What has the Northern League ever done for us?

#3 Leicester City

Steve Howard – a professional footballer first and foremost, but also a man who has made it his mission to lovingly recreate on a regular basis that terrifying transition from Bruce Banner to The Incredible Hulk. That is what sticks out in my mind about Big Steve – his wondrous ability to walk backwards, while continuing to fix the stare of an axe murderer on anyone who has dared to wrong him. This might be an opponent, it might be a referee or it might even be an errant plastic bag blowing across the Walkers Stadium turf without his permission. Big Steve also likes playing against Leeds United. More of that later.

Big Steve began his professional career with Hartlepool United after leaving Northern League side Tow Law Town and, via an unspectacular spell with Northampton, he pitched up at Kenilworth Road and gradually became a Luton Town legend. In truth, legend may be too strong a word – you would have to ask Luton fans about that. What I do remember is the key role he played in Mike Newell’s impressive Luton side and the feeling that a bigger club would come along soon.

Sadly, it was instead minnows Derby County that secured Big Steve’s signature. I jest due to a gentle East Midlands rivalry – Derby are obviously a decent-sized outfit that gave Big Steve his big break in the sense that it was with the Rams that he won at Wembley and played in the Premier League. Over to Derby supporter and occasional blogger Joel Clyne:

“Howard was signed for £750,000 rising to £1million (the biggest fee Derby had paid for a player in five years) and was the spearhead of the Rams attack for the forthcoming promotion campaign. Howard scored 16 goals in 43 league games that season but it was his overall character and work rate that won the hearts of Rams fans. His popularity amongst fans and his contribution to the club’s successful season led to him winning the Jackie Stamps Trophy (Player of the Year) for the 2006/07 season. However, after a paltry one goal in twenty appearances in the Premier League, Howard left for East Midlands rivals Leicester City.”

This is where I pick up the story again. Big Steve has been through ups and downs with City as we were relegated, promoted and then beaten in the Play-Off semi-finals despite his own magnificent efforts in the second leg of the tie with Cardiff. A moderately famous Cardiff fan recently told me that Big Steve’s display that evening was one of the best individual performances he had ever seen from an opposition player. And yes, it was textbook Big Steve. Bruteish strength, frightening aerial dominance and the obligatory side order of snarling and stalking around like a bear with a sore head. I could chronicle the club’s recent ups and downs in great detail, concentrating on Big Steve’s ins ands outs of favour. But you could easily look this up on Wikipedia. You only really need to know about two moments in his Leicester City career to truly get a flavour of the man.

One – February 2009 and it’s an important afternoon in the League One title race. City are a goal up and a man down at Bristol Rovers. Clinging on for a crucial three points, Big Steve takes it upon himself to strike up a personal duel with Rovers goalkeeper Steve Phillips. Well, that’s what he was called back then. The week following this game, still haunted by the memories of the monolithic Geordie, he changed his name and applied to be admitted to a safe house. Again, I jest. But it truly was gripping drama, Big Steve (not to be confused with The Goalkeeper Formerly Known As Steve) jabbing his finger at the home side’s number one and eyeballing him furiously. I can’t recall exactly what the poor bloke’s crime was – he probably insulted Ant and Dec or Lindisfarne. Nevertheless, Big Steve made his life hell for fifteen minutes or so.

Two – April 2009 and it’s an even more important afternoon in the League One title race. City host (“the mighty”) Leeds United in a crucial Easter encounter. Goalless as the game ticks towards its close, Paul Dickov’s relentless waspishness wins a corner. Max Gradel swings a cross in and Big Steve rises highest to send a bullet header into the net. Pandemonium. This season he scored twice in two wins at Elland Road in both the league and cup. There must be something about superior Yorkshire types that brings out the best in him.

So there you have it. I hope I have managed to capture the essence of Big Steve – in short, the aroma of a sweaty, perennially angry Geordie – and that the tone manages to convey just how well-liked he is in these parts. He’s on his way out due to the Sven-Goran Eriksson revolution and the inevitable passing of time. We understand that and I think even he understands that now, after a brief period of toddler tantrums after each early substitution. There will always be a small corner of our hearts devoted to remembering his pure, unadulterated rage though. Oh, and the 20-foot picture of his most terrifying goal celebration that’s been stuck above the club shop.

What did the Northern League ever do for us? In the form of Steve Howard, it frightened a Bristol Rovers goalkeeper half to death and caused a fair bit of consternation among Leeds United fans. And you can’t ask for more than that.

If you enjoyed this piece as much as I did, head straight on over to theseventytwo for more fantastic writing on everything from Leicester City’s five best players of the 21st century to Clarke Carlisle on Question Time and the Portuguese lower leagues.

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