Brian Howard: 'You score one at Liverpool and everyone knows you'

Barnsley's Brian Howard, who shocked Anfield in the fifth round, faces Chelsea, a club he almost joined in 2003, in the quarter-finals tonight. He tells Ian Herbert all about it
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The Independent Football

Even now, amid the sober surrounds of a back shed at Barnsley where he has just walked in out of the snow which is whipping in off the Pennines, the man who scored one of the defining goals of this season's FA Cup, is struggling to piece together quite how it all happened.

Barnsley's fans are with him on that one. In one moment Brian Howard (below) was chasing after referee Martin Atkinson at Anfield – pointing out, with great justification, that Sami Hyypia had just grabbed his leg in the penalty area; in the next, he was winning a 50-50 ball with Xabi Alonso and ghosting around John Arne Riise to beat Charles Itandje with a low, left-foot shot at his near post. "It all seems to be one blurred moment," he says.

"I was chasing the ref for 20 yards, the ball got cleared, then I saw it loop over my head into the box and I thought 'I've just got to continue playing here'."

And that most memorable of FA Cup episodes might have ended there for Howard had not the draw, in its all too familiar way, delivered up another twist for Barnsley's young captain.

The quarter-final paired his side with Chelsea – for most players, simply rich reward for the collective effort at Anfield but for Howard, the chance to make a point or two about the painful events of five summers ago – and a road not taken. Howard has his own Chelsea story, which dates to his days as a young Southampton midfielder when he was part of the England Under-20s set-up but was tantalised and frustrated in equal measure by the experience of not playing for a side which finished eighth in the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final in 2003. "I had itchy feet and I wanted to get out and play," he says. Then manager Gordon Strachan agreed to release him for nothing if someone came in and that club just happened to be Chelsea – no more wealthy than Southampton in 2003 and, anachronistic though it may now sound, casting around for some relatively cheap, young British players to develop.

"They were struggling a bit for money," Howard remembers. "They were very interested in having me there and I was told I would get my chance in cup games and if I did well I would get my chance in the first team."

The omens appeared to be good. Howard spent two months training at Stamford Bridge, lodging in the Chelsea Village hotel. He built a rapport with Lampard, Terry, Mario Melchiot and others and scored five times for the reserves. Then, as he headed off to France for two and half weeks with England in the Toulon tournament, news broke of the seismic shift in Chelsea's galaxy which was to change the club irrevocably.

Roman Abramovich bought the club on 1 July and, from the England camp, Howard heard news of the galaxy of stars which followed him into Stamford Bridge. "There was [Juan Sebastian] Veron, Joe Cole, [Hernan] Crespo, there were four or five," he says. "I had to think about playing well for England because you never know who's watching and the way things were going I needed someone to be [watching]."

It was on his return to London that Howard took a decision which, in some of the darker days when even Championship football looked a distant prospect, he admits he has questioned the sanity of. He rejected the offer which would have taken him to Stamford Bridge – all accommodation and expenses paid – on a one-year deal. "I couldn't face the prospect of staying until I was 23 or 24, playing the odd game and then leaving," he says. "I knew it might mean dropping down a few leagues but I was 20 and I just wanted to get out and play first-team football."

At least the Chelsea experience provided him with something: connections. John Terry's influential agent, Aaron Lincoln, began representing him and, after Howard had resolved that dropping two leagues might be necessary to make his way up, League One side Swindon Town and their manager Andy King (with whom Lincoln happened to have been finalising the transfer of Sam Parkin from Chelsea) came into the picture. When Howard signed, on a one-year deal which would be extended when he had played 30 games, a route into competitive football seemed to have been re-established for a player who had craved it since his first involvement with Southampton at the age of 10. There was a particularly vivid night at Gravesend, pre-season 2003, when after two days of training with his new side, he scored in a 3-0 win. Swindon were packed with the kind of players – Tommy Mooney, Sammy Igoe and Parkin – who could take them up.

