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Steve Howard: Back at Hartlepool where it all began
HE had already suffered two North-East rejections, and 17-year-old Steve Howard feared a third. The dream was, he felt, all but over.
Sunderland and Middlesbrough had already turned him down. Amid a 1995 trial at Hartlepool, he was approached by the assistant manager.
As Mick Tait started to speak, Howard was half expecting to pack up his boots and trudge back to Tow Law and the Northern League.
Instead, it was the start of a career which would see him score in all four divisions of English football and, 16 years later, return to Victoria Park with 730 games and 205 goals to his credit.
It's been some journey since his opened that first pay packet. Lesser individuals would have turned their nose up at the £100 a week.
"I was at Sunderland as a YT. They didn't fancy me, I wasn't six foot then. It was hard to take, then I went to Tow Law.
"Boro came in and I went to Norway on a pre-season tour. Gordon McQueen said he would like to take me on, but they didn't have the funds.
"He recommended me to Hartlepool, had a trial. I had something to prove, I'd had two rejections and I was working for my dad on the roads for a bit.
"It was something in the back of my mind, would I have to drop out? I wanted to be a footballer, in reality I wasn't making it. I said down with my dad and decided I'd work for him.
"I played a game for Pools, Mick Tait come up to me and said he wanted a chat. I expected the knock-back again, I thought I knew what was coming - but he said they fancied me.
"Then I got my first wage and thought 'oh my God' I was on more working for my dad. But it was what I wanted to do, I was determined.''
Weeks later, the then midfielder was playing at Highbury, for Pools in the Coca Cola Cup.
"I'd only played eight, ten games and we were at Arsenal - Taity told me to play left side, I was asked to mark Ray Parlour, never got anywhere near him,'' he recalled.
"Half-time, he swopped me over and I was then marking Paul Merson. I'd gone from Tow Law to Highbury in weeks.
"I always remember having a shot at the Clock End, me dad nearly caught it, he was sitting miles up the stand and got a hand to my shot!''
It was some blooding at Victoria Park. Pools had little to no money, and had a team made up of ageing pros at the fag end of their careers and young hopefuls, plenty of whom never really made it.
Manager and assistant were both doubling up as players.
"Keith Houchen was manager,'' said Howard. "I'd watched the 1987 FA Cup Final, Dad took me to Wembley, diving header and all that. It was surreal when he became my gaffer. I saw him a couple of months ago in Marbella on holiday, he's not changed a bit.
"He cared about the club, probably too much, him and Taity the same. But we needed that.
"Harold Hornsey was chairman, a lovely man who cared. Away games he would get the fish and chips in at Wetherby on the team bus. I've already asked where the chips and the crate of Cameron's have gone since I came back!
"I used to get picked up at Testo's roundabout, me and Taity, early morning that day for away games. The level of professionalism in football wasn't there then.
"It's changed. It's harder for kids coming through now as you have to be exceptional to make it, but when you do make it, the facilities are superb.
"The way they get treated these days, you can't shout at them, get them going like that.
"It's detrimental to them. I always say, I came through late as a young pro, but the way second year YTs were brought up made their character.''
Howard, big and ungainly at times, was raw. He wasn't physically strong for his frame; that would come with being a professional footballer.
But the terrace critics didn't have patience.
"I used to get stick. It affected me. I'd come from the Northern League and was trying to make it, but I was the one who got it in the neck,'' he said.
"I think the turning point was when some bloke had a pop at me during a game and I lost it, I went to go over the stand to square up to him. The next game, Paul Baker went and stood in that spot. He kept it quiet.
"I knew from then I had to leave. But after that the fans turned in my favour, they saw I cared.
"I moved on and my first goals were for Northampton against Hartlepool, and that stayed with me, I always scored against them.''
Ten goals in as many games against Pools for the Cobblers, Luton and Leicester followed. Today, in his fifth game back he's seeking his first for Pools since February 1999.
