Jonny Howson was the architect of the vibrant attacking display against West Ham and, says Dan Brigham, it’s about time Norwich's most complete midfielder started getting the credit he deserves
Jonny Howson: Pigeon Man. As superheroes go, it's down there with Colour Kid (superpower: changing the colour of stuff) and Doorman (superpower: transporting people from one room to a room next door).
Somehow, though, it’s fitting that to most casual football fans (and plenty in the media), Howson will probably forever be remembered as that player who once picked up a stranded pigeon at Upton Park. Never one to seek the limelight, never one for twitter, never one to grow a top-knot, Howson is the sort of footballer who barely registers a hint of recognition or even the tiniest of eyebrow arches from most neutrals (he is in 0.1% of fantasy football sides. A travesty, obviously).
Yet, quietly, stealthily, but very definitely, Pigeon Man is fast becoming Norwich’s best central midfielder of the Premier League era. He is more technically gifted than Jeremy Goss, Gary Megson and Damien Francis, can adapt to more positions than Ian Crook, Phil Mulryne and Wes Hoolahan, and has more commitment and nous than Leroy Fer. And none of those ever rescued a prone pigeon in front of 35,000 people.
It wasn’t always like this. In his first full season a cloud of moans and mutterings followed him whenever he misplaced a pass; many fans didn’t think he was Premier League standard (there was a very definite correlation between these fans and those who thought Bradley Johnson was Premier League class).
There was little doubt Howson was finding life tough in Chris Hughton’s midfield. But, like Tony Pulis, Hughton sees midfielders only as architects of destruction rather than creation. And Howson was always far too good for that; far too good for Hughton.
Memories of his performances when he first came to Carrow Road under Paul Lambert helped us keep the faith. He would drive forward in a way that Andrew Surman, Bradley Johnson or David Fox couldn't, chest puffed out like the Upton Park pigeon, and his ability to receive the ball in tight spaces and pick a pass marked him out as an excellent Lambert signing.
Curiously, perhaps his mindnumbing shifts as a screening midfielder under Hughton improved him as a player. His tackling got sharper, his passing from deep became more accurate. While it may not have aided the team at the time, it has helped turn Howson into the complete midfielder he is today.
And he is complete in an increasingly rare way for a modern midfielder. He’s a throwback among a generation of midfielders with very specific roles: if you’re not a No.10 and if you're not a winger who can come inside, then you’re either a destroyer in the centre of the park or (increasingly rarely) a deep-lying ball-player. Howson is all of these; he is the John, Paul, George and Ringo of Norwich’s midfield; always looking up, always looking forward, always playing drums better than Ringo.
While his very best position might be dictating and driving from deep, he has been used everywhere across the midfield under Alex Neil: left, right, behind the striker and in front of the defence. He is excellent when pushed out on the right, as he has the ability to beat people and put a cross in, while also coming inside to act as an extra central midfielder. Full-backs don’t know whether to follow him or leave it to their midfield to deal with him (on Saturday, Robbie Brady had a similar affect on the opposition).
Neil clearly rates him. He has had a big part to play in all nine games this season (starting all seven league matches), and he was ever-present under Neil when not suspended last year. If a sacrifice is made in midfield to allow both Wes Hoolahan and Nathan Redmond to play, it is never Howson that makes way; instead he usually drops back into central midfield with Graham Dorrans missing out.
It may not be a coincidence that Norwich’s only poor performance of the season, at Southampton, coincided with Howson’s only bad game. His importance to Norwich is as vital as John Ruddy, Seb Bassong and Wes Hoolahan; an injury to him would leave the midfield badly missing his thrust and precision.
If there is a criticism, it’s that Howson’s finishing isn’t as accurate as it should be for someone whose basic technique is as good as his. It is improving under Neil, though, with six of his nine goals last season coming after Neil Adams departed. If he can get near to double figures in the Premier League then he surely can’t be too far from an England squad that’s recently, inexplicably found space for Ryan Mason (rarely has a player looked so clearly destined to end up playing for a Steve Bruce team).
Let’s be honest though, it’s unlikely to happen. Not only is England’s midfield pretty strong (when everyone’s fit), but Howson comes across as too demure to create the kind of attention that would make a case for picking him unarguable. He travels under the radar and, much like his football, he appears to have emerged from a bygone era, possessing both the gait and look of a man who would be happiest sat at the bar of a windswept pub on the Yorkshire Moors, a Labrador by his feet, a flatcap upon his head, a pint of mild in one hand, and a raft of other clichés in the other.
He would perch there, supping his ale quietly to himself. Tourists, sat by the crackling fireplace in the corner, would catch his eye and turn to each other, asking what many have asked before: “Isn’t he the fella who picked up that pigeon at Upton Park?”
You can follow Dan Brigham on twitter: @dan_brigham