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In Conversation With… Brian Howard

Brian Howard grew up in the spotlight. Touted as a future England star whilst still at school, he eventually came within FIFA small print of establishing himself as a full Scottish international. A journey spanning eleven professional clubs provided a variety of highlights, including multiple Wembley visits and one famous day at Anfield.

These experiences paved the way for a move behind the scenes of football. Howard is now co-founder and an agent at Momentum Sports Management, a fast growing company representing a number of up and coming football league players.

Here, on a rare evening without a fixture to attend, Brian looks back on beating the odds at Barnsley, upsetting Xabi Alonso and facing off against a certain Portuguese superstar, whilst opening up about the highs and lows experienced during a long, successful and unique career.

From your early teenage years, you were a highly touted prospect, representing the youth ranks at Southampton and England. How was life as a youngster under the spotlight?

I enjoyed it. Anyone that knew me knew I had a good family around me. I was well supported. And when I started off with England it was when Sky sports had really kicked off with youth football. Les Reed (Now Technical Director of the FA) was our coach at Southampton and he seemed to really like me and the way I spoke so would put me forward for all the press stuff. I remember going to Wembley and doing a training session with Beckham, Kevin Keegan who was manager at the time, Joe Cole who was another young prospect, Sol Campbell, to promote the game. I enjoyed all the limelight.

Then it got to the point that I left school. You go in to the full time environment with senior players and they expect you to ready for the first team straight away, and the pressure kind of hits you from day one. I remember playing at Wembley and scoring for England U16s and then, a day later, having my first day of pre-season. Everyone else had a week already under their belt. I thought I was fully fit, I’ve just played at Wembley, but realised that’s not fitness in the man’s game. I remember puking my guts up on the first day running up Hill Lane from the old Dell to Southampton Sports Centre. It was a rude awakening and the pressure really started there.

There was a lot of press about. I was in Match of the Day and Shoot magazines. Southampton hadn’t had a player in the England setup since Le Tissier and Shearer so there was a lot of pressure then, especially from within the building.

Did you follow the careers of your England youth teammates? Did everyone go on to successful careers?

Everyone went on different career paths. I went in at 14 so I was playing a year up. I’d get left out and think it was the end of the world but there were players in that team like Jermain Defoe who went on to great careers.

When I moved back to my original age group we had the likes of Jermaine Pennant, Jermaine Jenas, James Milner who have all obviously gone on and had fantastic careers.

And at club level, unlike nowadays perhaps, Southampton seemed reluctant to give youth a chance in the early 00s. Did you leave with any regrets?

Yeah I think so. I think one of my regrets as a young player is that I was always quite stubborn. I wanted everything to happen ‘right now.’ Looking back, I maybe wasn’t ready and in another year I might have been.

I left the year that Southampton finished 8th in the Premier League and made the FA Cup final. Chris Baird, who was a year older than me, got his chance in Cardiff in the final and did great. I was looking for my chance and had a meeting with the manager [Gordon Strachan] who said ‘I don’t think you’re ready but in another year you might be. There’s another year’s contract for you but we won’t stand in your way if you want to go.’ When you hear those words you start to worry.

I think nowadays, young players with an England youth career probably sign new deals until they are 22 or 23. Look at the team now with Matt Targett, Jake Hesketh, Jack Stephens. We think of them as young players but they are all around 24 years old [23, 22, 25 respectively]. Players don’t break in to the first team until 22,23,24 whereas I was knocking on the door at 19, 20. If you weren’t in the team by 20 then you felt you had to go and play elsewhere.

So I decided to go elsewhere. Chelsea were lacking in money and wanted young English players, so I went there for a little bit. Then Roman Abramovich took over and everyone knows what happened with Chelsea from there, so I had to look at the lower leagues and try to forge myself a career.

A successful stint at Swindon led to a move to Barnsley. Before long you were captaining the side and enjoying hero status. How do you remember this stage of your career?