It was at Pools when he struck up a lasting friendship with Micky Barron. The pair hit it off after Barron's move from Middlesbrough and that's the reason why the pair are back in tandem today, coach Barron badgered Howard all summer to return.
At Luton, under ex-Pools boss Mike Newell, Neale Cooper's Pools had some right ding-dongs between 2003-2005.
"It was strange playing against my best mate, we would be going up for header and messing about, having a laugh and a joke. It could be taken the wrong way,'' he admitted.
"I've had some great games against Pools over the years, for Luton especially. One game I came off with a bust nose, Micky with a bust lip and there we were sat in the bar having a pint over it.
"Luton was a good time for me. But it reached its level, the money ran out.''
It was at Kenilworth Road where Howard was let off his leash.
"Joe Kinnear and Mick Harford were in charge and they made me,'' he said. "Harford and Mick Tait are the two biggest influences on me - two of the hardest men in football as well!
"Mike Newell took over from Joe at Luton and is a lovely fella, I've a lot of time for him. He just had a way of saying what he felt, that's the way he is - outspoken.
"But as a player, he was a dream to play for, he would back his players 100 per cent.
"I had a slow start and then banged a few goals in. We got to fourth or fifth in the Championship. It's a shame when you see where they are now.''
Newell had led Pools to promotion in 2002 before going to Luton, where he enjoyed more success as a boss.
"I think that spell made me as a Championship player, we had two promotions and two seasons in the Championship,'' said Howard.
"I moved to Derby, I always remember that phone call to Newell. My agent said Derby had put an offer in for me. I could have gone to Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday wanted me.
"I was in Florida and had to ring Mike. He was asking if I wanted a game of golf, what I was up to and the like. Then I had to tell him I wanted to leave, it was awful.''
And from there, Howard went to the Premier League, with Derby in a £1m move.
He'd gone from a £100 a week hopeful to a million pound, top-flight player.
"Derby was phenomenal to get up to the Premier League,'' he admitted. "We weren't the best on the pitch, but off it, something else - we pulled each other up all the time.
"We were promoted in the play-offs, beat West Brom at Wembley. I remember sitting in the dressing room afterwards, motionless for 20 minutes or so. Everyone was jumping around and I couldn't take it all in.
"Then you go on holiday and wait for the fixtures - there you are, it's real.
"I've scored in all four divisions, got one at Old Trafford. There's regrets I didn't do more in the Premier League. But Derby got promoted two or three years early and we were caught out.
"Billy Davies came in with at three year plan to go up - we did it in one.
"Going up and it didn't happen for us, we were getting beat every week, but it was at Anfield, Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, so it wasn't all bad.''
After scoring at Old Trafford, he played only four more times for the Rams, off to Leicester for £1.5m.
The Newcastle fan played at St James' Park for Derby, but if there's one regret of his Premier League time, it's he didn't score more goals.
"I played against Newcastle and should have scored a couple,'' he admitted. "Stevie Harper was in goal at Pride Park, we were at Pools together and we've kept in touch. He even said to me a couple of weeks ago that I've never scored past him. Should have that day.
"I had a header at St James' I should have scored, but playing there was fantastic. I was on the pitch looking where I had a season ticket, and to play against them with all the fans giving my gyp because I was one of them, lovely!
"Paul Jewell took over at Derby and a few lads didn't take to him, I went to Leicester, had some great times there.
"But it was very different when Sven-Goran Eriksson came in, a lovely fella but I'm not sure what he's got as a manager.
"Put him at the top level, he will be fine. He thinks, I've got Gerrard, Beckham, and knows what they are. It's different when players aren't at that level.''
Howard, from the Division Four first year pro to the front line focal point he is today, has never been a shirker.
Lauded by both Leicester and Derby fans, his work ethic has remained the same since turning pro. It's a mantra which has served him - and his clubs - well.
He concluded: "I always give my all, 100 per cent. Every player should. I've been brought up that way with me dad.
"I've played with players who haven't been interested, on big money who don't really care and it's very frustrating. We all do things for money, but you can't sack football off for the sake of it.''