The journey Riley embarked upon – taken because of a decision he now regrets – took him from Filbert Street to Walsall, then the USA, Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria and back to Leicestershire.
Born in Wigston, Riley, at the age of 24, was at the peak of his career in 1963. An England youth international, he had made his City debut four days after his 17th birthday in August 1955. He subsequently established himself in the first team and played for the Club in 1961 and 1963 FA Cup Finals.
On 27 April, 1963, Leicester met Bill Shankly’s Liverpool the FA Cup Semi-Final in front of a 65,000 crowd at Hillsborough. The Foxes won 1-0. The winning goal was created by Howard, whose free-kick from the right, taken near the half-way line, was headed in powerfully by Mike Stringfellow in the 18th minute.
Nine days earlier, on Easter Tuesday in 1963, City beat Manchester United 4-3 at Filbert Street to go to the top of the old First Division with only five games to go. In that game, United’s Denis Law and City’s Ken Keyworth both scored hat-tricks for their respective sides. Keyworth netted his three goals in a six-minute spell, with each coming from crosses on the right wing provided by Riley
These two results meant that City had become realistic contenders for the league and cup double.
It was therefore something of a surprise when, at this high point of his career, Howard decided to give up full-time football, go part-time at Leicester and train to be a teacher.
It was a three-year course, training to be a PE and history teacher. I travelled to college either by driving or by train.Howard Riley
Explaining this decision, Howard began: “I was approaching my peak and I’d got another five, six or seven years with Leicester and possibly another cup final. I also missed out on a testimonial game which was due in August 1965. That was a big financial hit. Colin Appleton (Leicester City’s captain) had one the year before, in which Stanley Matthews, who played until he was 50, took part.
“I took the decision because I was thinking that teaching would provide security after I’d finished playing. Being a pupil at Kibworth Grammar school might have had something to do with this. Also, I spoke to Eddie Russell and Ron Jackson, who’d played for Leicester and who were now teachers.
“There were no agents then and nobody to advise you, so you took your own decisions. I told (Leicester City Manager) Matt Gillies just before the 1963 cup final. He said that he respected my decision. Bert Johnson, the Assistant Manager, who was a great chap, said something about me not respecting professional football but that wasn’t the case. It was all about planning for a secure future. With hindsight, it was a wrong decision.”
Howard became a student at St. Peter’s College in Saltley in Birmingham, continuing to play for Leicester City as a part timer.
He added: “It was a three-year course, training to be a PE and history teacher. I travelled to college either by driving or by train. I didn’t apply for a grant because, after the maximum wage in football had been abolished in 1961, I‘d been on decent money and I didn’t need one. I paid out of my own money. The chap at college couldn’t believe it when I wrote a cheque out because they weren’t used to that.
“After that, I kept my place in the City team for a season (1963/64) as a part timer and scored the winning goal in the League Cup Final against Stoke. Eventually though, I finished up in the reserves.
“I’d gone from playing at the top level in English football to playing for the college team but a Third Division side, Walsall, were interested in signing me so I went there in my third year at college in December 1965. The manager was Ray Shaw, who later became Leicester City’s Chief Scout. At Walsall, I played alongside Allan Clarke (who later signed for Leicester City for a British transfer record in June 1968) and we both scored in a 2-0 victory in the FA Cup against First Division side Stoke City. Also, while I was at college, I did a coaching course.”
Howard qualified as a teacher but then, in April 1967, he went to the USA to sign for Atlanta Chiefs in the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) which merged with the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1968.
In addition to Howard, the NSPL attracted some notable players from England and Europe. These included Phil Woosnam (the former West Ham United, Aston Villa and Wales striker), Vic Crowe (the former Aston Villa and Wales wing-half), and Peter McParland, a Northern Ireland international who had played for Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Woosnam played for Atlanta Chiefs in 1967 and was named as their coach in 1968 before becoming head coach of the USA national team and then commissioner of the NASL between 1969 and 1982. He played a crucial role in the development of the game in the USA.
“I met Phil Woosnam at college,” Howard continued. “Professional soccer was just starting in America. He was based at Atlanta Chiefs and I joined him there. Atlanta is in the Deep South Bible Belt. People there were very friendly. We had a lovely apartment there. It was like a holiday apartment with a swimming pool and tennis courts. It was another world.
