball. So Dickie Dowsett’s head appears on Match of the Day.”
Bond’s Bournemouth briefly became Albion’s rivals as the clubs battled for promotion to the old second division behind Aston Villa in 1971-72.
“Bond made the best of Ted MacDougall, who had been a lower-league journeyman but had the knack of scoring goals, and partnered him with Phil Boyer from York City.
“They got out of the fourth division at the first attempt and finished one place short of going straight up in 1972, pipped to second place by Brighton. I remember a 2-0 defeat at Brighton in front of a packed Goldstone on Boxing Day 1971, the late Kit Napier and John Templeman scoring.
“But after failing to go up they ran out of money and time and Bond left for Norwich, taking half the team with him, and they slid into difficult times and hit financial problems.”
Enter Harry Redknapp, who Pat would later deal with professionally at both Portsmouth and Southampton, in his first managerial role.
“Harry became manager almost by default,” Pat recalls. “He had played for the club and come back as a coach under David Webb, who fell out with the chairman, and Don Megson, who didn’t last long. Harry was offered the job because he was there.
“They had an extraordinary FA Cup win over Manchester United in 1984 and then won promotion in 1987. Harry had bought Colin Clarke from Tranmere for £22,500 and he scored 26 goals in one season and went to Southampton for £450,000.
“Harry used the money to build the team that went up, including Trevor Aylott up front, Gerry Peyton in goal, and certain Tony Pulis from Newport County. John Williams came from Port Vale, a dominant old-school centre-half who still works for Radio Solent.
“But it was a big step up. They had never been there before. They had three years at the higher level but couldn’t sustain it. Harry Redknapp was nearly killed in a car crash in Italy in 1990 and Brian Tiler, the managing director, died.
“Harry had a go at getting them back up but resigned in 1992. He said there was no other club involved but very soon he became West Ham assistant manager.”
Bournemouth hit financial trouble, facing a winding-up order in 1997 until saved by lawyer Trevor Watkins. “He was a lawyer who knew about administration and winding-up orders but you would speak to him and two minutes later wonder: ‘What on earth has he just said?’ But there was a story, and as a reporter you are hoping that the crisis continues so that you can write about it and as a supporter you’re hoping it will be resolved.”
But it did not last. Another financial crisis saw manager Jimmy Quinn fired. Youth coach and former player Eddie Howe, just 33, was telephoned at a New Year’s Eve party and asked to take over.
“He couldn’t hear what was being said down the phone because of the noise at first. But things began to change almost immediately.”
As most know, Howe took the club up to the Premier League, where they have managed to stay with some comfort. “ He didn’t speak in clichés, or at least not the ones you normally hear in football,” Pat recalls.
“He is very determined, almost one-track-minded. He has a young family but otherwise is almost obsessed with football. He gets in at 7am and starts planning training or some other business.
“I once asked him what his plans had been in case he didn’t make the grade as an apprentice at Bournemouth and he said: ‘I never thought of anything else.’ It’s very odd for someone at a third division club where the prospects are never that good.
“I worked on a book, ‘AFC Bournemouth: the match of my life’ and he is in it and he said he wouldn’t have taken himself on as an apprentice if he was manager. But he was determined enough to make himself a player anyway. He injured his knee but worked so hard that he could jump for headers using just his other knee.
“That shows the intensity, and he is intense. Those blue eyes look right through you, and you listen to what he says. You don’t get bland answers.
“And he thinks ahead. He gave a debut to Kyle Taylor against Brighton in the FA Cup after signing him as an 11-year-old. Howe says he identified his talent even then. One of the few rash moves he has ever made was signing Glenn Murray, who wasn’t a Bournemouth-style player at all.”
Howe’s foresight is not just evident in team matters. “One of Howe’s concerns is leaving a legacy from being in the Premier League and they are finally building a training ground in Canford Magna, the other side of Poole.
“The stadium is still small, but attendances no longer matter. They have just announced a £135m turnover, which is just colossal by their standards, a £10m loss because of buying the land for the training ground and money they owed the Football league for breaking Financial Fair Play rules when they were promoted.”
Bournemouth’s form has hit a blip in advance of their visit to the Amex, but Pat is sure that will only mean that Howe will redouble his attempts to get a result.
“He talks about a clear philosophy in the way they play, which they have not shown in the past two games, at Leicester and at home to Burnley. But he has transformed some of his players like Callum Wilson and Ryan Fraser.
“He brought Fraser down from Aberdeen for £400,000 at 19 and he’s probably Scotland’s best player at the moment. That is all down to Howe. They all owe Howe a performance.”
AFC Bournemouth Match Of My Life by Alex Crook and Pat Symes (Pitch Publishing)