Marc Pugh: I was scraping the barrel before I joined Bournemouth
The nine years that Marc Pugh spent at Bournemouth transformed both his career and the club, catapulting them into the Premier League.
It was a remarkable run that culminated in the Cherries more than holding their own against elite opposition to finish in the top half of the table.
Back in 2010, when Pugh joined a small, unfashionable club that had just been promoted from League Two, few could have imagined the steep ascent that would follow. For the tricky midfielder, who had previously bounced around the lower divisions, it was a dream come true.
“It was absolutely incredible. It was incredible for the fans, for the club, for the players. Everyone involved really. The gaffer, Eddie Howe, and Jason Tindall, along with the coaching staff, did an absolutely phenomenal job,” Pugh says.
“They worked tirelessly, day in, day out, to be the best they could be, and they instilled that in the club, from top to bottom. It was an amazing journey and a pleasure to be a part of it. It all came through hard work, determination and the willingness to succeed.”
After coming through the ranks at Burnley, Pugh was released without making a single first-team appearance. He gained experience with Bury and Shrewsbury Town before an excellent season at Hereford United brought him to the attention of the club where he would achieve legendary status.
“I scored three goals against them – two in the home fixture at Edgar Street, and another when we played them away towards the end of the season,” Pugh says. “When I actually moved to Bournemouth, the scout said he’d been watching me for a while.
“I played two really good games at the right time. Sometimes it’s about timing in football. They took a shine to me and the rest is history.”
As well as putting in two of his best performances against Bournemouth, Pugh scored 13 goals in 40 appearances for a struggling Hereford side. Eddie Howe took note, signing him on a three-year contract, little knowing where it would eventually lead.
“I was scraping the barrel, going from club to club, until the age of 23. When you sign for Bournemouth in League One, it’s only in your wildest dreams that you can end up in the Premier League. You just have to pinch yourself sometimes.”
Pugh was one of a core of players – Steve Cook, Harry Arter, Simon Francis, Charlie Daniels and Matt Ritchie – who helped the Cherries to another two promotions. Their togetherness on and off the pitch was a major factor in the club’s success.
“It was amazing. We had great relationships and we were really close. We all lived in close proximity to each other and we’d go out for coffees. We had a really good team unity. There were no characters who tried to disrupt the feel around the place, and it was just really enjoyable.
“Everything about it just felt right. Because most of us came from the lower leagues, we wanted that success for ourselves and for our families. To create a better life. Everyone wants to play in the Premier League and test themselves against the best players in the world. That’s what we were striving towards.”
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Aside from a brief interval at Burnley, Eddie Howe was the manager throughout Bournemouth’s rise to the top. Pugh loved working with him, appreciating his honesty, work ethic and painstaking attention to detail.
“He wants what’s best for every individual. I always try to surround myself with positive people and I think he does that too.
“He did a lot of work behind the scenes, on the training ground. He wanted us to stay on the training ground to improve and develop as players. That was a big one for me. He made me the player I am today, and I have a lot to thank him for.
“One of his biggest strengths is his character. He’s very emotional, which is a good thing, because he knows what each player needs, whether it’s an arm around them or to give them a bit of a rollocking. He was really good with that.”
They formed a close bond and continue to stay in touch.
“We had an unbelievable relationship, not just on a professional level, but on a personal level as well. I knew if there was anything wrong, I could go into his office and speak to him.
“I could have an honest conversation with him. If I was out of the team, I felt quite happy to go in and ask what I needed to improve on.
“We’re really close and we still speak now. What he’s done for the football club just can’t be underestimated. He was first in the door every day, and last out. The success that the club has had is not by luck or chance, it’s through sheer determination and hard work.”
In Pugh’s third season with Bournemouth, they won promotion to the Championship and would have secured the title but for a late twist on a dramatic final day.
A missed Brentford penalty enabled Doncaster Rovers to score a 94th-minute winner on the break, sending them above the Cherries, who could only draw 0-0 with Tranmere Rovers. But even that couldn’t dampen their excitement at reaching the second tier for the first time in 23 years.
Pugh kept improving under Howe. Never blessed with speed, he was becoming sharper and more decisive in his movements. Fond of chopping one way and then the other, he had always backed himself to beat a man, and took the step up in his stride.
“With the sessions that Eddie put on, I got a lot more intelligence in my game,” he says. “The higher up you go, you need to be really intelligent on the football field.
