IT was the night that may well have saved AFC Bournemouth.
But by the end of the evening, fan support had thrown the debt-ridden side a lifeline.
At the start of 1997, AFC Bournemouth’s financial problems were well known.
The Inland Revenue, owed £350,000, was petitioning for winding-up, and discussions were going on with the Football League about rescue packages. Three of the seven-member board resigned in January.
The side’s performance on the pitch had scuppered hopes of increased gate money. They had been knocked out of the FA Cup, Coca-Cola Cup and Auto Windscreens Shield.
On January 7, the Echo reported that administrators were to step in and run the club. Lloyds Bank was owed £2.1million and the club’s account was soon frozen.
The receivers were called in just before a crunch away match to Bristol City on Saturday, January 25. The players were warned they would not be paid, but held a meeting and decided to play anyway. They pulled off a 1-0 victory which might have been the club’s last game.
On Monday, January 27, the Echo’s headline was “Save our club”.
A front-page editorial began: “The Echo today throws its weight behind a bid to save AFC Bournemouth from closure on Wednesday unless you, the fans, raise £300,000.”
Inside, the paper reported that manager Mel Machin and captain Matt Holland had joined the directors in “literally begging for money to save AFC Bournemouth from oblivion”.
The club’s debts were now reported to total £4.5million. Twelve staff, including assistant manager John Williams – a member of the 1987 squad that won the old Division Three – had been made redundant.
A meeting was arranged at the Winter Gardens concert hall the next day – and acting chairman Brian Willis said the club would be finished unless a fighting fund could raise £300,000.
“We need people to turn out in force for our meeting at the Winter Gardens tomorrow night – supporters, hoteliers, shopkeepers, everyone. We need the place bulging at the seams,” he said.
Norman Hayward said: “Things are bleak. The people of Bournemouth must be clear about this, we are broke. Bristol City could well have been our last game. It’s hard to believe, I can hardly believe it myself.”
He spoke of the club’s famous FA Cup victory over Manchester United in 1984 and great names such as Ollie Norris and Ted MacDougall. “These people are legends, part of the history of the town, but very soon there could be no more AFC Bournemouth,” he said.
On the Tuesday evening, fans not only filled the 1,800 seats at the Winter Gardens but also the aisles.
An emotional Mel Machin took to the stage, to thunderous applause. “You marvellous, marvellous people,” he said.
“I am so nervous. I played in two Cup Finals. One was won, one we lost. But this is our Cup final and we need to win it.”
Recalling his playing career, he said: “Whenever I was elsewhere, Manchester City or wherever, Bournemouth was always the first result I looked for. Always. Bournemouth on the results puts Bournemouth on the map.”
Receiver Alan Lewis may have been the bravest man in the room when he took to the stage, but he received loud applause when he announced that the team would play against Blackpool that Saturday.
Fans enthusiastically threw money into buckets. Trevor Watkins – trustee with Ken Dando of the AFC Bournemouth Trust Fund – told later how £35,000 was collected, and was hidden in a car in a New Forest lane until the banks opened, with volunteers taking turns to keep watch.
Mr Watkins hoped 10,000 would fill Dean Court for the game against Blackpool that Saturday, with more locked out. In the event, the gate was 8,201.
It was almost a Cherries victory, but a goal by Mark Rawlinson was disallowed, and the full time score was 0-0.
The Echo’s Kevin Nash wrote of the frisson generated in the stadium by that near-goal. “That was when we all realised what we would be missing if this old club – debt-ridden and with a trophy cabinet covered with dust and little else – was allowed to fold.”
The financial crisis continued long after the Winter Gardens meeting, although John ‘Willo’ Williams got his job back on February 4.
On February 10, the club was defeated at home to Leeds, spelling relegation back to Division Three, with £300,000 needed by the end of the month. A few days later, the thriller writer John Grisham – said to be one of the club’s best-known fans – declined to help.
But that June, the club made history when Trevor Watkins led the successful bid to take it out of administration and turn it into Europe’s first community club.
There were plenty of rough times ahead, including another plunge into administration in 2009. But only the wildest optimist in 1997 could have imagined their struggling club reaching the Premier League.