MAKING a big change with an insistence on bringing a “different identity” to a football club always carries its risks.

There are countless occasions of clubs axing a reliable manager and bringing in somebody untried at the level, chasing the dream of finding the combination of both exciting and winning football.

The phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ was thrown around plenty last summer, when Cherries took the ruthless decision to dismiss Gary O’Neil, despite his fine efforts in keeping the team in the Premier League.

Andoni Iraola, someone Cherries had been tracking for some time, became available, opting to leave Rayo Vallecano at the end of his contract.

Leeds United had been linked with the Spaniard a few months earlier, while he was understood to have had plenty of offers before opting for Cherries.

In the end, Cherries felt they had to act and bring Iraola in, the first major decision made by Bill Foley, following his big-money takeover of the club.

At the time, Foley explained: “It really wasn’t so much about Gary not doing what he was asked to do. It was more about a particular opportunity to give our football club a different identity.

“It was something we had to do for the benefit of the team. The team comes first.

“We have a philosophy – team first, people a close second and ownership and management third, way down the list.”

Eleven months on, a club-record Premier League points tally, a second highest ever finish in the pyramid and an increasingly blossoming relationship with the supporters, it is proving a shrewd business decision.

Something which became apparent very early on was how Iraola shared the philosophy of Foley, regarding ‘team first’.

Bournemouth Echo: Andoni Iraola is presented to media as Cherries' new boss

From the first press conference and throughout the season, Iraola has rarely been keen to take much credit.

Speaking earlier this month, he said: “I think this is a players’ game and it has to be like this.

“Even if I don’t play, I also consider myself much more as a player than a manager.

“It’s a game where they make the difference. In the end, we have to try and give them the right tools, put them in the correct position or try to give them some advice.

“But for me, the most important thing is the level of players you have.

“This is the way you can improve and obviously we do our job and try to improve our team.

“But for me, sometimes everything is about the managers and I don’t feel we are as important.”

Asked recently how he turned Cherries’ season around, Iraola said: “I have to be thankful, more to the players than the club, because they continued doing the same things and even improving some ideas.

“They are the ones I think more responsible for the improvement.”

That said, one key hurdle Iraola has had to overcome is the fact he was never able to bring the number two he worked with at Rayo with him to Cherries.

Inigo Perez was set to make the move with Iraola, but what initially appeared a minor complication regarding a visa turned into the 36-year-old being denied the right to join Cherries at all.

He has since gone on to become head coach at Rayo Vallecano, having initially turned down the role when Iraola left.

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That means just one man joined Cherries from Spain with Iraola in fitness coach Pablo de la Torre, as Shaun Cooper and Tommy Elphick remain as the leading support coaches to the boss.

There is no doubt Iraola would have liked to get Perez in, keeping in regular contact with him during the early months of the season. But when it became apparent he could not join on a permanent basis, Iraola, publicly at least, did not kick up a fuss and never used it as an excuse.

To matters on the pitch, and while the season turned out well, the start was certainly difficult.

Having been handed a tough run of fixtures to start the campaign, including games against Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, as well as Europa League clubs West Ham United and Brighton & Hove Albion, Cherries struggled for results.

Nine games in, they remained winless.

Bournemouth Echo: Andoni Iraola is still seeking his first win as a Premier League boss

At half-time of the eighth fixture, an abject 3-0 loss at Everton, chatter from some in the Goodison Park press room went along the lines of ‘lose the next couple, surely he has to go’.

Another factor which has shone through from Iraola is his honesty and open nature, fully acknowledging when there are problems and not trying to hide behind anything.

Often early in a season, managers would say the league table is irrelevant, or plea for more time to show there are signs of improvement.

But, speaking after losing to Everton, Iraola took the opposite approach, stating: “When you are in the relegation spots, you have to be worried. You have to improve.”

One comment from a Daily Echo reader reacting to that said: “If a manager says 'we have to be worried' he is basically asking to be sacked, sounds like he has given up.

“He has to go now while we still have plenty of time.”

The following game did nothing to improve the mood – rushes of blood to the head from Lewis Cook and Neto combining to hand Wolverhampton Wanderers a late win on O’Neil’s return to Vitality Stadium.

Pressure was building, externally at least. The club remained calm. They had made the big call to go with Iraola and they were sticking with it. But a win was much needed.

National media were lapping up Cherries’ demise, using it as fuel to insist they should not have sacked O’Neil.

Echo reporters were called up to appear on BBC TV and radio to discuss Iraola’s situation, with many thinking Foley’s (pre-planned) trip over to watch the Burnley game meant the Athletic Club legend was on the brink of the sack.

In fairness, even Iraola himself admits he was worried. Last month, reflecting on the difficult start and asked if he ever feared the sack, he said: “It was a possibility, for sure.

“But not because I felt anything (from the board). I think I was probably the most worried, because you understand how football works.

"The club in every moment were, let's say, not nervous. They were quite calm, because they understood all the circumstances.”