I was fond of every club I ever played for. I had good and bad times at all of them. Swindon I really enjoyed myself. I had my league debut there. I recently did some press work for them and said then I’ll always be thankful to the manager and the club for giving me my league debut. Again though Swindon were another club with money troubles so pretty much all the lads had to leave the year after making the playoffs. I did what I didn’t want to do which was move away from home, up to Barnsley, but it was a blessing in disguise. I really grew up as a person and a player.

Would it be fair to say the 2007/08 season, the FA Cup run in particular, raised your status as a player?

Yeah I think so, from 06/07 really. Everyone said I’d be better in the Championship because I was more of a footballer and I’d get more time on the ball. Then I scored goal of the season on the first day in the Championship [overhead kick vs Cardiff] and I think I got nine goals that year and people started to take notice. That was my debut season and no-one knew about me. So by the 07/08 season there was a lot of expectancy. I was getting shouts out on Sky Sports as one of the players to look out for in the Championship and I managed to fulfil it with 15 goals, obviously the FA Cup run, I got made captain and made the Championship Team of the Year. So that year really propelled me on and that summer, really, is where I should maybe have moved on to other things but it didn’t quite happen that way.

You mention the cup run. The fifth round sent you to Anfield. As players, and ‘underdogs’ did you arrive genuinely believing you can win?

You always have the hope. It’s almost like a free hit. No-one expected us to win that day. We were in the bottom half of the Championship, very hit and miss, especially away from home where we were very poor. So we turned up at Anfield, at the time where they have Benitez as manager, Torres, Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, they were getting to European Cup finals [twice in previous 3 seasons]. They had an amazing squad at the time and no-one expected us to go and get something.

I remember even laughing and joking. In the famous dressing room at Anfield there was a massive old team bath that have been moved out of stadiums now. I remember saying ‘if we get a win today we’re filling that up and we’re all diving in.’ And no, at the time I didn’t think that would happen. I did a lot of the press after the game and when I got back in most of the lads were dressed and ready to go. But the bath was full up and I had to dive in!

You don’t expect it but now they are great memories and it’s something we’re still talking about 11 years down the road now.

At 1-1, having toiled for 75 minutes in central midfield, what went through your head when you saw Steven Gerrard coming on to join Xabi Alonso in the middle of the park?

I just thought ‘this is my chance’. By this time, I’d scored 10 goals in the Championship in a team that was struggling so I just saw it as an opportunity to test myself against two of the best midfielders in the world. Xabi Alonso maybe became an even better player when he moved on but I think, at the time, Gerrard was one of, if not the, best midfield players in the world. So it was real opportunity for me to test myself and leave everything on the pitch. I didn’t want to look back ten years later wishing I’d done a bit more so my attitude was ‘let’s take it to them and have a go.’ And it worked out for me on that day.

Alonso went on to win the European Championships with Spain four months later, but for 10 seconds that afternoon he looked lost chasing as you shrugged him off to score the winner. As it happened, were you aware of who you’d just beaten and what you’d just done?

It was a blur. I honestly didn’t realise it was that late in the game. I thought there were still a few minutes’ injury time left. I think the emotion in the build up to the goal; from most blatant penalty I should ever have won in my life, let alone my career, to the ball falling back to me for the goal, was just a huge blur. I can’t really remember the game kicking back off. The TV camera goes back on and I’m just running round in a little circle on my own and then suddenly the full time whistle goes.

And he didn’t seem too happy with you at the full time whistle?

I was never really one for memorabilia but my brother and family always liked to collect stuff and Xavi Alonso was the nearest player to me. I think I’d already asked Gerrard when he came on but he said he’d already promised someone else. But I was lucky to get someone who went on to have the career that Xavi Alonso had.

I don’t know if it was the emotion running high but I didn’t really think about it. I don’t know if it was a little disrespectful on my part but I just wanted to get the shirt for my brother. I was like that as a loser as well and he handled me asking better than how I would’ve done!

The Quarter final draw then pits you up against Chelsea at home, leaving you in direct opposition with two Michael’s in Essien and Ballack. How was that?

