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Howard finds life is not just about black and white

Tow Law to St James' Park is not far, a journey of 24 miles, and Steve Howard certainly knows the way. Yet he has gone a rather roundabout route to cover that distance. In fact, it has taken this native of the North-east some 13 years to get there.

Growing up in Byker, in the east end of Newcastle, Howard was a Newcastle fan who wanted nothing more than to play at St James' Park. Today he will finally get his wish, although it will be in the colours of Derby County, not the black and white of the Magpies.

He recalls: "I used to have a season ticket in the Milburn Stand. Then I started playing on Saturdays so I couldn't get to games any more. I was probably 12 when I had the ticket and all my family are Newcastle supporters. They're all black-and-white daft. When I was a kid, whenever we talked about football it was always Newcastle. It was always a big part of our lives."

He saw the likes of Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne grace the turf of his beloved club, but his own start in football was rather more modest. Those Saturdays that caused him to miss Newcastle games were spent initially playing for non-League Tow Law Town in 1994, at the Ironworks ground nicknamed locally "the Iceberg" due to its exposure to the elements. That was his way of getting noticed, and Hartlepool signed him and gave him his professional debut.

The tall centre-forward, 31, moved on to Northampton, then in 2001 took a drop back to League Two with Luton Town, who paid 50,000 for him. His power and aerial strength were recognised by Joe Kinnear, the former Wimbledon manager who was in charge of the Hatters at the time.

They won promotion the next year, and Howard averaged agoal every other game for two seasons. After Mike Newelltook over at Kenilworth Road Howard's role did not change, and the club reached the Championship as League One champions in 2005.

That was as good as it got at Luton, who sold off their best assets the following year, including Howard to Derby for 1 million, but penury is still stalking the Hatters, something that pains Howard, as he has not forgotten the club that was his launch pad. He says: "I had some great times at Luton and it's awful to see them in the position they're in at the minute. I made my name there, if you like, and we had some success there too."

If Howard's playing days, encompassing well over 500 League games with more than 150 League goals, have been something of a struggle lit upby the occasional streak of joy, then 2007 has been his career in microcosm.

The Rams, at the time managed by Billy Davies, won the play-off final in May at Wembley against West Bromwich Albion. Now comes his pilgrimage back to St James', and in between he has also managed to score a goal at Old Trafford.

"Since I was a kid I've always told people I wanted to play at Wembley and St James'," he says. "That's never changed, and when we reached the Premier League the first game I looked for was the Newcastle away fixture.

"To play today will cap a memorable year if selected, of course," he adds, sounding like another of his idols, Alan Shearer, who used to like adding the "if selected" rider.

Derby's solitary League win this season came in September, 1-0 against Newcastle at Pride Park. Since then there has been nothing but pain, with Howard often on the bench under the new manager, Paul Jewell.

Yet if it seems as if he is glossing over the fact that Derby are a distant last in the Premier League and have lost seven games in a row, that is because he still thinks the club haveoverachieved.

"The success we had by going up has made this year memorable," he says. "Billy Davies had a three-year plan and we went up in the first year, so we shouldn't even be here. I know we're down at the bottom, but we're in the Premier League and that's where virtually every footballer wants to be. Me personally, I'm enjoying every minute of it."