NO ONE could have anticipated that Brett Pitman’s introduction against QPR would be pivotal to the game.
On the face of it, the substitution was purely to run down the closing seconds. As it happened, the corner came in, Richard Dunne thundered a header towards goal and Pitman sprung like a jack-in-the-box to nod to safety.
Moments later, referee Jon Moss blew the final whistle. A 2-1 triumph and a seventh victory in nine Championship games. The march went on.
Pitman’s critical 23-second cameo just about summed up Cherries’ approach at Dean Court.
Nothing was too little to fight for. Even with a man advantage following Harry Arter’s dismissal, QPR always had to make one more pass, beat one more man, rise one inch higher. It made life uncomfortable and difficult. Ultimately, they couldn’t handle it.
Harry Redknapp may be one of Dean Court’s favourite sons but Eddie Howe – who Redknapp made his first signing after taking over at Portsmouth in 2002 – has fans believing in something better.
The attempt to surpass Cherries’ highest finish in the second-tier of 12th, masterminded by Redknapp in 1988-89, suddenly seems a mere sideshow to the main play.
Nottingham Forest, Brighton and Ipswich all dropped points over the weekend and now Cherries have a shot at moving within two points of the play-offs on Tuesday. Nigel Adkins’ Reading, who occupy sixth place, lie in wait.
The vast majority of the 11,307 supporters who packed out the stands will be desperate to take their seats once more, such was the optimism engendered by the result against the promotion-chasing Rs.
Howe made one change as Andrew Surman, recovered from a back complaint, replaced Eunan O’Kane in central midfield.
Following a nasty clash of heads between Yann Kermorgant and visiting skipper Clint Hill in the opening seconds, Cherries lacked their usual fluency when proceedings resumed.
Lee Camp distinguished himself with top saves in quick succession, first flying full-length to his left to tip over Jermaine Jenas’ curling effort, before palming clear of the bar from West Ham loanee Ravel Morrison.
Cautious early on, Cherries fashioned their first chance on 20 minutes when Surman, Arter and Lewis Grabban combined to set up Matt Ritchie who scuffed off-target from the edge of the box.
QPR continued to knock the ball about nicely but with little end product, handing Cherries the initiative in the latter stages of the half.
Ritchie again tried his luck from range before Grabban sprinted clear on the right and pulled back for Kermorgant, who could only slam straight into the body of former England keeper Rob Green.
Surman got nothing from referee Moss after he was clumsily shoved over in the box by Modibo Maiga and Kermorgant then released Grabban, only for the striker to skew across the face.
For all their neat play, Cherries’ opener in added time was a goal of remarkable simplicity.
Ian Harte delivered a corner just out of reach of Green and Cherries skipper Tommy Elphick clattered through several QPR shirts in rising to head home his first in the Championship.
The fist pumps of the Cherries skipper in front of the Main Stand showed what it meant, but the one-goal lead was wiped out within 15 seconds of the restart.
A long, diagonal pass from on-loan Spurs youngster Tom Carroll picked out Armand Traore racing into the area and the left winger juggled the ball superbly, before rifling past Camp from a tight angle.
Far from being knocked off-course, Cherries came back with renewed vigour. Loanee Surman led the charge as he exchanged passes with Kermorgant before testing Green with a rasping effort.
And it was Surman at the heart of the hosts’ second just short of the hour, making the most of time in midfield to pick out a wonderful aerial pass to Kermorgant on the left edge of the box.
After the Frenchman had chested down and centred, Hill made a complete mess of his attempted clearance, allowing Grabban to turn and blast into the net, surpassing the second-tier goal record of former Cherries star Luther Blissett in the process.
Arter, who had previously been exemplary in midfield, set Cherries back when he went through Junior Hoilett in stretching for a loose ball, with referee Moss straight away brandishing a red card.
Down came the rain and Redknapp went for broke, throwing on creative force Yossi Benayoun as he tried vainly to get support to former Poole Town striker Charlie Austin, brought on prior to Arter’s dismissal.
Kermorgant was sacrificed for O’Kane and it was clear that the final 20 minutes would be attack against defence. But for all their possession and pressure, QPR looked short of ideas.
The right flank was the visitors’ obsession and on one of the rare occasions that they did get in a threatening delivery, Austin nodded Danny Simpson’s header wide of the left post.
Hoilett looked more comfortable coming off the right wing and late on, he played a slick one-two with Austin before lifting over Camp’s crossbar.
Grabban might have wrapped the result up after racing clear with two minutes left, but a poor first touch saw the angle tightened and Green blocked.
Dunne, who had a wretched afternoon, was perhaps fortunate to get away with only a yellow card for cynically scything down sub Ryan Fraser in added time.
And the former Manchester City defender was at the centre of the game’s final play, only for Pitman to cast himself as the unlikely hero in heading clear his goal-bound effort.
STAR MAN - LEWIS GRABBAN
Grabban has become well-known as a workhorse, but he took endeavour to new levels against QPR.
The former Rotherham man made the Duracell Bunny look a slouch with his seemingly endless desire to keep going.
That was typified by his goal, an effort he was only able to put away because he had the tenacity to go back for more, helping him to surpass Luther Blissett’s second-tier goal record of 19.
The striker retained possession well, even with limited support at times, and competed fiercely for the ball at every turn.
MATCH STATS AND MERIT MARKS
Cherries: Camp 7, Francis 7.5, Elphick 8, Cook 7.5, Harte 8, Ritchie 7.5 (Fraser, 74), Arter 7, Surman 8.5, Pugh 7 (Pitman, 90), Grabban 8.5, Kermorgant 8 (O’Kane, 70).
Unused subs: Rantie, Ward, Smith, Allsop (g/k).
Sent off: Arter.
QPR: Green, Simpson, Dunne, Hill, Assou-Ekotto, Hoilett, Jenas (Benayoun, 72), Carroll, Traore (Zamora, 80), Morrison, Maiga (Austin, 65).
Unused subs: Yun, Henry, Young, Murphy (g/k).
Booked: Morrison, Dunne.
Referee: Jon Moss (England).
Attendance: 11,307 (including 1,428 away supporters).