'I’ve played the professional game for the team I supported growing up' - Jonny Howson on Leeds United debut

When Jonny Howson ran out to make his Leeds United first-team debut, it mattered little that the opposition were a League Two side or that fewer than 7,500 were rattling around inside Elland Road.
HOME GROWN - Howson was a product of the Leeds United academy and grew up a Whites fan. Pic: GettyHOME GROWN - Howson was a product of the Leeds United academy and grew up a Whites fan. Pic: Getty
HOME GROWN - Howson was a product of the Leeds United academy and grew up a Whites fan. Pic: Getty

Once he swapped the touchline for Steve Stone’s place on the field, the 18-year-old – who went on to captain his boyhood club – had achieved something that no-one could take away from him.

It was by no means a certainty that the lad from Morley would ever feature for the senior side, as he progressed through the academy, from the age of six, to the Under-16s.

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He was, by his own admission, one of the weaker players in his age group and harboured doubts that he would remain with the club when they came to decide who was to stay and who was to go.

“Our group was a good group, he said, on an appearance on the ViVoCAST podcast.

“There was me and two or three other lads who were probably the weaker ones.

“At that time there probably were those doubts over whether I was going to get anything.

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“One of the coaches backed me heavily, I believe, to keep me on.

“Once I went in full-time I was one of the weaker ones, I sometimes had to play down an age group. That was just how it was.”

But, along with doubts, he had belief and a real work ethic.

“Moments like that make you stronger, once you come through them,” he said.

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“I believed in myself, I never gave up believing. What I probably had was my hard work.

“I’d accept the situation I was in but give it everything you’ve got.

“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.”

Howson’s perseverance paid off on September 18, 2006 when he signed a three-year deal in a moment he still cherishes.

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“I’ve got a picture of me signing with my family in the house somewhere, it’s something I’m extremely proud of, first and foremost to be a professional footballer,” he said.

“It was a very proud moment, possibly at the time when you’re younger you don’t take it in too much, you’re just eager to get started and into that everyday life of going in, playing football every day.”

He didn’t have long to wait for some football, being named among the substitutes a day later for the League Cup clash with League Two Barnet at

“You find out you’re in the squad, you’re obviously excited,” he said.

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“I knew I wasn’t starting. The game comes, you’re sat in the changing rooms, a young lad around men.

“You can be very intimidated but the lads were great with me.

“It was exciting to get out and do the warm up. It obviously wasn’t a full crowd for Leeds v Barnet on a Tuesday night but nonetheless it was probably the biggest crowd I’d played in front of.

“I’d grown up going to games at Elland Road, I was excited, there were a little bit of nerves.”

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The nerves increased when, with Leeds 3-0 to the good and around a quarter of an hour left, Kevin Blackwell sent him to warm up down the touchline.

Moments later, he became the 604th player to represent the Whites.

“The butterflies start going, you’re half looking over thinking is he giving me the call yet,” he said.

“Once you get the call you’re getting stripped off, there’s nerves, excitement but when it comes to it and you run on that pitch, no-one can take that away, no matter what happens from now.

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“I’ve played the professional game for the team I’ve supported growing up.”

One achievement unlocked, Howson already had the next in mind.

“The next thing was trying to score a goal – Alan Smith was my hero growing up and he did it straight away, scoring at Anfield. I was thinking that’d be nice. I was dying to get a goal.”

He would have to wait another five months for that moment to arrive but, with the first of an eventual 225 Leeds appearances under his belt, he was ‘over the moon’.

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Blackwell was sacked the following day and Howson, dealing with his first injury of note, didn’t feature again for the first team until Christmas.

When it came, the 0-0 Elland Road draw with Hull City was worth the wait.

Howson made his first Football League start in front of 22,578 and earned the man-of-the-match award. It certainly meant more that it was a league game,” he said.

“I didn’t want to lose my first start. It was an entertaining 0-0.

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“I remember the first thing that gave me a lot of confidence, I think it was Jonathan Douglas who had come up to me before the game and said just enjoy it.

“He said ‘if you’re ever in doubt, just give me the ball, man on me or not I’ll take it off you’.

“It’s little things like that probably settle you down a little bit. You want to get your first touch, I remember chasing someone, tackling them, giving someone the ball and you hear the roar of the crowd, that gave me confidence to settle me down and gave me a gee up as well.

“When you’re a young lad coming through from the area, let’s be honest, [the crowd are] going to back you no matter what.

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“At the time you don’t realise that. I was just over the moon to be involved and I just wanted more of it.”

Howson got more, much more of it.

He spent five and a half seasons playing for the team he grew up supporting, becoming a key player, a skipper and a promotion winner as Leeds fought their way back to the Championship.

His sale to Norwich City in January 2012 was a bitter pill for Leeds fans to swallow, interpreting the move as a lack of ambition on the club’s behalf and a failure to keep hold of an academy product who could really play.

In an era that brought journeyman after journeyman to Elland Road, a player who ‘got it’ took on added significance and popularity.

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But while Howson has never since pulled on the white shirt of Leeds, he has remained a Whites fan and remained popular with the rank and file.

His ball over the top for Jermaine Beckford to go on and score a famous winner at Old Trafford and his equaliser against Bristol Rovers at Elland Road on promotion day will live long in the collective Leeds memory.

And, in telling Mateusz Klich to ‘get it done’ after the Whites had beaten his Middlesbrough side 1-0 in February – in a moment caught on camera – Howson reaffirmed his status as a local boy done good and a local boy who wants his club to do good.

Howson will always be Leeds, no-one can take that away.