Steve Howard

Howard: Playing For Leicester City Was Huge For Me

Memories of Steve Howard, Leicester City's imposing former No.9, evoke strong emotions among Foxes fans.
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The sight of him barrelling to the corner flag after netting a last-minute winner against Leeds is etched into Club folklore. Before every matchday in the present day, Filbert Way regulars are reminded of that bullet header during the pre-match montage. It's a goal which holds worthy status alongside strikes which sealed Premier League glory and wrote European history. Howard's entry was equally as significant – hoisting the Club up from depths it had never experienced before.

Howard, a 'daft Geordie' in his own words, was one component of a strike force which was, in truth, a bit of cheat code in League 1 back in 2008/09. Between Howard and Matty Fryatt, they bagged 40 goals that term. It fuelled an immediate rescue-act from Nigel Pearson, resetting the whole culture at the Club, and allowing the Foxes to lock their sights once again towards the Premier League. Without the class of 2009, maybe the triumphs of following years might not have happened. 

The clock struck 90 in April 2009 with Leicester and Leeds locked in stalemate. Both sides were eying promotion, but it was table-topping City who stood the greater chance. Nevertheless the chasing pack was closer than our recollections perhaps do justice. The nine-point gap to third which appears in history books was forged later on, boosted by this showdown with Leeds. Max Gradel, a product of the Academy, swung his right boot at a corner-kick and the ball sliced through the air. As Steve now recalls, he wasn't sure he had the energy to even make a go for it in the box, but he found it from somewhere.

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Steve Howard

A last-gasp header nudges Leicester closer to a return to the Championship.

"The ground was packed out, the fans were singing their heads off, and I remember going up for the ball," he says. "I was actually going to hang back because I was knackered! It was either Michael Morrison or Jack Hobbs, they just pushed me and said: ‘Steve, one last go’. The ball came across and… bang. The place erupted! I was shattered but when I scored I could’ve played another game! I ran into the corner celebrating and I could’ve carried everyone!"

The promotion picture drastically changed that afternoon on Filbert Way. Points were dropped elsewhere and City were well on course to end their third-tier exile. Sixteen months earlier, though, Howard found himself joining Leicester out of the blue after taking a call from his manager at Derby County, Paul Jewell. The Rams had just suffered a 15th defeat of their Premier League return, rooted to the bottom, and change was afoot at Pride Park. Howard ended up being one of a duo of Derby players to end up in Leicester, although it would take time for them to make their mark across the East Midlands. 

"I didn’t really want to leave, obviously, because we were in the Premier League at the time," he recalls. "We were getting beat every week, but I didn’t want to leave. Having played in non-league, it was a boyhood dream of mine to play Premier League football. I got a phone call from Paul Jewell after a game at Blackburn – I think I missed a penalty in that game – and he asked me to report to Leicester in the morning. I thought he meant we were training there for some reason, that’s how blasé I was.

I said to Ollie (Leicester Manager Ian Holloway): ‘If you’re after a central midfielder, he’s available. If the money and everything else was right, he’d come’. Ollie just turned around and said: ‘Yep, we’ll have him straight away’.

Steve Howard

"He went: ‘No, no, I’ve sold you to Leicester’. Looking back, it was brilliant. There was a change of personnel at Derby and I said to Ollie (Leicester Manager Ian Holloway): ‘If you’re after a central midfielder, he’s available. If the money and everything else was right, he’d come’. Ollie just turned around and said: ‘Yep, we’ll have him straight away’."

That central midfielder was Matt Oakley, the former Southampton man who'd captained Derby to play-off success in the May beforehand. The Premier League had turned out to be hostile terrain for the Rams and, without warning, Howard and Oakley were suddenly playing for a side battling relegation from the Championship. As Howard now admits, he didn't for a second contemplate a drop to League 1 as a realistic possibility, though. Holloway had just joined the Club from an upwardly-mobile Plymouth Argyle team and Leicester, albeit a squad consumed by transition, had quality among their ranks. Holloway was City's third full-time Manager of that campaign and, at its conclusion, 40 players would feature for the Foxes over the whole season. 

"I certainly didn’t think Leicester would go down," Howard says. "After my first game, it seemed like there was a lack of confidence there. It was a big transformational period for the Club. We were in a losing mentality. I’ll always say it’s easier to get into a losing mentality than it is into a winning mentality. It just wasn’t working beforehand. Ollie’s a great manager but it was just totally different from what I came from. Billy Davies (the manager who sealed promotion at Derby) was strict. It was totally the other side. I know what he was trying to do. We should have been more rigid and more structured. He was trying to get confidence back into the side, but it just didn’t work, although it clearly did work for him at other clubs."

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Steve Howard

A point at Premier League-bound Stoke isn't enough to prevent relegation.

Relegation was confirmed after a 0-0 draw at promoted Stoke City on the final day - with delirious Potters fans storming the pitch through red and white smoke at full-time - and Howard admits he took a moment to reflect on his change in fortunes.