“I needed to be more intelligent than the opposition, because they were so quick and athletic. I tried to improve my finishing and creativity in training, just to be the best version of myself.”
After an encouraging season of acclimatisation, Bournemouth were at their free-flowing best on the way to the Championship title, collecting 90 points and scoring 98 goals.
Pugh chipped in with nine, including a hat-trick in an 8-0 thrashing of Birmingham City, but the most significant came against Bolton Wanderers in the penultimate game.
Matt Ritchie’s deep cross reached Pugh, who brought the ball down and feigned to shoot with his right foot before shifting it onto his left and firing in off the far post. The crowd erupted, setting the tone for a commanding 3-0 win and the joyous scenes that followed.
“For all the hard work we put in that season, that set us on our way to get promotion. The celebrations were some of the best in my football career, that’s for sure. Everyone went out and had an amazing night because we knew we were going into the Premier League.”
Howe added a few players that summer, including Josh King, Glenn Murray and Tyrone Mings, but the Bournemouth squad remained low on Premier League experience. Of the side that started the opening game, a narrow defeat to Aston Villa, only four had ever played at that level before.
A couple of weeks later, Bournemouth secured their first win, beating West Ham 4-3 in an epic match at Upton Park. Callum Wilson claimed a hat-trick, with Pugh also on the scoresheet. At 28, it was the moment he had been working towards his whole life.
“It was an incredible game. We went 2-0 up, they brought it back to 2-2. I remember scoring to make it 3-2 and that was my first Premier League goal. Everything else was a little bit of a blur because it just goes so quickly, and you’ve just got to appreciate it while you’re doing it.”
Although Pugh was always confident that he could cope with the demands of the Premier League, there were still some testing games against high-quality opponents. One full-back in particular stands out as the toughest he faced.
“Antonio Valencia, when I played against him at Old Trafford,” says Pugh. “They had 70% possession and he was just playing like a winger. He was staying so high and it made it really difficult to mark him. He was quick, he was strong, he was good on the ball. He had everything you need in a full-back.”
By 2018, with Bournemouth starting to feel established in the Premier League, the team was evolving. Money had been spent to strengthen.
Out wide, Ryan Fraser and new arrival David Brooks were performing well, leaving Pugh in the shadows. It was hard to leave Dean Court, but he had to for the sake of his career.
“I had a really honest conversation with Eddie just before I left. It got towards November, December time and I hadn’t featured much.
“I said to him, ‘I need to get out and play some games.’ That’s when I left on loan to go to Hull City. I had an amazing four or five months there.
“It was really difficult to leave Bournemouth, but I knew I wasn’t going to play much football and I wasn’t going to get a new contract. I had an amazing send-off in front of all the fans. That was one of the best days and it will live long in the memory.”
Pugh made 312 appearances in total for Bournemouth, scoring 56 goals and contributing to the most successful period in the club’s history. They’d never played in the top division before, let alone with such fearlessness and attacking intent.
After that productive loan spell at Hull, Pugh joined Queen’s Park Rangers. Still living on the South Coast, there was a lot more travelling involved and football’s old certainties were soon stripped away by the coronavirus pandemic.
Pugh’s contract wasn’t extended because of the financial impact of games being played behind closed doors, and he is now without a club following a short stint back at Shrewsbury.
Whatever the future holds, the 33-year-old is already preparing for life after retirement, investing time in his passion for food and fitness.
“I couldn’t boil an egg eight years ago. When we got promoted to the Championship, I tried looking at ways to improve my performance. I did a nutrition course, and I learned an awful lot. It showed me foods that fuel you, foods that help recovery, superfoods, that kind of thing.
“I started cooking and I absolutely loved it. I’ve developed a real passion for it. I read endless books and listen to podcasts. I’m mad into the nutrition and fitness side of things. I consider myself a bit of a health freak now,” he laughs.
That emphasis on self-improvement served Pugh well on his rise up the divisions. Even when playing at the top level seemed like such a distant prospect, he never wavered in his belief that one day he would do it. His perseverance paid off.
“I had a lot of doubters. I had a lot of people say I wasn’t good enough, especially from a young age when I got released by Burnley and Shrewsbury.
“But I always kept believing. I always visualised that I would play in the Premier League, and test myself against the best, and I’m proud to have done that.”
By Sean Cole