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They talk a lot about “the journey” at Bournemouth, which fits Steve Cook like a driving glove. He has been with the club through three divisions, playing every minute in the Premier League this season, but some roads are potholed. There was a time, sitting in a spluttering Fiat Punto, £7 in his bank account, wondering where life was taking him and who to borrow money off, when this or any destination was “a million miles away”.
There are moments, Cook said, when “to go forward again,” it is necessary to “take a step back and realise where you are”. It has applied to him — needled by self-doubt — and it has applied to Bournemouth, who are without a victory in any competition this year. Where they are is 14th in the table which, if Leicester City had not appropriated miracles, would rightly be considered a source of wonder.
At Mansfield, I was training in a Brighton kit, sometimes in goal, wondering what the hell was going on
When Cook signed from Brighton & Hove Albion in 2011, initially on loan, then for a princely fee of £150,000, Bournemouth were in Sky Bet League One, “with only three stands and crowds of less than 6,000”.
On Saturday, they clawed their way to a draw at Old Trafford, a demonstration of resilience. “It’s a huge result for us,” Cook said. Nostalgia does not win matches but their standing is historic and they will fight for it. Eddie Howe, the manager, spoke of “making history”, when Bournemouth beat Liverpool for the first time on December 4. When they drew 3-3 with Arsenal a month later, they were ninth, but allowing a three-goal advantage to slip winded them. “I think it did, more than we realised,” Cook said. “Only we can sort that out.” Upcoming home games against West Ham United and Swansea City present an opportunity.
“Only we can sort that out.” Upcoming home games against West Ham United and Swansea City present an opportunity.
Bournemouth have earned two points since January 3, but season after season, they have, in Cook’s words, “found a way of bouncing back”. They have heard the nagging voice of relegation. “We’ve had to confront it,” the centre half said. “But it would be stupid for people to think we’ll change the way we play. We’ll stick to our core beliefs.”
Those beliefs are battle-hardened. So are Cook’s. He made his debut for Brighton at 17, a substitute in a League Cup victory over Manchester City. “Wow, here we go,” he thought, “I’ve got a chance.” It was late September 2008. Three months later, he was on loan with Havant & Waterlooville in the Conference South. Spells at Eastleigh, Eastbourne Borough and Mansfield Town followed.
“I never thought I’d made it, but I went for two-and-a-half years without making a league appearance,” he said. “There were places I really didn’t want to be at. I was driving up to Mansfield at 5am on Thursday mornings, training Friday, playing Saturday. Mansfield thought I was going back to train with Brighton at the start of the week, but I was going home to Hastings, doing whatever. It was never going to work.
“I became unfit. I was driving up in the early hours and occasionally playing in goal, just because I was the young lad. Sometimes I was too tired to run around, anyway. Mansfield got kicked out of their stadium, so we were training on a five-a-side pitch. I was training in a Brighton kit, sometimes in goal, wondering what the hell was going on.”
New Year’s Day, six years ago. “Grimsby [Town] away,” Cook said. “We travelled in the morning. We lost 7-2. I was 19 and I was having one. I had bright yellow boots, [Adidas] Predators. I had an absolute shocker. The day after, we were in watching the DVD and I felt like getting up and leaving, calling it a day.”
It was not an isolated feeling. “I drove home one weekend and I had nothing,” he said. “I had £7 in my account, a quarter of a tank of petrol in the Punto. I rang my sister. ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get home’, I said. I couldn’t ask my mum and dad for money because I’d already borrowed hundreds of pounds by then. I scraped home — just — driving 55mph, lorries flashing me.
“I said to my mates, ‘This ain’t for me’. I wasn’t doing anything. My contract was up, Eastbourne Borough offered me more money than I was on at Brighton. I was on the verge of dropping out of full-time football. “The Premier League was miles away. The Football League was miles away. Playing regularly was miles away. The Premier League dream wasn’t even a dream.”
Misfortune brought fortune. “I rolled my ankle in a game, Mansfield cancelled my loan and I went back to Brighton,” Cook said. “Gus Poyet had replaced Russell Slade as manager. I got myself fit, had a couple of good training sessions and they offered me a new deal — just — to go into their under-21s. I had to take a step back and relearn the game. That was what changed my career.”
“My confidence was low last season when we were losing games. We played Everton, we were 2-0 down at half-time and I got taken off. Arguably the two goals were my fault”
Howe has the same “core beliefs” as Poyet, the unwavering commitment to football; Dean Court proved the “perfect fit” for Cook. As the Bournemouth Echo put it, he has made “an art form of defying expectations,” the “on-pitch embodiment of his manager” — he knows how to play and is steely with it — but, at 25, the road still winds. Even in the Premier League, he has had to “reset”.
“My confidence was low last season when we were losing games,” he said. “We played Everton, we were 2-0 down at half-time and I got taken off. Arguably the two goals were my fault. I got a real dressing down by the manager. I was really questioning myself as a player. I was taking things to heart too much, the mistakes and the criticism. I took it all personally.
“I’d get upset and keep it inside and then go out onto the pitch and not play the football I wanted to play. I was scared. When you bottle things up like that, it’s harmful. “There was no middle ground. I expect so much from myself in every game, every training session, that if I didn’t do well, I’d question it. It didn’t hold me back, but it stopped me making passes or taking decisions. I had a lot of things going on in my head that would bring me down.”
Fatherhood has helped — Frey, his son, is 15 months old and “every little smile takes my thoughts elsewhere” — while Howe encouraged him to seek help, to talk. “We have a life coach here,” Cook said. “I was kind of pushed towards him by the manager and at first I said no, but he’s straightened me out. “I’m a completely different person to how I was. Not everybody is happy and positive all the time and I suppose I believed the bad stuff, rather than the good.
“That’s where I was at. I’m one of the leaders of this team now, so I need to spread confidence, keep spirits high, rather than show frustration. I feel I’m a better person and a better player for it. I can deal with things and I’m enjoying the responsibility. I’m not scared of playing.”
There is only one area of his life where annoyance still infiltrates. In August, he tweeted a photograph of a smashed laptop screen. It was his own destructive handiwork. “There’s only one thing that makes me angry now and that’s Football Manager,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. It just gets to me. My anger doesn’t often come out in real football any more. Fake football, yeah.” Cook laughed at the thought.
Fearlessness must again be embraced by Bournemouth. There is a new stadium on the horizon, an indication of progress, but they, too, must reset, remember where and who they are. “There’s more pressure on us now,” Cook said. “But not a lot has changed in the dressing room. There are other players here who haven’t had a smooth ride to the Premier League and it’s not something we’re going to give up lightly. “It’s nice to be on this journey that the club is making and I want to make a lot more appearances at this level, break into the England squad. Hopefully, we can keep growing together. We’ve still got that underdog status. We’re always trying to prove a point.”
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON THE TIMES SITE