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Bournemouth's success under Eddie Howe through the eyes of his top players

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Defoe: Pescatarian diet can help prolong my career (1:45)

Jermain Defoe discussed how he has tried vegan and pescatarian diets to try help maximize his performances and try to extend playing career in the Premier League with AFC Bournemouth. (1:45)

When Steve Cook and Charlie Daniels finished a post-training gym session this week, they wandered up a small flight of stairs to get some lunch at the Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth's modest but modern home. When they both first arrived, about a month apart in the winter of 2011, that journey would have taken about half an hour.

Back then, the team would train at Canford School, about nine miles north of the city, and then have to drive back to the ground (then simply known as Dean Court) for meals or any other club business. It was not the most professional of set-ups.

Eddie Howe's side has come a long way since then. The truly remarkable thing about their rise is not necessarily just their rapid ascension through the divisions to their current position just outside the European places, more that they've done all that with the same group of core players.

Daniels and Cook, who sat down with ESPN FC for an exclusive interview, are still regulars to the tune of over 500 Bournemouth appearances between them. They are also two of five players still on Bournemouth's books that played for the club in League One -- the others being captain Simon Francis and Marc Pugh, while Harry Arter is on loan at Cardiff. Furthermore, 11 of the current first-team squad played for Bournemouth in the Football League at some stage.

"The manager puts a lot of trust in the players he knows," says Daniels. "But we have to put in a lot of work to stay in the team -- we have to work harder than the new people who come in to keep our place. It takes them two or three weeks to get used the intensity of how we train and the way we go about things."

"Some don't," interjects Cook. "And that's probably why they've left the club," adds Daniels.

This is central to the Cherries' success, a sense that nobody is allowed to rest and admire all they've achieved.

"Preseason this year was the hardest we've had -- not physically, but mentally," says Cook. "That's how we've improved this year. We're all fit lads anyway, but we're mentally stronger."

Part of that is a deep knowledge of how the whole team works.

"You can take our game further by knowing your roles and other players' roles," says Cook. "We like to think we've got a fluid team, so if you can learn other roles, that's going to help the team.

"In training sessions we're put in a team, and you have to work out what the other team are doing. Or if you're a player down, how are you going to manage that."

Daniels takes up the explanation: "Say, if a left winger ended up on the right wing, or No.10, he must know the role of the No.10, in and out of possession."

The way the two men talk tells you a couple of things: First, that these are players who after seven years are so familiar that they basically finish each other's sentences; and secondly, that these are Howe disciples, completely in tune with their manager and what he wants.

And it's no wonder, since they have been intertwined so much with Bournemouth's success. When Cook and Daniels arrived (both initially on loan) the side was treading water in the lower reaches of League One. The previous season's team, which had lost in the playoffs, had broken up, Howe was in the middle of his brief, 19-month "sabbatical" at Burnley and the club -- only a couple of years removed from administration and the very foot of the Football League -- had an uncertain future.

But in 2012 Russian businessman Maxim Demin became the club's co-owner, Howe returned and their remarkable journey, which took them from third-tier also-rans to Premier League stalwarts, began in earnest. In seven of the subsequent eight campaigns, Bournemouth have finished in a better league position than the season before: the exception was last term, which still visibly annoys Daniels.

It's been quite an achievement for Howe to even stay in his job for this long: He's the longest-serving manager in the Premier League (17 days longer than Sean Dyche) and the third longest in the top-four English leagues.

Longevity and stability are usually regarded as a good thing, particularly in English football, but it can be a negative. Legendary Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann famously proclaimed that "the third season is fatal," estimating that was around the time when players stopped listening and the manager's voice became background noise, the buzzing of a fridge in the corner of the dressing room.

It's even more remarkable that Howe has kept the attention of his players when so many of them have been there for years. So how does he make sure the players don't stop listening?

"If you do get like that, you won't be here," says Cook. "You either listen, or you end up leaving."

Howe keeps things fresh by challenging his players more mentally than physically. This summer it was through team-bonding exercises: In one some players were stranded in a dinghy in the middle of a lake and others had to "rescue" them. In another, teams of five or six were given a series of items -- an apple, a ball, a ring, life jackets, a dinghy, rope and some tape -- and told to ferry their colleagues across a lake, with limits on how many times they could use each item.

All of these are fairly standard team-bonding exercises, but the point is they were new to the Bournemouth players. It's not just the same voice telling them over and over to do something. But Howe hasn't changed much personally.

"I don't think you can change," says Cook. "When you have a way you want to play, and that's been successful -- we've stuck with that since day one. We never second guess anything he says, because he never goes back on anything he's ever done. That consistency over the years is really paying off for us now."

All of this has made Bournemouth a model for smaller clubs with ambition. Everyone from the "Class of '92" Salford City owners to Cardiff manager Neil Warnock have cited Bournemouth as the sort of club they want to emulate.

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"It's that underdog thing," says Cook. "We were written off before we kicked a ball, and we're still here in our fourth seasons."

Daniels agrees: "I think it gives smaller clubs hope that they can emulate us, and shows that they can achieve it. When we first came here there were only 5,000 watching, but now it's a sell-out every week. It shows you can progress if you get the right structure and the right manager."

So what now? The answer from both men is an emphatic "no," when they're asked if they're satisfied.

"As soon as you settle for what you've got, you're going to end up down the spiral," says Cook. "I've still got a lot of things I want to do here."

"I feel we can push on and maintain our position where we are now, and be the 'best of the rest'" says Daniels. "We can be the top club outside that top six."

There's little reason not to believe him.