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the square ball week: jonny, we’re sorry

the square ball week: jonny, we’re sorry


One of my enduring memories of the season just gone at Elland Road is of watching a corner against Nottingham Forest.

The ball was cleared, and looped high into the dark sky. It fell, as it had to, but to Earth; a boot intervened, and volleyed the ball, as nobody expected, a bolt through the night that left the Forest goalkeeper thunderstruck as if caught beneath the trees. A moment’s pause, and then pandemonium in the stands.

Souleymane Doukara did something similar, but that wasn’t the goal we were watching. As Leeds toiled through their late season loss of form, losing to Wolves or something, we were watching Jonny Howson’s goal against Nottingham Forest for Norwich City, passing a phone screen around up in the stands. It had knocked Doukara’s bid for goal of the season into a poor second place, and had us sighing as we watched, thinking of what might have been.

I was already thinking of what might have been on the day Jonny Howson was sold to Norwich. Although, before becoming nostalgic about the future, I’d got the present situation wrong. Right now is always the hardest time to interpret.

That week, I’d taken Howson’s sale as a sign of the player’s impatience with Leeds United, buying the talk that he’d been offered something at Norwich that he didn’t think he could have at Leeds. I wondered if, as Simon Grayson’s side stagnated through Ken Bates’ lack of investment, Howson’s sale might be the power move that finally bust the inertia. Supporter boycotts hadn’t worked, but if enough good players got pissed off and left, that might just make the old goat listen.

As the weeks and months went by we got a clearer picture of what actually happened. Howson had been offered something he might not get at Leeds, and that came to pass; he went to the Premier League, and Leeds United didn’t. It hadn’t been his choice to chase it, though, nor had Grayson been willing to let him leave, but Bates made it clear that he was accepting Norwich’s offer, and the fait all round was accompli.

Grayson was convinced to sanction the sale by promises that the fee would go straight into his infamous warchest, and with a week of the transfer window left, he reasoned that the money might buy other players who could move Leeds United into the play-offs. He didn’t get any other players, though. He got the sack, and Neil Warnock got his job, and soon Gulf Finance House appeared on the horizon, and the fee received for Howson? Well. Your guess is as good as mine.

What I did have right, though, was that selling the Jonny Howson of 2012 wasn’t the worst part of the deal. It didn’t help Leeds United to promotion that season — as Robert Snodgrass so eloquently pointed out that summer — but more than that, I predicted, “We’ll miss the 26, 27, 28 year old Jonny more in the seasons to come.”

23 year old Howson wasn’t necessarily appreciated at Elland Road. ‘Goes missing’ was the major complaint, repeated no matter how many times you reminded people of how he took responsibility in the last minute to win the play-off semi-final at Carlisle, or about his vital, brilliant and neglected equaliser in the promotion clinching game against Bristol Rovers. Howson was a worthy Leeds United captain, because in pressure situations, he could drag the team over the line.

It was in low pressure matches that Howson could be hard to find, but it was, and is, remarkable how a club with such a strong track record of producing talented youngsters can be so unforgiving of youth. In the years Howson played for Leeds, he was learning his craft, and part of that process was learning how to perform in ordinary matches so that his lower key would resonate as strongly as the crashing chords of his big game goals. That’s something that comes with maturity, which is something Howson didn’t have when he left.

When I think about what Leeds United has missed by selling its Academy assets over the years, maturity is the key. We’ve seen brilliant players in their first flush, and we’ve seen some wither — perhaps we were lucky to see the best of Aidy White or Alex Mowatt. But of others, we’ve only ever seen glimpses of what they might become, before time and maturity acted to complete the process begun by their talents.

That can lead to distortions. It’s possible to look at the careers of Sam Byram and Lewis Cook since they left Leeds, and argue that we’ve been better this season without them. But then you watch Cook finding late season form for Bournemouth, patrolling Premier League midfield and using his vision to set up chances and goals, and you have to think that yeah, maybe we didn’t need him this season. But by god we could do with him in a few years, when he’s as good as he’s going to be.

We’ve absorbed such departures thanks to the Thorp Arch supply line, that has always meant a new idea of a player to help us forget the last. Byram went, but then Cook came to the fore. Cook went, but then we just watched Ronaldo Vieira instead. But what’s the point in potential after potential after potential, if we never see it fulfilled?

Bringing a player back is always a risk. Think of Lee Chapman or Fabian Delph on loan, cameos from beloved old actors we’d rather had been strangers. But the idea of Jonny Howson coming home — even if it is only transfer tattle so far — feels instinctively fated to work. For one thing, I wrote, “We’ll miss the 26, 27, 28 year old Jonny,” and he celebrates his 29th birthday this weekend. So from a mystical point of view, it’s time.

It’s just in time, too. We have, unfortunately, missed his peak. A few months ago Norwich City posted a video to YouTube called ‘Jonny Howson: Five Years a Canary.’ It shows him winning promotion, lashing characteristic goals from the edges of the penalty area, captaining the side, scoring a goal to save them from relegation (finishing off a one-two with Luciano Becchio, of course), starting inside his own half and evading six Manchester City players to score an incredible solo goal past Joe Hart in the Etihad. And all for bloody Norwich. What a waste.

That he’s stayed at Norwich, though, ought to be kept in mind by those weird few who resent him leaving Leeds (there were halfhearted but audible boos during his most recent return). He’s not a player to switch clubs on a whim or the promise of a signing fee. He’s also not a player any manager there hasn’t wanted. To described him as a solid 7/10 performer would seem to undersell him; there’s a regular 8/10 player there, who has the maturity and the experience to know what he’s doing. His performance at Elland Road wasn’t scintillating, but it was effective, and with a swift swaying run and a smart pass, he got the assist for their third goal. He’d set the forward play in motion for the second, too.

Scanning the leagues for a player to lift Leeds United midfield above the levels of Eunan O’Kane, Liam Bridcutt, Kalvin Phillips and Ronaldo Vieira, you’d be looking for a player like Jonny Howson: an experienced player who can pass with intuition and incision, and whack the ball into the net every few games. One day, that player might be Ronaldo Vieira, but that might be another story, for five or ten years from now. For now, if he’s available, it might as well be Jonny Howson himself, who can also take over from Pablo Hernandez if necessary, and can add to the atmosphere of committed leadership created by Jansson, Ayling, Berardi and, hopefully still next season, Bartley.

“Did anyone else have a dim daydream of watching Jonny, the thirty year old skipper of Leeds, lifting the Premier League trophy?” I wrote, back in 2012, castigating Ken Bates for stealing my dreams. “Well, it might have been,” I added. And, well, it still might. 29 years old, a promotion winner with Leeds, then into the Premier League, thirty, and better than we’ve ever seen him. It’s a dream, sure. But it would be nice to have at least one of our old dreams back.


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