LONDON (Reuters) - According to a Southampton fanzine there is only one local rival worth getting steamed up about. It plays in blue, smells of fish and is 20 miles to the east, it says, referring to Portsmouth.
So when ‘little’ Bournemouth were promoted to the top flight for the first time in 2015, the humble club from beyond the New Forest were greeted warmly by Southampton fans.
In the absence of lower league Portsmouth, the Cherries offered some added local interest for a couple of seasons before probably returning to the backwaters of the English game.
Under the watchful eye of Eddie Howe, a bright young coach, Bournemouth have proved far more than an opportunity for three points and an awayday walk along the Victorian resort’s sandy beaches.
So much so that when they host Southampton on Sunday in the fifth league meeting between the clubs in nearly 60 years, all that separates them in the Premier League is goal difference, with Southampton ninth and Bournemouth 10th.
Bournemouth enter the south coast derby on the back of a 1-0 victory over champions Leicester City which, for 24 hours, took them up to eighth, the club’s highest ever league position.
It is a far cry from the days, not long ago, when Southampton used to help their neighbours in distress by loaning out players to a club on the brink of extinction.
No wonder Saints supporters may soon lose their soft spot for a club making an unlikely pitch to rule the south coast.
“Most Saints fans wish Bournemouth well, there is still a cheer when its announced at St Mary’s they are leading at halftime or have won a game,” said The Ugly Inside website.
“However, that cheer is getting lower in volume each year as Cherries fans look to stir up a hatred where none exists.”
Last season’s league clashes resulted in a 2-0 win apiece. Bournemouth fans chanted ‘Scummers’ at Southampton supporters, the insult generally aimed at them by Portsmouth.
“There’s only one south coast derby,” Saints fans sang dismissively in reply, adding, “You’ll never play here again” for good measure.
As it turned out Bournemouth, whose home crowds at Dean Court (now the Vitality Stadium) averaged 11,000 last season, finished five points above the relegation zone.
They still began this season as strong contenders for the drop while Southampton, shaken by the departure of manager Ronald Koeman to Everton, set out to build on last term’s sixth-placed finish which sent them into the Europa League.
One point from their opening three games suggested second season syndrome would afflict Bournemouth. Since then they have thrived with striker Callum Wilson hitting five goals and Harry Arter inspirational in midfield.
England midfielder Jack Wilshere, surprisingly loaned out by Arsenal, and winger Jordan Ibe, a record 15 million pounds ($18.60 million) signing from Liverpool, have added quality to the mix.
A pulsating 4-3 win over Liverpool this month, having trailed 3-1, was their best day since promotion and despite a reverse straight after at Burnley, a 1-0 win over Leicester showed their comfortable mid-table position is deserved.
There is even talk of a challenge for a Europa League spot -- something Howe has not exactly dismissed as nonsense.
“I‘m not going to say Europe, I‘m going to say I want to make the team better. I believe that is possible. So what that leads to, who knows?” he said.
“We’re building nicely. I‘m always looking for more and to achieve the next goal -- that is to try to beat Southampton.”
While Howe is flavour of the month, the jury is out on Southampton’s new coach Claude Puel.
They have conceded less than a goal a game but have managed only 14 at the other end, joint second lowest in the league.
With leading scorer Charlie Austin ruled out too, Bournemouth will see Sunday as a chance to finally get under the skin of their more illustrious rivals.
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Editing by Tony Jimenez