Yeah it was another test. I remember the build up to the game. I had lots of friends and family travel up and this time it was live on TV, the late kick off under the lights. There was a long build up. A lot of tension and a lot of excitement. The team talk really was ‘you’ve gone to Anfield and won, there’s no reason you can’t beat this team’, even though it was packed full of stars and international players.

They had John Terry, Carvalho, you mentioned Ballack and Essien, Joe Cole who was absolutely unbelievable, unplayable on the day at times, Anelka up the top. It was only really Drogba and Lampard missing from their full strength side. Maybe Ashley cole too but they replaced him with Wayne Bridge, an England International so it wasn’t as if they were struggling for backup.

So again it was exciting and real test, and I think we took it to them from the start. Probably, being at Oakwell, I think these superstars didn’t want to come in to a game underneath the lights. It felt like there were wind machines on, cold day, bobbly pitch and we got stuck in to them from the start. We hung on in the end but overall I wouldn’t say we didn’t deserve to win the game.

I have to mention the Chelsea team and staff after that, if you’re talking about class. They gave all their shirts; they gave everything to us. Then Avram Grant, Steve Clarke and the management came in to our dressing room and we’re thinking they are going to make a complaint about something. They individually went round every single staff member, whether it was kit man, physio, masseuse, every player whether they played or not and shook their hands. I just thought that was a real touch of class from such professional people.

You left it late again, this time with a header from Kayode Odejayi, but this time you had around 15 minutes to hang on rather than the few seconds at Anfield. Were you aware during that time of how close you were to making history?

It seemed like 45 minutes. Honestly it seemed like such a long time. The pitch was getting heavy. At the time we had played a lot of games in a gruelling Championship season and we couldn’t just enjoy the cup because we were in a relegation battle. The cup run was really lucrative to the club but staying in the Championship even more so. We’d tried to balance it but that day everyone just grafted. I remember Bobby Hassell throwing his body on the line in the last few minutes. It was a team. I got the glory at Anfield and big Kayode got the glory against Chelsea but every man in that team deserved all the credit they got for that cup run.

Decent night out?

Err, it was OK! I had to go in to Sky Sports the next morning, so I got in at 5am and got picked up at half 5 and slept all the way down to the studios. But we had another game on the Tuesday night at home to Ipswich so it was really just straight back to business.

Did you add any more shirts to the collection this time or had you learnt your lesson?

Yeah I managed two that day. At the time I had the same agent as John Terry and Wayne Bridge and they were both kind enough to hand their shirts over to add to my brother’s collection.

Would you say your toughest ever opponent came from this cup run?

I’ve been asked this a lot and it depends on what makes the toughest opponent. Is it someone who kicks you from first minute to 90th? Is it someone you’ve chased around? So I’ve got a few different ones.

The toughest opponent I used to hate playing against was Michael Doyle, who recently captained Portsmouth [now at Notts County]. I played against him at Leeds, Coventry, Sheffield United. He was great off the pitch but playing against him he’d kick you all over. You’d run off him and he’d be stamping his legs, so I hated playing against Doyler and I’ve got a few scars from him.

And then there’s the best player I ever got tested by. There was a young player who no-one had heard of at the time when I was playing for England u20s. We played Portugal in the Toulon tournament and they had a kid who was a year or two younger. He had bright orange boots, and at that time white boots had only recently become acceptable, so we’re thinking ‘this guy better be a good player’. It turned out to be Cristiano Ronaldo. Even then he was just a level above. Bearing in mind in that team they had the likes of [Helder] Postiga, [Hugo] Viana, I think [Ricardo] Quaresma was in that age group as well. They had some top, top players who have gone on to win major championships but he was a class apart from everyone.

So at 19 you are facing off against Ronaldo for England but after excelling at Barnsley you were actually called in to the full Scotland squad. What was it that prevented you representing your father’s homeland?

It was really frustrating. It was at u21s when I first got the nod and was asked if I’d change and look at Scotland. At the time I was still involved in the England setup so I decided to wait as I still had time to change. I hadn’t played a competitive game for the first team. Let’s see how it develops.

