HOW times have changed.
Cherries’ memorable promotion from League Two under Eddie Howe in 2010 was achieved against a backdrop of financial turmoil and an ongoing transfer embargo.
As a consequence, Howe was often unable to name a full quota of substitutes with assistant Jason Tindall coming out of retirement to make up the numbers.
There was the game at Rotherham where 75-year-old kit man Mike Dowding was close to being registered at the 11th hour after Cherries had been refused permission to sign Mustapha Dumbuya on loan.
And at Shrewsbury, 16-year-old schoolboy Jayden Stockley arrived midway through the first half after answering a last-minute SOS call, with his shirt having no name or number.
Fast forward three years and the strength of Cherries’ bench could, ultimately, prove to be their trump card as they look to continue their climb through the leagues and secure a place in the second flight for only the second time in their history.
It was testament to Howe’s man-management during his first spell in charge that he could engender such a strong team spirit and work ethic. Often, players were guaranteed their places due to a dearth of bodies and competition was thin on the ground.
Fast forward three years and it is a very different story, one which has been highlighted in Cherries’ past three games.
At Walsall, a couple of indifferent showings had led to Josh McQuoid being relegated to the bench. The frontman has experienced fluctuating fortunes since his return in the summer, struggling initially under Paul Groves and then enjoying a purple patch immediately after Howe’s appointment.
McQuoid’s response to being left out against the Saddlers was to play a blinder at Hartlepool after being restored to the starting line-up. He opened the scoring and was instrumental in Cherries’ best display for many a year.
Keeping his place on merit, his excellent form continued against Crewe with McQuoid’s industry and altruism making him Cherries’ stand-out performer, even if the sponsors and text voters took the easy option when choosing their man of the match.
The recipient of both awards was Brett Pitman, another player who responded in style after recently losing his place. Dropped for the midweek trip to Hartlepool for tactical reasons, he plundered a hat-trick against the Railwaymen, his treble including two penalties.
With Crewe boasting in their 18-man squad no fewer than 11 products of their much-vaunted academy, it was perhaps ironic that two members of the Cherries youth ranks should play such decisive roles in undoing the visitors.
Another player to have flourished since recovering from a minor bout of bench sores is midfielder Eunan O’Kane. Having started Howe’s first nine games as a substitute, the Irishman has since been ever present, ensuring the January player-of-the-month award will be a foregone conclusion.
Never one to shy away from difficult decisions, the current form of all of his players will have left Howe with an intriguing selection dilemma ahead of Cherries’ trip to MK Dons. It will, however, be a far cry from three years ago when the coach driver would have probably entered the equation.
Howe made no bones about Cherries’ below-par first-half showing against Crewe, saying they had been “too slow, too laboured and taken too long on the ball”.
He admitted he had been relieved to reach the interval leading thanks to Pitman’s eighth-minute penalty, awarded – much to the chagrin of Crewe boss Steve Davis – after Marc Pugh had been fouled by Adam Dugdale.
Davis will have known a trip on Pugh by Luke Murphy just three minutes later was a much clearer penalty and will be aware that these things even themselves out, even if referee Iain Williamson appeared to bottle the second decision.
Arguably the best team to visit Dean Court this season in terms of build-up play between the two 18-yard boxes, Crewe were also one of the least potent in front of goal.
Cherries should have doubled their lead on the stroke of half-time when Lewis Grabban found the side netting after rounding Crewe goalkeeper Steve Phillips, whose opposite number Shwan Jalal could have been excused for putting up a shooting stick in the opening period.
A vastly-improved second-half display from Cherries saw them add a second through Pitman on 67 minutes, the poacher’s strike owing much to the work of McQuoid who provided the assist after Phillips could only parry Harry Arter’s low shot.
The goal came after Pitman had seen a hat-trick of chances go beg ging, two efforts ballooned wide and a third clutched by Phillips after the striker had met with a header McQuoid’s teasing cross.
Arter then proceeded to miss an open goal after Phillips had pushed a Simon Francis centre on to his forehead before Ryan Colclough poked home from close range to threaten a comeback.
However, any designs on upsetting the applecart were firmly put to bed when Pitman netted a second penalty, with Crewe boss Davis again claiming Abdul Osman had been wrongly judged to have felled Wes Fogden.
Match facts and Echo merit marks
Cherries: Jalal 7, Francis 7, Cook 8, Elphick 7.5, Seaborne 7.5, McQuoid 8.5 (Fogden, 80), Arter 7, O’Kane 7, Pugh 7.5, Pitman 7.5 (Hughes, 83), Grabban 8 (Tubbs, 88).
Unused subs: McDermott, Partington, Fletcher, Allsop (g/k).
Crewe: Phillips, Davis, Dugdale, Guthrie, Mellor, Inman (Colclough, 63), Murphy, Osman, Moore, Pogba, Clayton (Leitch-Smith, 63).
Unused subs: Ellis, Turton, Ray, West, Garratt (g/k).
Referee: Iain Williamson (Thatcham).
Echo star man - Josh McQuoid
Buoyed by his impressive display during the midweek win at Hartlepool, McQuoid followed up with another performance full of energy and endeavour.
Operating on the right wing, McQuoid supplied a number of probing crosses and was a constant threat as Cherries asserted during the second half.
He was also mindful of his defensive duties as Crewe enjoyed the better of the first half, with Tommy Elphick and Steve Cook both starring at the back for Cherries.
McQuoid’s tenacity led to him teeing up Brett Pitman for Cherries’ second goal, his efforts capping his best display since he returned to the club in the summer.