Bournemouth: Eddie Howe needs to produce another Premier League 'miracle'
Bournemouth's incredible story of moving from nearly dropping out of the Football League to challenging the country's elite is one of the feel-good tales of English football - but is it approaching its final chapter?
A 2-1 defeat by Sheffield United at a stormy Bramall Lane on Sunday leaves Eddie Howe's side 16th in the Premier League, two points above the relegation zone having played a game more than three of the teams below them.
They still have to play eight of the top nine but none of the bottom six and these appear desperate times for the Cherries.
But Howe is in no mood to throw in the towel.
"It's tough when you're not producing results you want but it's a challenge I relish," he said.
"The attitude and endeavour's there and the players are committed - we still have a great chance with the quality we have in the squad.
"We're desperate to retain our Premier League status. I love the division, I love everything about it, and I know how important it is for the club. The desire to achieve is 100% there."
|Bournemouth's remaining Premier League fixtures|
|29 February v Chelsea||22 February v Burnley|
|14 March v Crystal Palace||7 March v Liverpool|
|4 April v Newcastle||21 March v Wolves|
|18 April v Tottenham||11 April v Manchester United|
|25 April v Leicester||2 May v Manchester City|
|9 May v Southampton||17 May v Everton|
'An overcrowded treatment room'
Bournemouth's Vitality Stadium is the smallest top-flight stadium, holding just over 11,000 - at least 10,000 less than every other Premier League ground - yet they have still finished 16th, ninth, 12th and 14th in their four Premier League campaigns.
"This has been the toughest season for Bournemouth since winning promotion to the Premier League," said south-west sports writer Gareth Davies, who has supported the Cherries for 30 years.
"Howe would be justified to pin the blame for the struggles on an overcrowded treatment room.
"Because of that, but with survival very much in their hands, you must acknowledge that once again, Howe is conjuring up another Bournemouth miracle.
"It will be just that if he manages to keep the side up too."
Midfielder David Brooks, nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year award last season, has not played in 2019-20 because of an ankle injury, while defender Charlie Daniels has been out since August.
But it is not just them.
Defenders Nathan Ake, Steve Cook, Chris Mepham, captain Simon Francis, England midfielder Lewis Cook, £13m signing Arnaut Groeneveld and forward Joshua King have all had lengthy absences.
If Bournemouth need inspiration they should look at what happened three years ago.
At this point in 2016-17, Howe's side had 26 points from 26 games - the same record as now - before five wins, five draws and two defeats from their last 12 matches saw them claim their highest-ever league finish.
One thing he will be trying to improve in their final 12 games of the campaign is their inconsistency.
They have beaten Manchester United and won at Chelsea, but also lost five in a row in November and December and only picked up one point from six matches in a miserable run over Christmas and into the start of 2020.
"There has been some real and noticeable discontent from some quarters this season as the side have struggled," added Davies. "This has never been seen before under Eddie Howe's two tenures in charge.
"However, an equally vocal part of the Cherries' support base has been unequivocal in their backing of Howe."
'Eddie is part of the fabric of the club'
For most Bournemouth fans, the idea of questioning Howe's position at the club is simply unthinkable.
In January 2009, the debt-ridden club, hit with a 17-point penalty at the start of the season for failing to follow Football League insolvency rules after being placed into administration the previous year, were 10 points adrift in English football's fourth tier.
Howe, then 31 and with no previous managerial experience, had the task of keeping them in the league - and saving the club from extinction.
An emotional win in their last home game of 2008-09 against Grimsby kept Bournemouth in the division and started an incredible story still going strong 11 years later.
Promotion to the third tier followed, then, after a 21-month spell in charge of Burnley, Howe returned and two more promotions in three years took Bournemouth to the elite for the first time, with this season proving a rare blip.
"Any other manager at any other club would've been told to clear his desk by now as Howe's previous remarkable achievements have unquestionably bought him time," said Davies.
"Whatever the outcome of this season, he's absolutely the right man to lead the club forward, in the Championship or Premier League.
"If the unthinkable happened and Bournemouth did finish in the bottom three, Howe's recruitment policy of buying young players would stand them in good stead in the second tier."
Former Bournemouth player, coach and manager Tony Pulis feels the club has to keep faith with Howe.
"I've lived in this town since 1986 and the football club is different to other clubs," said Pulis on BBC Radio 5 Live at the end of January. "There's no way he would still be in a job elsewhere but this club knows they owe Eddie a massive favour in the way he's brought them forward and turned them around.
"Look at the stadium compared to when I played, the training ground, he's built something special and people in the town understand he's done a wonderful job.
"I've got a feeling for the football club and Eddie is part of the fabric of this football club."
Your thoughts on Eddie Howe, via #bbcfootball
Chris Bennett: Been a Bournemouth fan for 25 years, through League One and Two wilderness years. Eddie Howe is a club legend and we've been very unlucky with injuries. But I wish he wasn't so stubborn with his playing style. Sometimes winning ugly 1-0 is OK.
Julie Bell: Howe irreplaceable. Dip in form down to ridiculous injuries which impacted on an inability to field a settled team each week.
Tim Durgan: Bournemouth should look at how Burnley have prospered from sticking with Sean Dyche. Stability is important, especially when the manager has proven himself already.
Sree: I loved it when Burnley stuck with Dyche when they were relegated. That was the first step they took towards promotion, which they got at the first time of asking. Bournemouth should do the same, although Howe has enough tactical brains and the team to stay in the Premier League.
Rob Fanner: I'd support Eddie even if we went back down to -17 in League Two. But that won't happen. He's the reason why this club is where it is, he's a true leader, and has to be one of the greatest managers of our time.