Howey on a magical history tour

Simon O'Hagan meets a defender of the faith in at the start of the Newcastle revolution
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The Independent Online
WHEN Newcastle United take on Manchester United tomorrow night, one of their players will appreciate more than any of the others just how far the club has travelled to get to this potentially epoch-making moment in its history.

Steve Howey was a 17-year-old striker who had only played reserve or youth team football when he found himself on the bench for Newcastle in their last match of the 1988-89 season. It wasn't such a compliment to him and he knew it, for the club had already been relegated from the old First Division and a risk-free opportunity was there to try out a youngster. The manager, Jim Smith, wasn't even at the match. He left his assistant, Bobby Saxton, in charge. The venue, however, made it special: Old Trafford.

"There were two of us on the bench, me and a lad called David Roche," Howey recalled last week over lunch in Durham. "About halfway through the second half, Bobby Saxton turned to me and he said, 'Are you feeling confident?' Sure I was and he told me to get stripped off. Then he suddenly sent Roche on; I thought I was never going to get on. But a few minutes later I did. I remember seeing Mark Hughes pass to Bryan Robson and I couldn't believe I was on the same pitch as these people." Howey didn't do anything wrong, but there were no heroics. Manchester United won 2-0.

The seven years that separate that meaningless fixture from the one that the whole of football is now anticipating cover the most extraordinary period Newcastle have ever known. And in having witnessed it every step of the way, Howey is in a unique position. No other member of the Newcastle squad has been around as long as he has or can lay claim to the same storehouse of memories, good and bad. If Faustino Asprilla wants to know how tough life at Newcastle can really get he should ask Howey.

In the era of Sir John Hall, Kevin Keegan, Les Ferdinand, David Ginola, Asprilla and a resplendently rebuilt St James' Park, it is easy to forget that not very long ago Newcastle was a rusting hulk of a club with little prospect of ever being re-floated. Not for Howey, though. "I remember when I first came to the ground I was shocked," he said. "It was scruffy, dirty, all corrugated iron. Look at it now. It's like a stadium you'd find in America."

Relegation in the season of Howey's debut was not the worst of it. Two seasons later, with Newcastle going nowhere in the old Second Division, Smith gave way to Ossie Ardiles and the team's problems mounted. "Ardiles was a nice man but he had no discipline over the lads at all," Howey said. "He was too nice. He let everyone do what they wanted, and certain players would overstep the mark. We messed about in training and gradually it spilled over into matches."

It was Ardiles who converted Howey into a defender, but not before he had endured the wrath of the Newcastle fans as one half of a failing strike partnership with Andy Hunt. Another factor that has coloured Howey's relationship with Newcastle then came into play: he is from Sunderland, and the fans used that to get at him at a time when the team's form deteriorated so badly that they were even booed when they ran on to the pitch.

There came a point, according to Howey, when players would feign injury in order to avoid having to turn out on a Saturday. When Howey says that "at times it was just unbearable", it is hard to believe he is talking about the same club that is now the pride of the city, at the forefront of the Nineties revolution in the game.

Howey feels he would not have stayed at the club if Ardiles had. But just over four years ago, with Newcastle third from bottom of the old Second Division, it all changed when Keegan returned to take over as manager. "It was incredible," Howey said. "Here was this national figure coming to Newcastle. We were nothing. No one outside the city had heard of of our players. In fact we had players some Newcastle fans hadn't heard of."

Steve Watson, Lee Clark, Robbie Elliott and Pavel Srnicek also survive from that era, but the likes of Mick Quinn, Kevin Brock and Franz Carr soon left as Keegan, having staved off relegation on the last day of the 1991-92 season, began to turn the club round.

For Howey, it was the chance to make a fresh start. "Soon after he'd joined, the boss called me in to see him. He told me, 'Look, I can see you're a good player, your time will come, so don't waste time trying to impress me.'" If that was an early example of Keegan's managerial nous, then it is his enthusiasm that Howey singles out as his greatest quality along with his willingness to treat the players as grown-ups.

Players may come and go - the signing of David Batty last week was Keegan's 36th - but, according to Howey, there is a team spirit engendered by Keegan that remains unaffected. Being successful helps too, of course. "We make a point of all going out together," Howey said. "There are no cliques."

Had last week's fuss over Asprilla's problems at Manchester City affected the team? "Not at all," said Howey, sounding as if he genuinely meant it. "We're getting so much publicity at the moment because we're the team that everybody wants to knock. The lads have got to be careful because the papers are desperate to get any story on us.

"But I think, if you ask most people in football, they want Newcastle to win the League. They're sick of the same old teams winning things. Even Sunderland supporters come up to you and say, 'Look, I can't stand Newcastle, but I still hope you win the League.'"

Failure to to do so having made all the running would be "a disaster", Howey says. But in spite of Newcastle's defeat at West Ham and the scrambled draw at Manchester City, "we feel certain we'll beat United". That wasn't something they were saying on that day back in the dark ages when a youthful Howey stepped on to the team bus to Manchester and wondered whether he might get a taste of the big time.