An iconic Leicester City side pictured in 1963.
“Atlanta Chiefs played in the Atlanta Stadium. It was a beautiful brand-new stadium. It held 54,000 fans and filled every time to watch the Atlanta Braves play baseball and the Atlanta Falcons play American football. We had crowds of about 18,000 which wasn’t bad for soccer in those early days.
“The stadium was circular. There were no traffic or parking problems. You were straight out after a game and onto the express way. I remember the steaks we used to eat before matches. They were New York steaks. I’d never seen anything like them. They were beautiful. We’d eat them a couple of hours before a match.
“For away matches, we always flew with Delta Airlines because they sponsored the Braves and the Falcons. The nearest match to Atlanta was probably Baltimore, but we also flew to places like Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I’ve still got some of my Delta Airline travel labels.
“We used to train at Emory University in Atlanta. When we weren’t playing midweek, Peter McParland, myself and one or two others would fly to Washington to play for Washington Britannia when they were playing at home. They were a club in a semi pro-league. We’d then have a meal and fly back the same night. In Washington, I met a physio Franco Gabrieli, who had played in goal for Italy. He told me that he had never seen anyone hit a ball as hard as me. He’d say things to me like: ‘The goalie heard it but he didn’t see it!’
“Unfortunately, I fell out with Phil Woosnam. I thought I should have been in the team more. I was wrong though. We were there for the development of football in America and bringing on players. That’s why Phil brought in some players from Africa, to be put in the team to develop their game. Phil was a smashing bloke and a top player as well. I know now that I was out of order, but I didn’t realise it at the time. Anyway, we decided it would be best if I got another club, so he arranged for me to go to Miami and have a trial with a club there.
“I went there and stopped in Orlando, picking oranges from the trees and stuff like that. After the trial, they wanted to sign me. It was customary in America that if you signed for a club, you would probably get a signing on fee, but when I asked for one, it didn’t go down well, so that was it. Finished. In those days, there was no such thing as players having agents.
“After that we thought it was best for everyone if I came back to England, so it was arranged for us to come back on the QE2, which was incredible really.
I didn’t really enjoy it at Barrow. There was such a contrast between Atlanta, where we flew to games, and Barrow, where we travelled by coach there and back on the same day to away games.Howard Riley
“I was at Atlanta for about a year and a half. I had some great experiences there. We had one of those big luxury American cars, a yellow Lincoln Mercury. The car was an automatic, so I took my test in a carpark. It was hardly a test at all. I remember one Christmas driving from Atlanta to New York, where it was snowing. It’s a long way, and we stopped off somewhere overnight. What amazed me was how easy it was to drive there.
“On another occasion, we drove to somewhere in Tennessee for a trip. On the way back, we stopped off, parking well off the highway in a place surrounded by bushes. We got out of the car and suddenly this baby black bear came walking up to us and got very close to us. We quickly got out of the way!”
When Howard returned to England, he spent another season (1968/69) in the Football League, playing for Barrow in the Third Division.
“Colin Appleton (the ex-Leicester City captain) was the manger there and he got in touch with me when I got back to England,” Howard recalled. “He’d been there for a year and then half-way through my season there, just after Christmas, he’d gone.
“I didn’t really enjoy it at Barrow. There was such a contrast between Atlanta, where we flew to games, and Barrow, where we travelled by coach there and back on the same day to away games. Even going to the Midlands was a long journey, let alone going to the South Coast to places like Plymouth and getting back at 2am in the morning. I don’t know how we did it!
“By now, as a qualified teacher, I wanted to get into teaching, so I left Barrow, came back to Leicester and started teaching at Westcotes School for four years before going to the King Richard III school.”
Howard also remained active in non-league and local football, playing for Rugby Town, Burton Albion (where his manager was ex-Leicester City team-mate Richie Norman), Ibstock, Penistone Rovers (where he was player manager), Midland Athletic and Wigston Town.
After retiring from teaching in 1995, he then spent two years working at South Wigston High School before returning to Leicester City between 1999 and 2005 as Welfare and Education Officer for the Academy.
Howard still lives in Wigston and can often be seen on matchdays at King Power Stadium supporting the team he represented with such distinction between 1955 and 1964.
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