It was after the Chelsea FA Cup game. Tuesday night we played Ipswich at home. The gaffer pulled me in ten minutes early and I was thinking ‘surely he’s not dropping me here?’ I actually got a bit nervous. The whole coaching team were there and he said told me he didn’t want to embarrass me in front of all the lads and handed me a bit of paper. It was the confirmation that I’d been called in to the Scotland squad for the qualifiers versus Czech Republic and Croatia.

I said ‘gaffer, I know it’s a fine for using my phone but I’ve got to call my dad.’ He hadn’t travelled up as he couldn’t get to every game but I had to phone him. I just said ‘Dad I’ve got to go because I’ve got to be in the referee’s room in a second, but I’ve been called up for Scotland! See ya later!’

I had about a thousand texts after the game. I actually scored a hat-trick that night and I wasn’t replying to people about the goals, I wanted to talk about the Scotland stuff. It was a huge proud moment for everyone.

Then a few days later I get a call telling me my third goal had been sent to the dubious goals panel so I might lose my hat-trick and also that I couldn’t go and play for Scotland. When two bits of news hit you like that it’s devastating.

We tried, we looked at all the legalities. Because I was a certain age and played in a recognised FIFA tournament I wasn’t allowed to change. Not playing in the Premier League was a shame but my biggest regret is not being allowed to play for Scotland.

You must look at players switching nationalities now and have some opinions?

Yeah I look at that and its almost heart-wrenching and comical at the same time. Someone’s grandad visited a country once and they get a passport. Yeah out of my whole career that’s probably my biggest regret.

Back at club level, you have shared a changing room with various current Premier League stars such as Kyle Walker & Gylfi Sigurdsson. Would one of them rank as your most gifted teammate?

I think I’ve got to look at someone, and he may not be the most technically gifted player I’ve come across, but just for his attitude and the way he’s gone on, and that’s James Milner. Milly is a couple of years younger than me and he came on loan to Swindon and at the same time we both played for the England u20s. You could see then his attitude. He was first one in, last one out at 17 years old. He was physical, he was strong and he had a will to win. Look at his dedication now with the amount of games he’s played in the Premier League. He still gets stick at times but he’s won the league at Man City. He’s now at the top of the league with Liverpool. He might be one that you and the people reading this wouldn’t expect but James Milner is probably one of the best I’ve played with.

The best technique-wise, and I was lucky to play five-a-side with him the other night, by a country mile, is Matt Le Tissier. He was just unbelievable. I mean, he could do anything with a football. The guy was an absolute magician. I’d love to see him now in the modern game, with professional guidance and coaching. You see players now, I mean we’re watching City now and you see De Bruyne on the ball. Matt Le Tissier could pick a pass like De Bruyne does, but he could do more. It was a joy to go training with him every day just to be on the same pitch.

You made the Championship playoff final at both Sheffield United and Reading but lost narrowly on each occasion. Is your first thought afterwards about how close you’ve come to the top flight?

Yeah, it’s horrible. The reason I moved to Sheffield United that year was to get promoted to the Premier League. We went second with two games to go and we just needed to win one of our last two games to see us over the line but we drew them both 0-0. So we went in to the playoffs, did the hard work winning the semi-finals and then you get to Wembley.

In the league that year only one team did the double over us and that was Burnley. We play them again, and in the end all three games that year ended 1-0. On the day We could have had two penalties as well, so you look back on stuff like that. So yeah, it’s a regret but you pick yourself back up. The following year I had the opportunity to move to Reading and the same thing. We had the opportunity to make it to the to the Premier League and the same again. You get to the final, have a chance and just don’t turn up on the day.

Your career never quite took you to the Premier League. That said, you captained a side at Wembley and scored a last minute winner at the Kop end, achievements few Premiership stars can claim. Do you feel like you missed out or that you were fortunate?

