Bournemouth's Eddie Howe bucking the odds to stay in Premier League
At 7.23 p.m. on Saturday it was confirmed: AFC Bournemouth would again be a Premier League club next season.
On the runway of John Lennon Airport, the news came through that Norwich's 1-0 loss at Arsenal meant that Bournemouth could no longer drop to 18th place. No wild celebrations broke out as losing 2-1 at Everton, a third defeat in succession, had dampened the mood; manager Eddie Howe's brand of unrelenting ultra-professionalism has been infectious among players and staff.
"Together, anything is possible" was the motto tweeted out by the club's media team from the plane cabin, encapsulating a shared collective vision.
Before that, Howe, a true stickler for detail, had been dismissing any talk of safety being secured until it was mathematically certain. The agony of remaining on 41 points since April 9 had kept Howe stuck on a mantra he himself had been bored to keep having to repeat, claiming: "I've been saying all along we don't feel safe, and we are not safe."
"In hindsight, it might have been a good thing for us," Howe told ESPN FC on Friday of a winless run that has now reached six matches. "It might have highlighted one or two things we needed to address. If it needed everybody to realise how we couldn't take anything for granted then this recent spell has put things into perspective of the achievement in getting to 41 points."
By Saturday night, Howe was fully able to start planning for a future in the Premier League and though Bournemouth's first ever top-division season has been eclipsed by Leicester City's rise from relegation strugglers to runaway champions, the south coast club's story continues to be one of bucking the odds. In preseason, bookmakers had set a price of 8/11 for them to be relegated.
This being modern football, and like Leicester's ownership by Thai duty-free company King Power, serious money has been ploughed into the club by majority owner Maxim Demin, a Russian petrochemicals tycoon, who has bankrolled the club's climb through the divisions. His investment includes having to fund a £7.6 million financial fair play fine after making a £38.3m loss when winning last season's Championship title. Such an outlay has allowed a small club, its historic habitat being the lower divisions of English football, to enjoy considerable, unlikely success while never losing its roots within the local community.
"I think that if it wasn't for what Leicester are achieving, then the big story might be what Bournemouth are achieving," Bournemouth and Ireland midfielder Eunan O'Kane told ESPN FC. "I don't think too many people outside of ourselves thought we would be in the position we currently are. It's been a very pleasing year, a success all round."
Back on Sept. 26, when Bournemouth lost star striker Callum Wilson to a cruciate knee rupture -- which followed summer signings Max Gradel and Tyrone Mings suffering similar injuries -- relegation looked the most likely outcome. Seven points from six matches saw the club just three points above the bottom three and Wilson's injury was followed by a further eight matches without victory.
"I think people wrote us off and wondered how we might pick ourselves up from there," added O'Kane. "I think we have found ways to win games. Even when we do lose players, we have others ready and willing. That's testament to our squad."
A turnaround in fortunes that got others used to the idea that Bournemouth might be here to stay began in December, when Chelsea (1-0 at Stamford Bridge) and Manchester United (2-1 at Dean Court) were beaten on successive Saturdays.
"For those who thought we were there for one season and to have a good time, I think it gave everyone a shot in the arm," recalled O'Kane. "We showed we had the capability and that nobody would have it easy.
"The first few games it was hard not to get more excited than normal for a fixture like that but we have found our feet. Now we go into fixtures against the big clubs feeling no pressure, and can focus giving a performance that we can feel proud of. We respect them but we have earned the right to be there, just as much as they have."
Despite cash being invested in the likes of Wilson, Gradel and Mings, and January's spending of £7m on Lewis Grabban from Norwich and £10m on Wolves striker Benik Afobe, the core of Howe's squad remains eight first-team players who survive from the club's days back in League One.
Howe's back four against Everton -- Tommy Elphick, Charlie Daniels, Steve Cook and Simon Francis -- have been together since Bournemouth's 2012-13 promotion from the third tier. Howe himself, still just 38, has managed the club he played for as a defender in every division of the Football League before promotion to the Premier League.
"The amount of times you see teams come up and there's a whole load of changes," added O'Kane. "There's still 9, 10, 11 of us who were in League One. To be doing more than holding our own is testament to how hard we work, and to each individual's hunger."
The famous victories against Chelsea and United were followed up by the discovery of consistent form as Bournemouth pulled clear from the relegation battlers. A run of three victories in March, over Southampton, Newcastle and Swansea, took Bournemouth clear. While they suffered losses to Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, a 2-1 win at Aston Villa on April 9 lifted them to 41 points.
Survival augments the reputation of Howe, a manager who continues to be earmarked for great things in the game. His approach involves heavy emphasis on working individually with players, taking them through video footage of their own performances and those of the opponents they will come up against. That work is then thrown towards the team ethic, with buy-in required from each individual.
"I've not seen too many hairdryers come out," said O'Kane of his manager. "He tends to be calm and collected. There's never been a case of flying boots in the changing room but when he's not happy, he gets his message across. We've all learned to pick up when he is not happy."
There is definite steel within Howe, a man not given to suffering fools. "It's a pointless question really," he replied when asked after the game on Saturday at Goodison Park how different things might be had Wilson, back playing since the beginning of April, had stayed fit. He also gave short shrift to suggestions he could succeed Roberto Martinez at Everton, the team he supported from afar as a boy in Hertfordshire.
"I am absolutely committed to Bournemouth and while I have the relationship with the owner I will be staying at the club," he said, repeating rebuttals made on Friday.
The Vitality Stadium is due for redevelopment, with local residents of the leafy avenues that surround the club's home given notice of a proposal to replace the South Stand and reconfigure parking facilities. Bournemouth is a club with ambitions, but not those beyond the realms of possibility. Howe's determination to remain grounded would not allow that. He has frequently deflected attempts to compare his team's achievements to those of Leicester, themselves only promoted to the Premier League in the summer of 2014.
"We have to remember where we came from, who we are, what we represent," he said last week. The summer ahead will be spent making sure that Bournemouth learn from their loss of form. Tough decisions await, and that may include breaking up the band that took Bournemouth to this point.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.