"It was devastating from a personal point of view," he adds. "I had gone from the Premier League to League 1. I thought: ‘What have I done?!’ I’ve had a few relegations in my career and it’s never nice. Everyone was on edge before the game, there was a lot riding on it. There was a few of the lads looking at that game thinking: ‘We can’t get relegated’. It was all a negative mindset. It should have been: ‘We’re going to win this and then we’ll be alright’. But it was more about not getting beat. It was horrendous at full-time, especially at a club like Leicester."

Nobody knew for sure at the time, but City's stay in League 1 would be an excursion, not a banishment. Pearson's appointment was met with a lukewarm reception in the summer, but the former Middlesbrough captain quickly got to work, creating an ethos at the Club which would remain for years to come. Howard was there from the start of a climb up the pyramid which would end with Leicester sat at its very summit – lifting the Premier League title eight years on.

"I’d met Nige a few times and, when he came to Leicester, I thought he was my type of guy, he’s a man’s man," Steve explains. "As a daft Geordie, that’s what you want. I responded to him and he responded to me. He was good at putting an arm around people when they needed one. He was one of those kind of managers. There was no chance of me leaving that summer. He came to me and said: ‘This is what it is’. I remember being in his office with Matty Oakley and he explained what we were going to do. The season started and we just kept winning. Leicester had got their winning mentality back."

Just from the first minute I met [Matty Fryatt], I liked him.

Steve Howard

The Howard-Fryatt partnership of that 2008/09 third-tier season was unstoppable. It blew teams away. Howard's guile and skillset is sometimes forgotten, such was the strength of his burly, hard-working endeavour alongside it. He was the foil which allowed Fryatt to shine, with the former Walsall man eventually hitting over 30 goals in all competitions that year. 

"I love Matty, he’s class," Steve smiles. "Just from the first minute I met him, I liked him. I remember the first game, I just said to him: ‘Let me deal with these two centre-backs and you do what you do’. If he was getting beaten up in a game, I’d step in and deal with it, and let him play. Matty was all about his finishing and making his runs. In a few of the games we played, teams tried to nullify Matty and I helped him cope with that. You might think that old-school style has died but then you’ve got people like [Erling] Haaland at Man City, who’s a big lad who just does everything."

With Fryatt's goals, Oakley's experience and the youthful vibrancy of the likes of Andy King, the Foxes were too good for League 1. A trip to Roots Hall to face Southend United, after that 1-0 success over Leeds, was their chance to wrap up the title but one key figure – Howard himself – was absent. Illness meant he had to watch on from the sidelines as the championship was sealed. Naturally, a brace from Fryatt was the difference in Essex, securing a 2-0 win for Pearson's flying Foxes.

Steve looks back: "I had a stomach bug for that one. I didn’t have a meal the night before and I didn’t eat at pre-match. I just went to Nige and I said: ‘I don’t want to risk it and need to go off’. I never really did that, I’d usually just play. For the team and where we were, that could have been the day, so I just said: ‘Let’s just stick someone else on’ (Paul Dickov deputised that day). They got the job done anyway. Everyone was jumping on the pitch celebrating and I was on the sidelines thinking: ‘I need to go bed!’ It was great to see the lads enjoying themselves anyway. I’ve seen plenty of loud crowds, but when Leicester fans are on it, the place rocks. You can see the stands literally shaking. It was great to get the trophy for the fans and for us lads. It was a great feeling to be back. We all said: ‘Everybody forget about last year, this is us now’."

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Steve Howard

Play-off heartbreak for Steve Howard and City at Cardiff.

That precious commodity in football, momentum, remained with City into the next season. Why couldn't they continue winning in a league above? They had already shown they were too good for League 1. For a team which had undergone major surgery summer after summer for some time, minor tweaks were made to the squad ahead of the 2009/10 term. The outcome was a stability which gave Pearson's men a platform to launch a bid at back-to-back promotions. A two-legged play-off clash with Cardiff City was all that stood between them and a one-game shot at glory at Wembley. Leicester were a goal down after the first leg, which Howard missed through suspension – "The referee was a Geordie as well!" – as they headed to south Wales for the decider against Dave Jones' Bluebirds. It had all come down to one fateful night under the lights in Cardiff.  

Michael Chopra doubled the hosts' aggregate lead early on, but City dug in. Fryatt got one back, a Mark Hudson own goal levelled matters, and Andy King's glancing header set a course for a day under the arch. The late Peter Whittingham's penalty took the tie to extra-time, with neither side breaking through again. Penalties, of course. Howard scored his, as did Bruno Berner and Nolberto Solano, but Yann Kermorgant's panenka was batted away by David Marshall. Martyn Waghorn ultimately missed the deciding spot-kick and that was that. The Premier League dream was over in the blink of an eye.

In games like that, you’re so conscious of making a mistake which could lead to a goal or something and then it’s your fault. I loved games like that.

Steve Howard

"Horrendous," says Howard now. "I was devastated to miss the first leg. Nige came up to me before the second leg and said: ‘I need big players for big games, you’re starting, we need you’. We had a good team and I thought we were going to do it, we all did. When you go into the play-offs, you almost expect penalties. Training was all: penalties, penalties, penalties. In games like that, you’re so conscious of making a mistake which could lead to a goal or something and then it’s your fault. I loved games like that. When you retire, that’s what you miss, the big occasions like that. I thoroughly relished that. It gets replayed on Sky, you watch a little bit of it, and then you turn it off.

