‘I think I’ve found my feet this season,” says Dominic Solanke, discussing his emergence at Bournemouth, and he could not pick a more apt turn of phrase given also on the video call is a season-ticket holder who is running a marathon for every goal the striker scores this campaign. “It’s crazy. I’m not quite sure how your body is coping with all of it but good on you …”
The Championship play-offs provide another opportunity for Solanke to add to his 15-goal tally and for Andrew Hardiman to break the 400-mile mark after starting the unique challenge in aid of Cancer Research UK. His father, Paul, was given a terminal diagnosis in August and passed away two months later.
“While I’m running, I do go through spells of being emotional and having a little cry, but it’s nice to have that moment to reflect,” he says. “Dad had always wanted to see us play at Anfield, so Liverpool as the [club’s] first Premier League away game [in 2015], an evening kick-off, You’ll Never Walk Alone … I think it was written for us. I’ll always remember that moment.”
Solanke has kept defences occupied and Hardiman on his toes. The striker will lead the line at home to Brentford in the semi-final first leg on Monday aware that another goal will have ramifications beyond building Bournemouth’s hopes of joining Watford and Norwich in returning to the top tier at the first attempt – just when Hardiman thought the end was in sight.
“I can’t have any promises there, my friend,” says Solanke, laughing. “I am proud and everyone’s proud of what you’re doing and obviously me scoring is good and ‘bad’. Hopefully, I can get a few more goals and end the season on a high.”
For Solanke, it has already been a significant season. He has moved out of the shadows and proved an influential performer, be it linking play or finding the net. At Liverpool, he was powerless to oust Jürgen Klopp’s revered front three and struggled to hold down a regular place at Bournemouth after a £17m move almost two and a half years ago.
“If people in your position are on fire, there is not much you can do apart from wait for your opportunity and I’m thankful I’ve been able to play a lot this season,” he says. “I think I needed that for my career. When you’re doing well and thinking you’re going to be on the teamsheet every game if you carry on doing well, that keeps you going throughout the whole season. That definitely helps a lot mentally.”
Solanke, who joined Chelsea at the age of seven, was prolific at youth level for club and country, the top scorer as England won the European Under-17 Championship in 2014 and central to Under-20 World Cup glory three years later. He played for the under-21s alongside Phil Foden and Mason Mount, both of whom are set for starring roles with Gareth Southgate’s side at the delayed Euro 2020 tournament.
“That’s what we were all pushing for throughout the youth ranks and to see there is that pathway into the senior team is what we all want to see. Whoever goes this summer, it will be really good for them and everyone else will be pushing, too. I’ll be rooting for them.”
Foden has enjoyed a magical season. “You can see his confidence on the pitch is crazy. Everybody could always see he was going to be a great player and now he is doing it on the biggest stage. The way he just glides past people, it looks like he’s just having fun. I think that’s when you’re probably at your best, when you’re just enjoying it and playing with a smile on your face.”
The Bournemouth head coach, Jonathan Woodgate, recently presented Hardiman with a signed Solanke shirt, and supporters of Aldershot and Newcastle are among those who have contributed to his challenge. The former Bournemouth goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale has pledged £500. Solanke, too, has donated £500. “I just thought my friends and family would donate,” says Hardiman, 28. “Every goal is always a good thing, no matter how it goes in. There is the initial joy and then I do have a few seconds where I think: ‘I’m actually going to have to do this again tomorrow’ as reality sets in.”
Woodgate has labelled Brentford, who finished third in the table, as favourites and Solanke knows a tough test awaits after losing both league games to them this season. “Over the last few seasons, they’ve maintained the top few spots without managing to quite make that transition into the Premier League. But we have a really good squad as well and recently we went on a seven-game winning run. If we’re at it, we can definitely progress. If you win your games, you get the ultimate prize. We’ll definitely be going all in.”
Hardiman is on to his third pair of trainers and his final marathon route, for now, is scheduled next month via Poole Town and Wimborne Town before finishing up at Kings Park, opposite Bournemouth’s stadium. “You’ve not scored too many in a big cluster, where you’ve had me running every week for a long period,” he says. “I think the most I’ve done is three in a week.” But a glut could be on the horizon? “Let’s hope so,” Solanke says, smiling. Hardiman replies: “If there’s ever a good time to have a cluster, this is it …”