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Those ‘circumstances’ not only included the difficult start, but the lack of availability of many players.

Winding back to the summer, one if the key pieces of business Cherries needed to address was in the centre of midfield, to replace the outgoing Jefferson Lerma.

Iraola made it clear he felt the club needed not one, but two additions in that area.

Fiorentina’s Gaetano Castrovilli looked like he could fit the bill. But, just a few days before the season was about to begin, the Italian failed a medical.

Cherries were set to pay an initial £10.4million, but pulled the plug due to concerns over Castrovilli’s fitness. He would go on to make just four appearances all season, the first coming in April.

Cherries would eventually bring in two new central midfielders, shelling out more than £40million on Tyler Adams and Alex Scott.

But, like Castrovilli, both were injured. Hamstring problems troubling Adams, the natural Lerma replacement, proved worse than initially feared and he too only played four times.

Scott suffered two substantial lay-offs due to knee injuries, which also hampered his progress.

But, again, Iraola would not use it as an excuse.

Instead, he improvised and showed his true coaching skill. Joe Rothwell excelled in a deeper midfield role on the opening day against West Ham United, although could not sustain that form.

Philip Billing and Ryan Christie shared the central midfield berth in the coming weeks, alongside Lewis Cook after his return from injury.

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In the end, Christie emerged as the unlikely long-term candidate Cherries did not even know they had.

On the fringes for spells last season, Christie became somewhat of a backup wing option, owing to his lack of end product.

And while things have not improved in that specific area for the 29-year-old, his all-round game saw him become one of Cherries’ standout performers in 2023-24, the Scot excelling in his new role and rewarded with a new contract in November.

Another clear emergence of a player in a new role is Antoine Semenyo. Always generally seen as a central striker, backup to Dominic Solanke, he is now first choice on the right wing after a string of lethal displays.

An injury crisis at left-back then saw another unlikely hero in Dango Ouattara. Iraola threw a surprise away at Nottingham Forest in December when the right winger, who plays centre-forward for his country Burkina Faso, popped up at left-back.

There have been teething issues in certain fixtures, but the 22-year-old has proven a potential option in that role going forwards.

Speaking about the injury problems in the squad during the campaign, Iraola said: “It’s always bad news when you have important players injured.

“But it’s also a chance, for players that probably think they deserve more minutes.

“I think it’s something that happens in all the teams in the league. You have to be ready for these times.”

Having overcome various setbacks to get his team on a winning trail, Iraola was hit again with the news Richard Hughes would be leaving the club.

Just as things looked to be settling on the pitch, this big news threatened to derail it.

The technical director played a huge role in bringing Iraola to Cherries, the man who initially recommended him to Foley.

But Cherries moved quickly to try and calm the storm, announcing Hughes’s assistant Simon Francis would step into the role.

Only time will tell whether or not that works out, but it stopped a lot of speculation ahead of Hughes’s departure to Liverpool this summer.

Naturally, questions turned to if any of Cherries’ star players could follow Hughes to Merseyside.

Bournemouth Echo: Richard Hughes is set to join Liverpool

Iraola was typically relaxed about that situation.

“I think as long as they meet the requirements the club sets and the offer is good for everyone, this is football,” he said.

“Whenever the market is open, there are always chances for these things to happen, yes.”

Iraola’s calmness and level-headed attitude has permeated the whole season.

From humility at his opening press conference, to being refreshingly open and honest regarding injury and team news, he is seemingly not interested in getting involved in managerial mind games.

He even offered up his time to conduct a press conference during an international break, helping to fill the pages of the Daily Echo with no matches to report on!

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Perhaps a big part of that comes from his family life away from football. Iraola has largely kept those matters private, but has explained how his wife has no interest in football and does not generally watch or attend matches.

Instead, they spend time with their two young children, exploring the local area with visits to Swanage, Wareham, Christchurch and Moors Valley among the destinations.

Being able to seemingly separate his work and family life keeps some perspective for Iraola, who said in a recent interview he finds management less stressful than when he was a player for his beloved Athletic Club in Bilbao.

That calmness and balance will no doubt have helped during some difficult moments of the season.

Early on in his reign, Iraola suffered the heaviest defeat of his managerial career, falling to a 6-1 loss against champions Manchester City at the Etihad.

Iraola’s immediate thoughts after the game turned to the squad.

He said: “Especially you are suffering for the players, because you see the players really tired. They gave everything. The result has been too big.”

Iraola’s mood was more of sadness later in the season, with defeat to lower-league Leicester City, dumping Cherries out of the FA Cup.

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After a goalless 90 minutes, an Abdul Fatawu stoppage-time stunner sent the Foxes into the quarter-finals, with Iraola having expressed his desire to progress far in the cups, labelling the loss “a bad day”.

On two other occasions around a similar time of the season, more ‘bad days’ were prevented, by stirring second-half comebacks.

But, rather than a rousing speech or coffee cups being thrown around the dressing room, calmly reassuring the players was generally Iraola’s approach.

