Football: Howey's case for England defence

Simon Turnbull talks to the Newcastle defender on brink of an international recall
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The Independent Online
THERE was something familiar about the figure in the black and white No 6 shirt at St James' Park last Sunday. It was not simply that he had looked the same at Goodison Park the previous Saturday, and at St James' the Sunday before that. Against Barnsley, as Newcastle United overcame an attack of the jitters to beat Barnsley and claim an FA Cup semi-final place, Steve Howey played like the Steve Howey of old. That was the Howey dubbed "the new Alan Hansen" by Kevin Keegan, the assured central defender who won four caps for England before his international ambitions disappeared down a dark hole one Sunday morning in June 1996.

It was the morning after day one of Euro 96. Howey, like the rest of Terry Venables's squad, had been granted home leave after the opening game against Switzerland at Wembley. Having been called into the England party at short notice because of injury to Mark Wright, he set off on the training-run route Newcastle used at the time on the outskirts of Durham City. He failed to see the pot-hole before his ankle twisted into it. Instead of being the highlight of his career, Euro 96 was a painful experience for Howey. He watched from the sidelines on crutches.

Twenty months later, he remains out of the England picture - but not, perhaps, for much longer. No matter what his network of spies have told him about Tony Adams, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and Gareth Southgate in recent weeks, Glenn Hoddle cannot have received a more glowing form report than one he must have about the likely lad at the heart of the Newcastle defence. Howey, though, having suffered so many setbacks since his last international appearance, against Bulgaria two years ago, is not banking on being called up for national service in France this summer, let alone on being in the England squad announced tomorrow for the World Cup warm-up in Switzerland on 25 March.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it," he said. "But at the same time, putting it into perspective and being realistic about it, my chances are pretty slim - unless possibly someone else's misfortune opens the door for me, which is what happened before Euro 96. I think it's only right that the players who have actually got England to the World Cup finals are the players who should be in France.

"Obviously I'd love to go. But at the same time, realistically, I don't think there's much chance of it. I've always said my main aim was to play as many games as I could for Newcastle and hopefully the run that I've had now will continue to the end of the season. I'd go on my holidays a happy man knowing I'd got half a season under my belt, having spent most of the last year and a half injured."

No sooner had Howey recovered from that accident on the run in Durham than he was stricken by a calf tear which sidelined him for most of last season. This season he has suffered from hamstring trouble, an Achilles tendon injury and a pelvic problem. Only since Newcastle's reluctant trip to Broadhall Way two months ago has the forgotten man of St James' Park started to re-establish himself.

"I'm thoroughly enjoying myself," Howey said. "I'm just happy that I'm playing and that I'm fit, after such a long time. Not playing in Euro 96 was a big disappointment. But I think sometimes when you have big setbacks it makes you more determined when you come back. It makes you a lot stronger mentally. I wouldn't say I'm playing as well as I ever have. I think there's a lot more to come from me. At the moment I'm still possibly finding my feet a little bit."

At 26, the Sunderland man in the Newcastle team still has time to fulfil the potential Ossie Ardiles spotted when he decided to try his second- team centre-forward as a centre-half on the training ground. Ardiles lost his own position before he had a chance to test Howey fully in a new one but Keegan followed through the experiment in a reserve match at Bradford. "I didn't really enjoy playing up front anyway," Howey confessed. "I came to the club initially as a midfield player. I got stuck up front because I was the tallest and was quite good in the air. In the juniors they used to put the ball in the box for me and I'd knock it down for Lee Clark to score."

Even before Clark's departure to Sunderland last summer, Howey was the longest serving player on the books at St James'. He signed as an apprentice in 1986. "It would mean a lot," he said, "if we got to Wembley this season and won the FA Cup. The supporters have waited so long to win something. So have I. I've got a big cabinet at home. It would be nice to have something to put in it."