Leeds-born Jonny Howson – a scorer against United on his first playing return to Elland Road since joining Norwich City in 2012 – is cautiously optimistic about the Whites’ future. Phil Hay reports.
Leeds United’s reputation as a ‘selling club’ was engendered by the loss of players like Jonny Howson and his goal at Elland Road on Tuesday evening offered another example of how well Leeds’ academy has served rival teams.
His move to Norwich City in 2012 is still a contentious topic; a situation where United traded their captain and an established player for £2million as his contract ran down.
Ken Bates, the club’s chairman at the time, said Norwich’s bid was a “no-brainer”.
That attitude did not win Bates many friends.
Some blame was laid at the door of Howson and his agent – Bates accused him of “steadfastly refusing” to sign a new deal – but the midfielder’s reluctance to leave Elland Road was no secret.
In taking the transfer to Norwich, he left United and Bates to face awkward questions over their own ambition.
It can only be hoped that Leeds do not back themselves into the same corner this summer.
Howson’s 57th-minute strike on Tuesday, a slick finish in front of the South Stand, set Norwich on the way to a 2-0 win and carried them further down the road to the Premier League.
But the 26-year-old finished the game with a positive impression of United’s team and the head coach who is nurturing it.
Leeds’ academy was heavily represented again, responsible for producing the attacking line of Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor.
Neil Redfearn, United’s boss, named 19-year-old Kalvin Phillips on the bench and would have used Lewis Cook had Cook been fit enough to play.
Like Howson before them, the crop of youngsters are among the players who United’s support would be loathe to lose.
The crowd warm easily to academy footballers, a fact proven by the exchange between them and Howson after his goal on Tuesday.
Far from celebrating a crucial finish, the midfielder lifted his hands to the South Stand in apologetic style.
The gesture was met with applause.
The midweek game was his first appearance at Elland Road since leaving the club he joined as a boy.
“The reaction was very special and a bit emotional in a way,” Howson said.
“Moments like that are sometimes bigger than ones that happen on the pitch. It was a nice touch.
“I felt as though I didn’t leave on bad terms but you never know what some people’s reactions are.
“I was concentrating on the game rather than anything else and when things happen, they happen in a split second. You don’t maybe mean to do it.
“A few people asked me before the game ‘if you score, would you celebrate?’ It’s something I said I probably wouldn’t do.
“I’ve got a lot of very close friends and family who are still involved with the club and who still work for the club.
“The majority of my life was spent here and I had great times here so it’s out of respect for that.”
Howson’s transfer to Norwich took him straight to the Premier League and gave him two and a half years in that division.
City were relegated last year but are second in the Championship with three games to go.
Their euphoric reaction to Tuesday’s win suggested their squad believe they are all but promoted.
Leeds are much further away from that target – as far as they were, if not further, when they chose to sell Howson – but he spoke highly of United’s young players and of Redfearn, a head coach whose future is in the balance.
“I knew Redders from my time at the club and I’ve only good things to say about him,” Howson said.
“For these young lads – I spoke to a couple of them after the game and they speak very highly of him – I don’t think there’s any better man, certainly for managing a side like this. He’s going to educate them. He’ll bring them on.
“It’s not just a case of throwing in young lads. They’ve all got talent so potential-wise they can be very good.
“It’s going to be a big summer (for Leeds) but if they can kick on then I’m sure they’ll have some promising years ahead – if the majority of them stick together.”
Howson’s departure from Leeds after 225 club appearances has not been to the detriment of his career, despite Norwich’s relegation.
United have been trapped in a lengthy cycle of ownership problems and divorced the fight for promotion to the Premier League.
He had the pleasure of the better times at Elland Road: play-off appearances in 2008 and 2009 and promotion from League One in 2010.
“I left the club for Premiership football,” Howson said.
“We (Norwich) have obviously had a setback but for our first season back in the Championship, it’s going quite well.
“With regards to Leeds, maybe it’s been the case that since I left things have been a bit up and down but there’s still potential there.
“There’s always something going on at Leeds United but they’ve got potential. Who knows what can happen if they stick together and settle for a few years?”
Howson, who was born and grew up in Morley, admitted that he was ready for “a bit of stick” after inspiring Norwich’s win at Elland Road – much of it destined to come from his brother Danny, a lifelong United supporter.
“He’s a die-hard Leeds fan and he’s never let that go,” Howson said.
“I had a few mates saying they’d come down and give me stick – but it’s all friendly banter.
“I’ve still got a lot of friends and family who follow the club and I’ve still got Leeds in my heart.
“I spent a lot of great years here. It’s where I grew up and I obviously want them to do well.”