WHEN Ian Cox netted to seal an emotive 1-0 win at Bristol City in 1997, a return to the second flight was the furthest thing from the minds of Cherries supporters.

While Cox’s effort may have earned Mel Machin’s team an unlikely victory, the very future of the Dorset club was the only talking point on the terraces at Ashton Gate.

Fears it could have been the last game in Cherries’ history had been triggered on the eve of the contest by the unexpected arrival of the receivers at Dean Court.

Cherries’ financial problems had finally caught up with them and Cox was subsequently appointed captain after the £800,000 sale of Matt Holland had helped ease the burden in the summer.

Spotted by Machin playing for Crystal Palace reserves and converted from midfield to defence, Cox was crowned supporters’ player of the year during his first full season with Cherries.

Now a teacher in Kent, Cox, 42, told the Daily Echo: “Those were the best four years of my footballing life and I could never have dreamed of what happened.

“It was a wonderful experience and it made me as a human being, a person and as a man. I learned a lot of harsh lessons and a lot of good ones as well. I will forever be in debt to Mel for giving me the opportunity.

“The Bristol City game was the first of some dark days for the club. I am so glad it has transformed itself and is now in the Championship. It is testament to the management and to the people of Bournemouth who have supported it through thick and thin.”

A relatively late developer, Cox joined Cherries just days after his 25th birthday in March 1996, scoring his first goal during a 1-1 draw at Blackpool where he played alongside new loan signing Rio Ferdinand.

He went on to strike up one of the best central defensive partnerships in the club’s recent history with Eddie Howe, who was just 19 when they were paired together for the first time early in 1997-98.

“He was a fantastic kid,” recalled Cox. “He was always willing to learn and I learned so much from him even though he was still a young man. We had some great experiences, including Wembley. He was destined to go on to do very well as a player and it was unfortunate his career was cut short by injury.

“At the time, I didn’t think he may one day go into manage ment. He is very intelligent but you never know what people are going to do when they finish playing. You knew he would do well in whatever he did.

“He has done an amazing job at Bournemouth and has transformed their fortunes. They were languishing near the bottom of the table when he came back from Burnley and he saved them.

“When you go up a division, you want to sustain your position in the first season and then look to push on. It is a big jump from League One to the Championship but Eddie has made them a team to be reckoned with.

“I have seen highlights from a few of their games and they seem to be a fearless team. Eddie didn’t fear anyone as a player. He always did his job and was always up for a battle. He has done his homework and educated himself in management. He has done his apprenticeship and is now an experienced young manager.”

Cox, who represented Trinidad & Tobago at the 2006 World Cup finals, left Cherries in a £500,000 move to Burnley and made his second appearance for the Clarets just days later when they won 1-0 at Dean Court in February 2000, their last visit to the venue.

“I had two great years at Burnley,” said Cox, who won promotion to the second flight with the Clarets in 2000. “The only disappointment was missing out on the play-offs two years running. They have done really well this season and just need to hang on in there.

“I could not have asked for any more than to have the Burnley experience straight after the Bournemouth one.”