The standout comeback saw Cherries incredibly beat Luton Town 4-3 from 3-0 down, the boss telling his players at the break the first half had not been as bad as the scoreline suggested.

At the start of their FA Cup run, Cherries found themselves 2-0 down away at Championship Queens Park Rangers at the break. A couple of tactical tweaks, and Cherries ran out 3-2 victors.

Those tactical tweaks have also punctuated Iraola’s reign.

As previously touched on, he is not afraid to try players in new positions, spotting things other managers never have.

That was evidenced at Loftus Road, where Cherries emerged in the second half against QPR with Christie substituted on for defender Chris Mepham and Lewis Cook slotting in at centre-half, in a bid to build attacks quicker from the back.

But even when winning matches, Iraola’s substitutions have been hailed. Many managers would opt to shut up shop when protecting a lead, but Iraola very rarely goes with that approach.

Instead, he’ll make attacking or like-for-like changes, deciding fresher legs further forwards will worry the opposition more than another body in the back-line.

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It should be said Iraola has generally had better options off the bench to use than some other Cherries managers in recent years to be able to make those changes, but it has still been a bold approach and fits with his philosophy of not feeling comfortable watching his teams defending deep.

As the season’s results turned again and Cherries shot up the table, potential European qualification was mooted.

But, true to form, Iraola calmed the talk and offered some perspective.

After beating Crystal Palace at the start of April, Cherries moved up to 11th in the table, four points off the European spots.

“I think we are still really far from there, because we have top teams above us,” said Iraola.

“We have a tough schedule I would say, to finish the season.”

He was not wrong. From that point, Cherries collected just seven points from their final eight matches, albeit their performances deserved more.

They ended in 12th, 12 points off the top seven. But instead, the talk quite rightly has been about a club-record season, reaching 48 points, their highest ever tally in the top flight.

Nobody could have really seen that coming after the first nine matches.

Bournemouth Echo: Andoni Iraola received a booking at the City Ground

Iraola did break cover on a couple of occasions from his calm, measured demeanour, due to refereeing decisions.

He received four bookings throughout the course of the season and in two post-match press conferences in particular, embarked on lengthy rants about calls which cost his team.

Media had to wait about an hour for Iraola to enter the press conference room at St James’ Park after the game in February, the Cherries boss keen to try and speak with the officials first.

Cherries drew the game with Newcastle United 2-2, Matt Ritchie snatching a late equaliser.

But Iraola’s rant centred around the decision to award Newcastle a penalty, Adam Smith penalised for pulling the shirt of Fabian Schar, who was in an offside position. Although the offence started outside the box, it continued into the area and a spot-kick was awarded, which Anthony Gordon tucked away.

Iraola then referenced that same decision when Cherries were not awarded a penalty during a 2-2 home draw with Manchester United.

Bournemouth Echo: Cherries were denied a late penalty against Man Utd

He was again angered by officiating after the recent losses to Arsenal and Brentford.

The point he always comes back to is how those decisions are taking points and places away from the club.

At Newcastle, he said: “For me, it is very, very difficult to accept, because I think we deserved a little bit of respect.

“I know we are Bournemouth, we are a small club, but we deserve more respect than this.”

Many Cherries fans who have seen their team in the Premier League for a few years now wryly smiled at those comments, knowing issues such as this have long been cited as a problem for the club up against the country’s elite teams.

One decision which did go Cherries’ way was a marginal offside call against Jay Rodriguez in October, after an agonising, lengthy VAR check.

That, combined with a Philip Billing stunner, led to a 2-1 win over Burnley to get the ball rolling for Iraola and is seen as a sliding doors moment.

Bournemouth Echo: A lengthy VAR check eventually went Cherries' way

Semenyo highlighted the immediate differences he noticed when Iraola arrived.

Speaking in August, he said: “It’s a lot of running, I’d say that! But I think it’s worked really well.

“It has been tough and it’s going to take some time to adapt to it fully.

“Once we all gel properly, we’ll be good to go. It’s looking promising.”

Discussing Iraola’s progression over the season, captain Neto in March said: “I think for him it was a big change. You come to a new country, a new mentality. It is not easy.

“He is a young coach as well. When you arrive, the players have to understand your ideas.

“You need some time for this. Of course in the beginning, when the results weren’t coming, it was difficult.

“But I think he always kept believing in his ideas.

“He always tried to give the players confidence. In this game, it is about results.

“When the results start to come, we start to win games and we start to do something different which in the past games you couldn’t do, in this moment you feel you are doing great.

“You grow and grow. That is the most important thing in this game.

“From my point of view, he kept believing in his ideas, he kept sending the right message for the players and the results changed.”

Keeping hold of some of the club’s top players over the summer may be a challenge, but with Foley’s backing and Iraola as head coach, having also now penned a longer contract, excitement among the fanbase will grow over the summer with thoughts of what could be achieved next season.

During his unveiling press conference as Cherries boss in July, Iraola said when asked about joining the Premier League: “I hope I can be at the level.”

There can be no argument he most certainly is.