Plucked from obscurity to ultimate high at Wembley

Before Eddie Howe had his dream, on minus 17, as the chant that echoes around Dean Court every other Saturday goes, Bournemouth encountered a pretty nomadic, almost insignificant existence as a club that perpetually wallowed around the third and fourth tiers.

Granted there were occasional good times such as the famous FA Cup run of 1956-57 when the side, under Freddie Cox, reached the last eight before losing to Manchester United. There was also the Harry Redknapp tenure as he cut his managerial teeth on his South Coast with Bournemouth and delivered another modicum of success.

Sadly, the prosperity under Cox, Redknapp, even John Bond in the early 70s, didn’t last and prior to Howe’s tenure, the generational highlights had been a superb Play-Off Final win over Lincoln in Cardiff and the Cherries’ only ever trip to Wembley in 1998.

Despite Bournemouth’s match under the glare of the famous Twin Towers resulting in a 2-1 loss to Grimsby in the Auto Windscreens Shield Final, John Bailey carved his name into Dean Court folklore with the opening goal and even now, despite all the club has achieved in recent times, he remains the only player to net at English football’s spiritual home in a red and black shirt.

Bailey was late into the game at 25 when he was plucked from non-league Enfield by then Bournemouth boss Mel Machin in 1995, although just five years later, a serious back injury meant his career was over.

Now aged 50, Bailey is still involved in football on a local level helping out at Hampshire side Brockenhurst. His son Toby is the Badgers’ under-18s captain and prior to their 8-2 FA Youth Cup defeat in Cornwall against Helston Athletic – who are managed by another former Bournemouth great in Steve Massey – on Monday, Bailey spoke exclusively to The Independent about his time at Dean Court and in the first instance, just how his move into the professional ranks came about.

“I got a call from Mel Machin at the end of the 1994-95 season and I thought it was a friend of mine winding me up,” he began. “I was 25 and you still always dream that something would happen, but I think I had given up by then.

“At first I told Mel where to go before he pleaded with me that it was actually him. He told me to call him back on what turned out to be a Bournemouth number and asked me to come down for a chat. As fate would have it, my end of season do at Enfield was actually in Bournemouth so I left my team mates out drinking, went and spoke with Mel, agreed a deal, but the first six months was a real struggle.

“I was away from home, I had a kid and I thought I was playing really badly. I went into Mel and told him I wanted to go back to playing non-league. He told me to go back to my digs, pack my bags and travel in every day and that’s what I did.

“Very quickly, my game picked up and I was in the team every week. At the end of my first season, he just told me to continue what I was doing.”

With the dream of professional football now realised, within 18 months, Bournemouth were on financial life-support as the club had debts of in excess of £4.5 million. There were real fears that the club may fold, but for Bailey himself, he coped with the turmoil better than others due to interest in his signature from other clubs.

“I’m going to be totally honest and say that for me personally, I didn’t think it was that difficult. Yes this was at the club that had just given me my first break, but I knew I could go somewhere else if the club had folded. Millwall were interested in me, which was my local club so I was lucky in that way, but obviously, I didn’t want the club to go under. “

What it did do was really affect the players on the pitch as we were made to get involved with what was going on off the pitch and behind the scenes.”

Thankfully the club did survive under a supporter led Trust Fund and remarkably, just 12 months after a near brush with financial oblivion, they had their date at Wembley with this feat ‘every kids dream’ according to Bailey.

“The week before Wembley was brilliant and doing things like the song was just fantastic. On the day, people have said to me before that I looked so relaxed and everyone else looked nervous because I was giving it the big fist pump, but I was just grateful to have realised every kids dream of playing at Wembley.

“The goal made me who I am really and that’s how I am remembered. Lots of players have played for Bournemouth and most of them are quickly forgotten about, but I have a lot to be thankful of.”

If that moment was the ultimate high, then a number of lows – on and off the pitch – were to follow for Bailey as little more than two years after his halcyon moment, injury forced retirement and it was back to the building trade.

“I went to Lilleshall for some rehabilitation and I knew it was my last chance really. I did some tennis football sitting down and my back went again and I thought that’s that, went back to the club and we agreed a deal to terminate my contract.

“Within three days I was back working on a building site and I had gone from earning good money to £200 a week. It was difficult but what can you do? Thankfully, I knew there was something out there for me after football.”

Sadly, this setback pales into insignificance when you reflect on the personal tragedy that Bailey and his family suffered late in 2017 when his wife Emma peacefully passed away after a long battle with illness.

But even after all the obstacles he has had to overcome, Bailey still remains positive about life and his time in football generally.

“I have no regrets, I only have fond memories,” he was keen to point out. That is a view echoed by Bournemouth supporters too as despite players of far more prominence pulling on Cherries colours over the years, Bailey, for his noteworthy accomplishment, still stands head and shoulders above the rest.

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.