Ever since I decided to contribute to the Tilehurst End I’ve been mulling over the best topic to write about. So much to say but how much of it relevant or even interesting? In the end an answer was there on my shirt.
Emblazoned on the back of my lovely black away shirt is ‘Howard 20’ and I can think of no player in the current side that divides opinion quite like the former Sheffield United and Barnsley man. The timing of this article couldn’t be better either as Howard decided at the end of last month to reject a loan move to Southampton to fight for his place and now finds himself back in the first team.
Against Portsmouth earlier this month he produced one of his best performances in a Reading shirt, if not his very best, but come the next game against Preston, he was anonymous. The two games couldn’t have been more different but they served to perfectly highlight why Howard was signed but also why he shouldn’t really be in the team.
Since arriving from Sheffield United for £500k in August 2009 Howard has racked up 63 appearances for the Royals but still somehow doesn’t feel like a first team regular.
Under Brendan Rodgers he was often asked to play an unfamiliar game and struggled to make an impact. Whilst his natural game suited the short, passing style that Rodgers first attempted (before reverting to the hit and hope long ball tactic) he was rarely given the opportunity to do this, instead he was told to play alongside Matejovsky to provide a bit of ballast. In that team Reading had effectively three versions of the same player in Sigurdsson, Matejovsky and Howard but for some reason it was Howard who was lumbered with doing the donkey work; a role he was clearly ill-suited for.
It didn’t help that he began to get targeted by certain sections of the crowd, something that he hasn’t really shaken off to this day. I found it unfair then and I still do now. I never understood the love for Matejovsky who got away with doing nothing for half a dozen games by producing a couple of good passes every now and then. With Sigurdsson the reason for the affection was clear, an unexpected Academy product who had genuine class on the ball and could score some amazing goals. Perhaps those aspects of his game negated his lack of pace, inability to defend and habits of disappearing for large chunks of the game. Yes all those things could be levelled at Howard as well but for whatever reasons, he never seemed to get the benefit of the doubt with many fans. I suspect it was because he was seen by many along with Shaun Cummings as a symbol of Rodgers’ disastrous reign and once those first impressions are established, it can be hard to shake them off.
When Brian McDermott came in before Christmas 2009 it was apparent that Howard did not feature in his plans. The side was playing a 4-2-3-1 formation which was designed to get the most out of Sigurdsson. With the Icelander
playing behind the front man, McDermott was initially keen to play more solid players in the centre of midfield such as Cisse, Gunnarsson, Tabb or Karacan, selections that were understandable given the dire straits the club was in.
After over two months without a start, Howard finally got his chance against Doncaster when Sigurdsson was missing through injury and the former Barnsley man proved himself more than capable of filling his boots, scoring the winning goal. He continued to deputise in the side as Reading won three of their next five games with him playing ‘in the hole’, with perhaps his greatest moment in a Reading shirt coming shortly after with his 93rd minute equalizer at The Hawthorns that helped set up an extra time win against West Brom.
Suddenly, the momentum for the season had changed and with the side focusing on more attacking football, Howard cemented his place in midfield next to Jay Tabb as Reading made an improbable charge for the playoffs, only to fall just short.
However, this season has been a frustrating one for Howard. The absence of Sigurdsson has meant a heavy reliance on the two wingers, which in turn has meant that the focus of attack been diagonal balls in behind full backs or to Shane Long up front. This is not a system that suits Howard in any way because it puts the emphasis back on his defensive game, a role in which Brian is inferior to players such as Jay Tabb, Mikele Leigertwood, Jem Karacan and Brynjar Gunnarsson. The arrival of Leigertwood should have been great for Howard's selection chances. Here was a player that liked to sit deep, win the ball and play forward, in theory they should have complimented each other perfectly. Typical of Howard's luck though, he suffered an injury and had to watch on as Tabb and Noel Hunt established themselves in the two positions that he could have taken.
Fast forward to Portsmouth last Saturday and he got an opportunity from the start because of injuries, this time in the ‘Sigurdsson role’ behind Long. He revelled in the freedom and kept finding spaces in the opposition half. The pass he produced on the left to set Long through to win the penalty was brilliant. Perfectly weighted and directed with the right amount of curl to land straight on his boot. I can only think of Harte’s pass to set up Long against Middlesbrough that rivals it for quality this season. It’s a shame his goal was ruled out at the end but the standing ovation he received after being substituted was just reward for a great performance, I think I even saw him win a tackle!
Just as you think he might finally have found his role in the first team, along come Preston to ruin everything. After a decent start and a solid effort on goal, Howard and Reading disappeared. They were bullied in midfield by Ashbee and Carter with Howard becoming virtually a passenger. He was seeing little of the ball and the odd time he did, one of the big guys was straight on him and winning possession back. When McDermott changed the shape there was no question who was coming off. Manset’s energy and strength off the bench was completely at odds to Howard and turned the game.
That in a nutshell is the problem with Brian Howard. I think the way to get a performance out of Howard is to make him the focal point of the side and the simple fact is that there are better and more influential players than him at the club to build around. To me, this is why he was so successful at Barnsley but has struggled since leaving, just as how Sigurdsson has struggled to establish himself since his move to Hoffenheim. Sigurdsson's quality is still there (his goal tally proves that) but he doesn’t quite fit into the side.
I have always liked Brian Howard, I like the way he tries to play the game. He’s clearly a very committed footballer and every time it looks as if his Reading career is over, he’s buckled down and worked his way back into the first team. Such perseverance requires a lot of heart and the decision to turn down the move to Southampton was a brave one. For these things he should get a lot more credit than he currently gets.
To me, the problem is that he’s a round peg in a square hole. Reading need midfielders that can battle and impose themselves physically on a game, even our forwards seem tougher now than they did five years ago. At best a side can carry one player who has limited defensive skills and Reading have Jimmy Kebe filling that role. The only way another ‘luxury player’ can be squeezed in is if they have a player that can win games out of nowhere, like Sigurdsson, like Taarabt at QPR and Howard, good as he is, can’t do that.
I should end by justifying why I chose ‘Howard 20’ for the back of my shirt, it’s certainly got me a bit of stick. Aside from the fact that I try and steer clear of obvious choices for the shirt name (Pearce, Harper and Karacan have appeared on there in the past) Brian Howard is a player who wants to play ‘properly’. He’s not suited to the rough stuff and the long ball, instead he prefers a bit of artistry and finesse. I appreciate those qualities in players because even at Championship level, there aren’t many of them around. Howard also doesn’t seem to carry an ego with him. There have been plenty of opportunities for him to have stropped or even left the club but instead he’s worked hard to win his place back.
I expect he’ll be off in the summer and although it will probably benefit both him and the club, I’ll be sad to see him leave. So here’s to Brian Howard, I’m sorry it's never really worked out.