But fate can turn up a different story. As surely as the money had flooded into Stamford Bridge after Howard had arrived, it drained out of Swindon's County ground when the club's owners had gambled all on promotion to the Championship, only for Brighton to destroy everything with a 124th-minute equaliser in the play-offs which ultimately saw Swindon stay down. "They'd put all their eggs in one basket," Howard recalls. "By the following season the money was drifting out of the club very quickly. We were getting paid three or four weeks late and by cheque, which takes another five days to clear. Some days the cheques bounced.

"There seemed to be a different chairman every week. When we were doing well they wanted to be chairman when we weren't they didn't." The low point came towards the end of the season, when Howard broke his foot and Swindon concluded that, in the circumstances, he would jump at a new contract on less money. He didn't. The road to the big time was beginning to feel tortuous but it was time to find a new direction.

Working class south Yorkshire mining country is not, on the face of things, the most obvious territory for a player who had spent his entire life in the south of England but it was the place where Howard – looking at a club which included a number of his old England youth acquaintances Antony Kay, Paul Reid and Neil Austin – decided to try yet again. Unprepossessing though Oakwell can look on the sunniest of days, you have to say it is a gamble which has paid dividends.

There were hiccups. Andy Ritchie, who signed him, was sacked, to be replaced by Simon Davey, then barely heard of in management circles. But the new manager knew how he must have felt to be shouldered out at Chelsea. The story runs that Davey was at Preston when David Beckham arrived on loan from Old Trafford, asked him could he have a go at a free-kick he was about to take and never looked back.

Howard has settled into life in a south Yorkshire village , developed a habit of scoring from midfield, and last November was made club captain at the age of 24. His 10 goals before Christmas certainly established him as one of the Championship's leading lights and there was rumour of a link to Everton. (David Moyes and Davey are well acquainted from their years together at Deepdale) but it was the FA Cup match at Anfield which, after seven long years striving for it, finally delivered Howard to the big stage which he forsook five years ago. "I played for Swindon at Elland Road in the Cup when they were in the Premiership but there's been nothing like this," he says. "You score one goal against Liverpool in the Cup and suddenly everyone knows you."

He can include George Burley in that number. After several years of fruitless inquiries about a shot at a place in the Scotland squad – Howard's father, Billy, being an old-fashioned Scottish No 9 who flourished in the Glaswegian amateur leagues – Burley's arrival at last seemed to bring a change of heart and there are no prizes for guessing in which game the new Scotland manager chose to have a look at the midfield player.

"Alex McLeish has his own ideas but George Burley always said that everyone would get a fresh start," says Howard. "They say he'll keep watching my progress." Davey is optimistic about his captain's chances of a squad place for the Croatia fixture at Hampden later this month. "Archie Gemmill has been to watch him a few times, too," he says. "That's right and proper for a captain of a Championship squad who has scored 10 goals from midfield. He won't let them down." Needless to say, Howard has been harbouring few thoughts beyond today's match, since the draw at Blackpool – Barnsley's third on the trot – on Tuesday night.

There's a concerted effort in south Yorkshire to eliminate all thoughts of Chelsea's last visit during the local side's brief sojourn in the top flight 10 years ago, which ended in a 6-0 panning for Barnsley, though there is the last FA Cup meeting, 4-0 in Barnsley's favour 19 years ago, to cherish. In winger Jamal Campbell-Ryce there is more giantkilling pedigree, too. He was in the Southend side which beat Manchester United, Ronaldo and all, 1-0, 16 months ago.

Brian Howard's pragmatic footballing outlook suggests he will contend with any outcome this evening but there's no doubt about the game's potential to be a defining moment in a career during which he has had to speculate to accumulate. "There have been occasions, when things weren't going so well, when I've asked myself whether my choices have been right," Howard says.

"But you live and die by your decisions in life. I was 25 three weeks ago, I'm playing the best football of my life and if, in a year and a half's time, I can be playing in the Premier League and maybe with Scotland then that's where I want to be. It doesn't matter how I've got there."