"I thought we played well, I thought we deserved to win. Yann had one of the hardest shots in the game. I just thought, in a situation like that, there’s no win. If he scores, you’d still think: ‘What you doing?’ If he misses, then you’re out. In an environment like that, you’ve got to get your head down. It fell to Waggy to take the final kick, who’s just a kid, and he’s got all that pressure on him. Nige didn’t really speak after the game. It was horrendous to be honest."

That summer, a shock was around the corner. Pearson left to join Hull City and Paulo Sousa, the Swansea City manager, was installed as his replacement on Filbert Way. Before long, a takeover would see King Power International – based in Thailand – become owners of the Club. Change was the order of the day, but Sousa's spell lasted just under three months. The Portuguese wanted to bring a continental style of play to a group of players who had been successful doing something else. 

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Steve Howard

Recalling memories on Filbert Way.

"I love Paulo, I thought everything about him was brilliant, but he just didn’t have the right players," Howard continues. "He didn’t have the right pegs to put into the holes. He didn’t come into the Club thinking he would play the way he had to because of the players he had. It didn’t work. I remember, in pre-season, we were playing a friendly away. He had the flip chart and he was going through it all and me and Matty Oakley just looked at each other. I knew exactly what he was trying to bring, but it wasn't right at the time."

Sven-Göran Eriksson, one of the game's most famous characters, a former England manager, was Sousa's replacement. It was clear that Leicester City – despite poor form pushing them into the early relegation contention – were looking upwards. It was around this time that Howard began to realise his time was probably up in the East Midlands. It would be two years before the Durham-born striker, now playing less and less, actually left the Club, though. Sven's personality kept him there.

"Sven was a great man-manager," Steve says. "Even though I didn’t play a lot under him, I loved him. I still talk highly about him now. That’s how well he managed me. I was banned from driving for speeding, driving back to Newcastle to see my kids. I came into the office and I said to Sven: ‘I’ve been banned from driving, I could be late now and then’. He stood up and I thought he was going to sack me! Instead, he said: ‘You take my driver’s car’. Sven didn’t drive so he had a big Volvo/Jeep pick me up and take me to Newcastle. I just thought: ‘Who does that?’ For me, that just simplified my life.

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Steve Howard

Head to head with Sergio Ramos on Filbert Way.

"It's little things like that. Sven was a man-manager and that’s why everyone loves him. Sven told me I wasn’t going to play as much and I said: ‘If that’s the case, let us go’. And just he went: ‘No’. I wanted to play football and a few clubs came in for me, but he wouldn’t let me leave. He didn’t want to let us go. He said, if the right offer came in, he’d let me know but it was never good enough. He wanted me to stay and help the youngsters and stuff like that and I was quite happy to stay."

Eriksson remedied Leicester's early-season woes and geared them up for a late play-off push, which eventually fizzled out. A summer of investment was the Club's response, with the pre-season visit of Real Madrid a marker of the company they wanted to keep. Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Kaká all graced the Filbert Way turf in the summer sunshine of 2011. Another season of disappointment ultimately followed, with City's high-profile Swedish Manager paying the price, but that showpiece friendly against the Galácticos of Real Madrid remains a fond memory for Leicester's former No.9.

"We all thought they’d bring their kids, but the big boys came," he remembers. "Before we went out, I would always be third behind the ’keeper, who was Kasper [Schmeichel] that day. The door opened and José Mourinho walked in. He put his arm around me and said: ‘We’ll have a good game today, yeah? Watch your tackles!’ We just had a bit of banter and then he walked off. We were all like: ‘That was definitely Mourinho wasn’t it?!’"

I’m proud to have played for Leicester. It was a family. Everyone says that about Leicester.

Steve Howard

Life is rarely dull at Leicester and so it proved that November, with new Chairman Khun Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha making the inspired choice to go and get Pearson back from Hull. Howard would finally call time on his Foxes journey during Pearson's second spell in charge, ending his career at Hartlepool United. But his team-mates of that time would rise to unthinkable heights, especially in the context of much of Howard's career at Leicester. The same fans who delightedly toasted that League 1 title in 2009 were clinking glasses in disbelief in 2016 as Claudio Ranieri's Foxes lifted the Premier League trophy to the heavens. Steve watched on delighted and still holds a sincere sense of pride to have been a part of the ride. 

"I absolutely loved my time there," Howard continues. "I get things have to change, with wanting to be in the Premier League and being a success there, but it was lovely being there in those early years. It was really intimate. You were looked after. It’s huge to me to be a former Leicester City player. You see the lads who are still around the place, like Tags (Gerry Taggart), they’re the same. I’m proud to have played for Leicester. It was a family. Everyone says that about Leicester."

The King Power Originals ‘Repowered’ collection – a range which resurrects the very first LCFC shirts of the King Power era – adds yet more nostalgia to the Club’s popular and growing retro portfolio. Click HERE to explore the new range.

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