Bournemouth owner Bill Foley’s decision to part ways with season-saving hero Gary O’Neil has been met with confusion throughout the football world. O’Neil led his Bournemouth side to another season of Premier League football following a largely embarrassing period under Scott Parker at the start of the 2022/2023 campaign. Parker’s comical outburst after the 9-0 hammering at Anfield back in September resulted in the Englishman extraordinarily accusing his side of being below the standards required in the Premier League staring straight through the lens of Sky cameras – seemingly aiming the rant at former club owner Maxim Demin.
Parker was then giving his marching orders almost immediately, and his assistant O’Neil stepped up to take the reins on a temporary basis. With talk of the club being up for sale and Demin wanting to sell as soon as possible, O’Neil was eventually given the job on a permanent basis following an impressive run of form domestically. On 13th December 2022, the club was purchased by Black Knight Football Club, a partnership led by American businessman Bill Foley and Canna Holdings. The minority ownership group is led by Hollywood actor Michael B. Jordan and Kosmos founder Nullah Sarker.
Fast forward to April of this year, O’Neil’s side had secured another season in the Premier League with weeks to spare. Some even suggested O’Neil should have been nominated for the Manager of the Season award following an impressive first campaign in charge. Yet, just weeks later in mid-June, the club announced that O’Neil had been relieved of his duties, with Rayo Vallecano Head Coach Andoni Iraola rumoured as his replacement.
The Spaniard was then announced as Bournemouth’s new manager after the expiry of this contract at the La Liga side, having decided against signing a renewal. It is fair to say that the reaction amongst the Bournemouth faithful was surprisingly mixed, with some even suggesting that the club’s end to the season could have been a key factor in O’Neil’s demise.
Ultimately, O’Neil had never managed before, which is often met with reservations from fanbases after their club appoints a rookie manager. It often doesn’t make sense to give the tools to someone with little to no experience at such a crucial time in a club’s trajectory – like attempting to stay in the most competitive league in European football.
As the 2022/2023 season drew to an emphatic close, it was widely reported that Bournemouth held a concrete interest in the likes of Graham Potter and Brendan Rodgers, despite both having lost their jobs just months before. With both seemingly unavailable, Foley and co pivoted to Iraola. According to Foley during an exclusive interview with talkSport, an exciting brand of football and progressive ideas were factors behind the thinking of replacing O’Neil with Iraola. Despite these claims, the reasoning behind O’Neil’s sacking might simply be due to the idea of a cash-rich owner with bold ideas wanting to make an impact on his new asset.
The dismissal of a fan favorite, someone who was plastered with praise just days before his sacking seemed incomprehensible. The rationale behind the decision to remove such a valuable member of the AFC Bournemouth community now looks to make more sense, however, as the widespread media have woken up to the achievements of Iraola since the announcement. The transition from O’Neil to the Spaniard looks like it could begin with adversity, as Iraola’s side start the new campaign with trips to Liverpool, Brighton and Brentford which also includes home visits of Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham United.
Since O’Neil’s departure, Foley has put his hand in his pocket once again and signed former Roma forward Justin Kluivert. The American businessman spent £56m in January to improve the club’s chances of safety, eventually finishing fifteenth despite losing their final four games after confirming their Premier League status for another season.
With serious investment mooted once again this summer even beyond the Dutchman, Foley has planted the seeds for another solid push at Premier League survival. However, the sacking of O’Neil suggests that the owners are preparing for something different – perhaps even a charge at the top ten, putting themselves in the conversation for a European place.
That might however be wishful thinking at this point. The Bournemouth squad is still, on paper at least, of a lot less quality than those around them. With the likelihood of newcomers Luton and Sheffield United splashing the cash throughout the summer, Iraola’s side will have a battle on their hands to maintain their status amongst the elite.
As for those above them, European Conference League winners West Ham will be looking to reinvest the money from the sale of club captain Declan Rice and those even higher up the table such as Aston Villa and Brighton will only improve after successful campaigns the last time out.
The trickiest component which Iraola will have to manage is implementing his philosophy in a completely different environment. Despite being grateful to Gary O’Neil for stepping up and steadying the ship through an extremely turbulent period of the previous campaign, Bill Foley always felt as if a new and more nuanced strategy was preferable.
Iraola is a forward-thinking, progressive coach with the ambition to have his team play in a way that exhibits confidence on the ball. O’Neil on the other hand, understandably set his team up with reservations. Besides the sensational start at Arsenal back in March and the last-gasp winner at Spurs later in the season, O’Neil’s style of play seemed to have been part of the reason why he lost his job.
Many Bournemouth fans, often indulged in sentiment, reacted in such a way to the departure of O’Neil without considering the next steps of what the project might look like under the new ownership. Foley’s vehicle of AFC Bournemouth looks to be an asset that may make him, and his fellow investors a king’s ransom should the team stay in the Premier League over the next few years, and Iraola’s responsibility is to make that happen whilst deploying a style of football which keeps all stakeholders happy, including the fans.
Iraola is not a name many would have heard of prior to the announcement of O’Neil’s departure from the south coast. The Spaniard does however possess an impressive record of lifting Rayo Vallecano from the depths of the second tier of Spanish football to mid-table in La Liga. The unfair distribution of the finances in Spanish football shows that Iraola’s achievement was by no means a fluke or fortuitous in any way, shape, or form. His impressive and progressive management style will soon capture the hearts of fans in little to no time – especially once the transfer window slams shut in August.
There is of course a rather decisive silver lining that has eluded many following Gary O’Neil’s dismissal. Many former players who have performed at a high level in the Premier League are often labelled as potential future managers, but many fail to make the cut due to a variety of reasons, such as incompetence or a lack of confidence. The former West Ham midfielder will take many things from these experiences, but none more valuable than the fact that he will almost certainly be given the opportunity to manage again in the top flight of English football.
Previous incarnations of individuals such as Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Gary Neville in managerial roles have tainted their respective legacies outside of their playing careers. Lampard, who is seen as a national treasure amongst both Chelsea and the most passionate of England supporters, has struggled in the Premier League despite being gifted two opportunities at Chelsea with an embarrassment of riches in this playing staff at his disposal as well as a poor showing at Everton.
Some may say his downfall the second time around at Stamford Bridge was a dead rubber due to the dreadful period under his predecessor Graham Potter. Gerrard’s journey is similar – another nationwide-loved former player who failed after being given an opportunity to prove his worth in the spotlight. O’Neil may still suffer a similar fate, as he won’t struggle to find a job following such an impressive debut season in management.
Despite the ambivalent mood amongst the Bournemouth faithful, Bill Foley’s decision to remove the seemingly dejected Gary O’Neil will take time to heal for most. The story of a humble assistant coach being given the keys to a car with a broken engine and dragging them from adversity will always prevail as something which embodies the very nature of the love for one of their own, but Iraola’s reputation for such a thrilling style of play and his track record of improving players will always supersede sentiment.
By: Tom Norton / @tomnorton_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / David Horton – CameraSport