No of course, I feel like a should’ve played in the Premier League but for whatever reasons it didn’t happen. Then I was actually part of the Championship winning team with Reading but left that summer so didn’t have the chance to play.

But also I played in the [League 2] playoffs with Swindon when we lost out, which was a great experience at 20. We the won the [League 1] playoffs with Barnsley in Cardiff so I’ve got some great experiences, life experiences, that I wouldn’t swap for anything in the world.

You did though play in the Bulgarian top flight with CSKA Sofia and things were perhaps a little different?

Yeah a lot different, in everything. I’d got to the stage in my life and career where I needed a different challenge. I wasn’t getting any younger and my legs were going a little bit so I thought the foreign way of football would suit me technically. I went to fit in to something they were building. CSKA Sofia is a very famous European club and I thought it was a great opportunity at 32 years old to go and play in a big European league and maybe even play in Europe.

However, as sometimes happens in situations like that, not everything is as it seems. They started to not pay the salaries. The club ended up going bust. Luckily I’d had my previous career in England and I got a move back to Birmingham.

You were heavily linked with Everton, Aston Villa and even Atletico Madrid after your role in the famous cup run. As a player, how aware and involved were you during transfer talks?

I always liked to be quite involved. I remember waking up to phone calls telling me the Barnsley chairman had compared me to certain player at a certain club and that I was worth £10m. I phoned the owner of the club and said ‘I’m definitely not on a £10m player’s contract, so what is going on?’ I told him I was happy to sign a new contract but I was never offered one. I think the club were looking to cash in. The offers of the amount never came in, there were a few other offers that came that the club knocked back. In the end Sheffield United came in with an offer they couldn’t refuse. I think they [Barnsley] were probably gutted when we lost the playoffs too because they missed out on a payment for me playing in the Premier League.

It was obviously sad to leave friends and a club that’s so special to you. This career though, is part of life in general, and if I hadn’t moved I probably wouldn’t be set up in life as I am now.

Do you think these experiences have shaped the way you now work with your clients as an agent?

Yeah I think so. I was always intrigued and I wanted to be involved. Even if it was someone telling me rumours were complete rubbish, or these people like you, I always wanted to know that. I was adamant that it wasn’t always about the money. It was about playing and then the money will come. I try to take that in to managing my players now. I try to keep them as informed as possible.

Nowadays with the press; social media, Twitter especially, one little murmur gets mentioned in a pub on a Saturday and by Saturday night you’re getting calls from a player and his parents asking if it’s true. It’s trying to manage expectations. It can be difficult at times but it’s something I really enjoy and it keeps me in the game that I love.

You’re now representing a new generation of youngsters with big dreams and ambitions. Does watching your players succeed come anywhere close to your own playing experiences?

I don’t think you can ever get the buzz of playing. I think any ex-player would tell you that. Maybe a small percentage that it really was a job for and didn’t like football but they were few and far between. I don’t think you can ever get that buzz of scoring a goal or being part of a winning team. That’s impossible.

I feel like when I’m watching my players, I’m watching my kids. I support them. I was doing a commentary on a game the other day and one of my players scored. It was hard not to be biased and shout ‘get in there’ so I certainly enjoy it when they are doing well. If I can give them one snippet of advice that helps them to a successful career, then I feel that I’ve done my job.

So, finally, after over 400 professional games at 11 clubs, what would be that one piece of advice that you look to pass on?

The same thing I was taught from day one as a youngster. Work hard. Work hard and enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy working hard there’s no point. I think too many young people in general – and I’m sounding like an old person now – want something ‘now’. Everything’s on social media. Someone gets a new pair of trainers, or a new watch, or a new car and everyone wants everything now.

Actually, just play football. If you play football now and you do well, you’ll get that. It’s all very well having nice cars but if you don’t have the memories then it’s not worth it at all. I think that’s when you see the depression creep in, the drink and so on, when people are using their money to try and chase the dreams they missed out on.

Dan Fox

Long suffering Saints fan, Le Tissier disciple and extremely limited non-league target man.

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