There was a brief moment in Jonathan Howson’s career at Leeds United when the most subjective trait in football – size – came into question.
Staff at United’s academy took the view that a young Howson was too small and too weak and prepared to release him. Greg Abbott, a coach at Thorp Arch, argued the toss.
“I said no way to that because I could see he had talent,” Abbott recalled. “All he needed was time to develop his physique.”
Football is littered with diminutive players who were shunned by certain clubs and coveted by others. Before signing for Leeds, Billy Bremner was rejected by Arsenal and Chelsea on the basis of his height. Celtic said no to Ross McCormack for the same reason. But Howson’s slight frame disguised the maturity of a teenager who was old before his years and destined to captain the club.
The midfielder split opinion between those who saw natural ability oozing from him and those who questioned the consistency of Howson’s influence. A striker in his youngest years, the full glare of his talent was only allowed to shine when circumstances before the 2010-11 season created scope for him to play in a midfield five, in behind a lone striker. The role tapped into his strengths and allowed Howson’s attack-minded game to flourish.
He scored 11 goals in a season when United outscored almost all of the Championship and one match at Scunthorpe brought a classic hat-trick: one finish with his right foot, one with his left and a third with his head. The academy coaches who worked with Howson still maintain that he had the instinct to play as an out-and-out forward.
Howson captained Leeds for much of that term in the absence of the injured Richard Naylor. Naylor would joke that the armband was “a bit baggy” for a slim, 21-year-old but Howson had worn it before, becoming the youngest United captain since Bremner when Gary McAllister appointed him temporarily for a visit to Millwall in 2008.
That opportunity was in keeping with Howson’s reputation as a rapid climber. He was 18 on the day of his senior debut and made his first league appearance in a 0-0 draw with Hull City before Christmas in 2006.
It was a nowhere-to-hide fixture, played between two clubs who were already fighting relegation. The contest was grim but Howson skipped through it. He took the man-of-the-match award at full-time.
Dennis Wise was not the only manager who spotted Howson’s maturity and sense of timing. His two-goal performance in the second leg of Leeds’ play-off semi-final at Carlisle United was Howson’s personal pinnacle but his nerveless finish on the last day of the 2009-10 season – a dinked 20-yard shot from the edge of the box – was typical of his character.
He had started the afternoon on the bench and appeared in the 54th minute with United 1-0 down to Bristol Rovers and without the red-carded Max Gradel.
Howson’s strike within four minutes was pivotal, though only as crucial as the change in intensity and impetus inspired by the substitution.
“Coming on and scoring the equaliser really meant something,” Howson said later.
“The Carlisle goals were great and they took us to Wembley but in the end it didn’t mean anything. The Bristol Rovers goal did.”
He took the captaincy full-time the following season but left in the January transfer window, sold to Norwich for £2m.
Howson moved on with reluctance while privately admitting that United’s ambition was struggling to match his.
He was neither the first nor the last player to reach that conclusion.