Friday 24 February 2017

Arter just two wins away from dream

Bournemouth fans’ Player of the Season is on verge of completing journey from Conference South to the Premier League

Jack Pitt-Brooke

‘The destiny is in our hands, it is all down to us,’ says Ireland squad member Harry Arter
‘The destiny is in our hands, it is all down to us,’ says Ireland squad member Harry Arter

Everyone connected with Bournemouth will deal differently with today, with their own empty afternoon during which they will probably be pushed down to fourth in the Championship table. Some will go for a walk, others will follow online but Harry Arter, as ever, will confront the situation directly.

Bournemouth's best player will be at Craven Cottage, where Fulham host Middlesbrough. One point for Aitor Karanka's side will boost them above Bournemouth. If Norwich win at Rotherham then Bournemouth - who host Bolton Wanderers on Monday - will be fourth tonight. Watford hold a one point advantage over Bournemouth at the top and take on Brighton at lunchtime today.

Arter, who received his first call into Martin O'Neill's Ireland squad for the March qualifier with Poland, is a brave and assertive character but that is not why he will be at Fulham today. It is to do, instead, with loyalty and habit.

His brother-in-law and footballing hero Scott Parker plays for Fulham. Whenever Arter can go and watch him, he does. Indeed, it was on one such trip that he introduced himself to O'Neill. Today will be no different.

Except, of course, that this is the penultimate weekend in most exciting Championship season in living memory. Arter is focusing only on what he can control.

FOCUS

"There is no way of hiding that, deep down, we hope someone does slip up," he admits. "But, in a way, it's irrelevant. The position we are in, we don't have to focus on anyone."

That position - two wins away from the Premier League - is a very strong one, but it has not been an easy week. At 5.0pm last Saturday they were 2-1 up at home against Sheffield Wednesday, seconds away from a one-point lead at the top of the Championship. But Adam Smith tripped Atdhe Nuhiu, Chris Maguire scored the penalty and the game finished 2-2. Watford went top. Smith left the pitch in tears.

The Bournemouth players returned to training on Tuesday morning and Arter reports back on the session as upbeat, admitting that, had the players been in on Sunday or Monday, they might have needed lifting.

"There is still a positive atmosphere," says Arter, who, choosing his words carefully, describes himself as "excited," "anxious", "privileged", but certainly not "worried".

Arter and his tight-knit team-mates have tried to lift Smith, though, after his mistake, through affectionate mockery.

"We have tried to make a joke out of him," says Arter. "He shed a few tears and you don't really get away with that in football. He has been the brunt of a few jokes this morning. But after the game, I had a little chat with Smithy, and just made him realise it's no big deal."

The issue for the rest of the week, that long nine-day stretch between matches, is whether Bournemouth can rediscover their focus and their form. If they beat Bolton and then win at Charlton, they will be promoted. Arter says Middlesbrough and Norwich would rather be in it, and he is right.

"We have to look at the bigger picture," insists Arter. "We are still two games away from being in the Premier League. If you offered someone, at any part of the season, being two wins away from the Premier League, every team would take that. The destiny is in our hands. It is all down to us."

So what Bournemouth need, on Monday and next Saturday, is to put all of the pressure, the attention, the sense of destiny and history, out of their minds. If they play their best, expansive, attacking football twice more then they will win both games. They have not always done that in April - grinding out wins against Brighton and Reading before last weekend - and Arter accepts that the pressure has slightly impeded their natural passing game.

"Performance-wise, we haven't been as fluent, and as good, as we have been earlier in the season," Arter says. "It may be that at this part of the season, there is such a big emphasis on winning the game, that it probably takes over from just performing well. We need to focus on just performing."

It has already been a thrilling season - whatever happens this is the best year in Bournemouth's history - and through it all Arter has been excellent. He is an all-action midfielder who has just won the Bournemouth fans' player of the season.

He describes his own play as "giving an intensity to the game" and "trying to get things ticking" but he provides far more than just tempo. He has probably been the best midfielder in the Championship this year.

All of which is even more impressive given how Arter came to the club. In a sense, the story of Arter and manager Eddie Howeis the story of Bournemouth. It started in the summer of 2010. Bournemouth had just been promoted from League Two and their 32-year-old coach Howe - just 18 months into the job - was looking for players to play for him in League One.

Howe's assistant Jason Tindall had been to see 20-year-old Arter playing for Woking in the Conference South. Tindall was impressed, so Howe called Arter in for a meeting in his office at the ground which still had three sides.

"I met Eddie Howe and it was almost like a job interview," Arter remembers. "He was asking me my likes and dislikes, my philosophy on football, what I wanted to achieve in the game. I still had dreams of playing in the Premier League and I told him that. I remember him probably thinking he shared a similar ambition. I think he judged me on that one meeting."

BARGAIN

Howe liked what he saw and Arter signed. Woking wanted £30,000 but it went to a tribunal and Bournemouth paid just £4,000. It was a bargain when Arter helped to drag them out of League One and looks even better now.

It is a very long way from the Conference South, where Arter spent one year after his release by Charlton Athletic; he had been capped at Irish underage level during his time with the Addicks. "I was going to give it one season," admits Arter. "One year, I'm going to give it everything, and if doesn't work out, I would have thought about doing something else. It was a scary thought. I was having sleepless nights."

One horrible cold December night in 2009 still stands out. Woking travelled to Bath City where a crowd of 447 watched a 5-0 home win.

"The pitch was horrendous, everything about the night was horrendous." Arter was just 19. "Times like that did hit me. Bath City away, getting beat 5-0. I thought 'maybe this is it for me.'"

But Arter's family - including his brother-in-law - kept him focused and he played well enough to come to Bournemouth's attention. "Five years later, I'm quite close to my dream. I want to play in the Premier League, and I want to do everything I possibly can to achieve that." (© Independent News Service)

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