By Tony Leighton
Eddie Howe is staking a strong early claim for the Manager of the Year award with Bournemouth's astonishing rise from the npower League 1 relegation zone to the top of the table in just 21 games since his return to Dean Court.
A Tuesday evening 2-1 win at Crewe Alexandra - a fifth successive victory for the Cherries - capped a quite superb run that has seen Howe's team lose just once and take 50 points from the 63 available.
The 35-year-old manager, who in his first spell of management led Bournemouth to promotion from League 2 before spending 21 months in the Championship with Burnley, has transformed the Cherries since his October return.
But as he reflected on climbing from the danger area to the League 1 summit so quickly, he admitted to football-league.co.uk: "That sort of rise was something I didn't envisage when I first arrived back at the club.
"But the players have shown a great mentality to their work and confidence has grown from winning games. Building momentum has been the key, and that started with getting good results in the first few matches.
"I don't think anyone's ever doubted the ability in the squad, but for whatever reason it hadn't quite clicked early in the season. But once they started to believe in themselves as a group we've gone on a roll, and we don't want it to stop."
Bournemouth's meteoric rise was temporarily stopped last month at Walsall, where defeat was suffered in the league for the first time since Howe's return. But the Cherries bounced back with their current five-match winning streak.
"The response of the players to that defeat at Walsall has been excellent," said Howe. "You want a defeat like that to serve you some good, because if you don't do the right things in response you can go on losing games.
"It re-focused minds and we got right back on track, and it's a nice feeling now to be top of the league. But there's still a long way to go in the season and the challenge for the players now is not to get overtaken.
"It's been hard working our way up the table, but the hardest thing is staying at the top. We're the big scalp in the league now, but I want the players to embrace that, to really show the confidence in themselves and to stay up there."
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