EDDIE Howe hailed the “incredible” response of Steve Cook to being left out of the Cherries side in place of Simon Francis.

Cook, who has not featured in the Premier League since his sending off at Norwich City last month, was named on the bench in the top flight for the first time in more than two years last weekend for the clash with Aston Villa, having started every league match in which he was available since.

Howe opted for the same back-line which defeated Brighton 11 days earlier with Francis partnering Nathan Ake in the centre, while Adam Smith and Diego Rico lined up at full-back.

A 4-0 home loss to Liverpool in December 2017 was the previous occasion on which Cook was on the bench in the Premier League with Francis, Ake and Smith starting alongside Charlie Daniels.

Despite being left out against Villa, Cook was seen rallying the crowd and cheering on his team-mates from the sidelines of the 2-1 success and Howe was full of praise for the 28-year-old.

Asked how tough it was to leave the Hastings-born star out of the team to face Dean Smith’s men, Howe told the Daily Echo: “It was of course a big call because of the quality of players that we’re talking about.

“But we just felt the Brighton game was a good performance defensively from us and we decided to stick with that back four.

“The competition for places is something we probably haven’t had (recently).

“I think it does inspire you when you see a player of that quality waiting for his opportunity. You know you’ve got to perform well yourself.

“Steve Cook was absolutely brilliant last week in his response, just thought of the team, not himself, so incredible from him and that kind of mentality will serve us very, very well in the remaining weeks we have left of this season.”

Skipper Francis has made 16 appearances in all competitions for Cherries this season, after returning from the serious knee injury suffered in December 2018.

And he hopes his display against Villa repaid the faith shown in him by Howe.

Discussing how proud he was to have kept his spot in the side ahead of Cook, Francis told the Daily Echo: “I have a lot personal pride just to be playing in this team anyway.

“Leading the lads out as captain has always been a huge focus of mine, especially coming back from injury.

“But I think the manager made that decision just purely off beating Brighton and looking to keep the same back four.

“Cookie understands that. I’ve been in his position many a time and the manager is obviously the one who picks the team and I just had to try and show that I was grateful to the manager for picking me and I thought I did that on Saturday.”

Francis will hope to keep his spot in the side for the clash with his former club Sheffield United on Sunday (2pm).

The 34-year-old is the only available member of the Cherries squad remaining from the team’s last trip to Bramall Lane, a 5-3 League One defeat in 2012.

“I don’t remember too much about it, but it certainly was an entertaining game,” said Francis.

“Hopefully it’s not like that again on Sunday, maybe a bit tighter and we can nick something, but it will be a big game for us.

“It will be good to go back. Obviously it was a long time ago when I played there, 13, 14, 15 years ago I think. There might not be too many of the same faces there but it’s just another big game for us.

“A couple of players still there that I speak to, Billy Sharp, it will be good to see them. But ultimately it’s about business on the day and getting the result.”

Discussing Sheffield United's campaign, with the Blades sitting sixth in their first season back in the top flight, Francis added: "They’ve been excellent, almost similar to us in our first season in the Premier League, show a lot of fearlessness. A lot of teams have underestimated them, especially the big teams.

"They’ve had some really good results this season and they’ve done really well so credit to them but we know it’s going to be a tough game.

"But off the back of a couple of good wins, we’ll go up there with confidence that we can get something from there.