There is no footballer in the FA Cup this weekend with a giant-killing record to compare to that of Brian Howard.
With Barnsley and his current club Reading, he has been on the winning side against Liverpool twice and Chelsea once, and three years ago he scored a last-minute winning goal at Anfield. Tomorrow, this talented little midfielder faces Manchester City in the sixth round and he fancies his chances.
It is a tall order but Reading have already eliminated two Premier League opponents – West Bromwich Albion and Everton – in the FA Cup so far this season. Howard, 28, has been in teams that have defied the odds before and he is quietly hopeful about Reading's chances against the richest football club in the world.
When his Barnsley team beat Liverpool in the fifth round in February 2008, Rafael Benitez's team had reached the Champions League final nine months earlier and finished fourth that season. In the next round, Barnsley won 1-0 at Oakwell against a Chelsea side that was virtually the same first XI that went on to reach the Champions League final two months later.
So perhaps it is not surprising that Howard is confident. He says that nothing he saw in City's performance against Dynamo Kiev on Thursday night persuaded him otherwise. Especially when it came to Mario Balotelli's grass allergy, which was the talk of the Reading training ground yesterday.
"Kiev played really well and the way that they played is the way that we play," Howard says. "We don't give teams time on the ball, we have good shape about us and when we win it we are good on the break. That is how Kiev did it. Obviously, City losing that game and the long trip back from Kiev with us having that extra bit of rest [will help].
"My personal view [of City's wealth] is 'Fair play to the [City] players'. If you can get the money then get it. They have signed some top-class players. But if you have 25 world-class players, that doesn't fit into 11. I know from experience, if you don't play it doesn't matter if you are on £100,000 a week or £500 a week. You are a footballer and you want to play football.
"So I don't think any of their players are sitting on the bench thinking, 'I'm happy on the bench because I'm getting £80,000 a week.' They are sat there thinking, 'I want to play.' The perception from the outside is that it is not a happy camp. There are a lot of big egos and you can't keep every one of them happy. If it upsets one or two, that might give us an advantage.
"Hopefully they will think, 'We've got Reading, we're [already] in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.' That they don't have to turn up and play. [Against Kiev] it looked like they thought they could just turn up [and win] but Kiev won. They've got 25 world-class players so whoever is on the pitch is good. I'm a huge fan of David Silva, and Carlos Tevez is one of the best strikers in the League.
"I heard this morning it was an allergy [that caused Balotelli to be late out at half-time on Thursday and later substituted]. Sure it wasn't the cold weather? The fact it was minus three? I think if you said that to our gaffer he would say, 'Sit yourself down' and you wouldn't be back in the team for a few weeks.
"It's a bizarre one. I think he [Balotelli] is a bizarre character. He has obviously got talent but I'm not sure how many of his team-mates are happy with him, and I'm not sure how happy he is with his team-mates. If he plays that is one we can upset. Hopefully he will upset a few of his team-mates and you never know."
In case you had not guessed already, Howard has been around too long to worry about upsetting anyone with his views. He is a bright character who turned down a contract at Chelsea as a 20-year-old in the summer of 2003. A former Southampton trainee, he was about to sign when Roman Abramovich took over and he feared that the influx of big-name transfers would mean he would never get a game.
He signed for Swindon Town and has not looked back, although he has never had a chance in the Premier League. A move to Everton fell through when he was at Barnsley, chiefly because the Yorkshire club would not budge on the price. With Sheffield United, he lost in the Championship play-off final to Burnley in 2009. But he says that he watches Premier League games and thinks, "I could play at that level, in fact I could do better than that."
"I look at players now and think, 'They were decent in the Championship but they didn't really stand out.' They go to the Prem, especially the Stoke and Wolves players, and they stand out. The example I use is Chris Brunt. I know him from when we played against him at Sheffield Wednesday. He was always decent at this [Championship] level.
"Being in a yo-yo team, I think he performs better when West Brom are in the Prem than when they are in the Championship. So there is obviously a different style of play. I am not sure how many Prem players would perform week in week out at Scunthorpe and the likes."
In the main, people still want to talk to Howard about that goal at Anfield, scored in injury-time. Howard says that the differences between the two wins at Anfield was that with Reading last season, he and his team-mates believed they could beat Liverpool – seventh in the Premier League at the time and in Rafael Benitez's last season.
"Before the Barnsley game [against Liverpool], I said to the lads, 'If we win today I'll do a naked dive into the bath in the dressing room' – it was a big one. Last season, with Reading it was like, 'You know what boys? I reckon we could win today. We will be disappointed if we don't.'
"At the end of the [Barnsley] game at Anfield, I asked Xabi Alonso for his shirt and at first he didn't want to give it to me. I tried shaking his hand, and eventually he reluctantly gave it to me. I thought at the time, 'That's a bit off.' Then I watched it on the telly and I looked like an idiot. We'd just turned them over, given them the run around, and there I was begging for his shirt.
"When we beat Chelsea in the next round, Steve Clarke [then Chelsea's assistant manager] came into the dressing room and shook every player's hand. Benitez didn't do it. He reluctantly shook hands with Simon Davey [Barnsley manager for their 2008 cup run]. Normally, the visiting manager gets invited in for a drink after the game. He didn't invite him [Davey] in. He [Benitez] was nowhere to be seen after.
"We had a Brazilian boy, Anderson da Silva, who knew Lucas Leiva and he asked for his shirt. He was waiting outside the dressing room and was then told he couldn't have it. But the Liverpool fans were great. That's the memory I will take away. There were 15,000 of them who stayed just to clap us off at Anfield. It was incredible."
He was equally impressed by Phil Neville when Reading beat Everton 1-0 in the previous round this season. "Everton had just been booed off by their own fans at home so their players were straight off down the tunnel. Phil Neville was great. He came in to our dressing room and gave his shirt to whoever had asked for it. He shook everyone's hand – every player, the manager, the staff, the masseur, the kit man to the manager – and said, 'Well done, you deserved to beat us, good luck.' Which was class."
What is the secret of an FA Cup giant-killing? At Barnsley they had a ropey pitch and a wind that whipped in off the Pennines. Howard says that he remembered John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho arguing with Michael Ballack and Michael Essien about who should pick him up when he ran from midfield. It is moments like that, he says, when you know you have got a chance.
"It was the same when we played Stevenage [away in the previous round]. We showed a bit of fight and grit and got a 2-1 win but there were times in that game where they probably sensed, 'Hang on, they don't really want to be here.' You go to places like that where the pitch ain't nice, the standard of football ain't great and you don't get any time on the ball. The game [tomorrow] might be at City, but it is a great opportunity."
Brian Howard: FA Cup giant-killer
*Feb 2008: Scores last-minute winner when Barnsley beat Liverpool 2-1 at Anfield in the fifth round
*March 2008: Part of the Barnsley team that beat Chelsea 1-0 in the sixth round at Oakwell to reach the semi-finals, where they lose to Cardiff City
*January 2010: Howard's Reading team draw 1-1 with Liverpool at home in the third round. They win 2-1 in the replay at Anfield
*February 2010: Draw 2-2 with West Bromwich Albion (then in the Championship) in the fifth round with Howard scoring a last-minute equaliser. Reading win the replay at the Hawthorns 3-2 to reach the quarter-finals, where they are beaten by Aston Villa
*2011: Reading have already beaten West Brom (third round) and Everton (fifth round) in this year's FA Cup. Manchester City await in the sixth round tomorrow
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