One of Lee Howey’s most cherished memories is standing on a table outside a Sunderland pub celebrating promotion to the Premier League in 1996. Like a “pissed-up Simon Rattle”, he leads fans in a locally famous chant about his sibling Steve, the one-time Newcastle, Manchester City and England defender. To the tune of the Direct Line insurance jingle, it is succinct: “Lee Howey, Lee Howey, Lee Howey! Your brother is a cunt!”
This is an account of an often frustrated but fully lived career, soaked in copious booze and swearing, punctuated by kicking people, injuries and occasional goals. As the title suggests, Howey was an aggressive, often effective but not great defender-cum-striker. Injured as an Ipswich apprentice, he is told that he won’t ever play again, but via lower-league Belgium and Sunderland’s Sunday League, he eventually enjoys four years, and one Premier League season, at his beloved hometown club.
There are many nights out, team buses overloaded with Budweiser and pre-kick-off whisky during the Peter Reid era. Yet Howey doesn’t shy away from alcohol’s darker consequences. He is ashamed after vomiting on the pitch after a wedding and gateau for breakfast in Belgium. He deliberately drinks to impede his abilities during a later fall-out with Stan Ternent. And he is empathetic, rather than laddish, towards addiction, bullying and other issues.
Howey leaves Wearside, missing out on an eventful era, because: “I got pissed and signed for Burnley.” His career unravels at Turf Moor, partly due to his dysfunctional relationship with Ternent, before happier times at Northampton Town, then a descent through the leagues.
Howey asks us not to underestimate footballers’ mental abilities. “Do not confuse uneducated with unintelligent,” he writes. But he, or perhaps co-writer Tony Gillan, sometimes overreaches in trying to prove that. So “eidetic” memories, “supernal” books and l’esprit d’escalier – or thinking of the perfect response too late – jar with the quippy style employed elsewhere.
This is a snapshot of English football just as cash floods the game. Howey believes money has broken any connection between fans and players. He says he doesn’t resent missing out on millions because of the fun he had, something that doesn’t exist now. “We were allowed to drink and experience the joys of being silly normal young men. Normality has apparently been banned since then,” he reckons.
Howey is honest about his anxieties and shortcomings. In an excruciating episode of 1980s teenage ignorance that he remains “hideously embarrassed” about, he racially slurs early team-mate Dalian Atkinson. The pair then become friends. He is also remarkably straightforward about his violence on the pitch. “Regardless of income, the opportunity always exists to become a full-time arsehole and I have never taken it,” he writes. That appears to be true.
Howey is now estranged from his brother. So what about that song, which can still be heard at Sunderland away matches? He approves greatly: “It’s the joy of obscene language. Of course swearing isn’t ‘necessary’. This is part of its appeal. Herbaceous borders and Chanel Number 5 aren’t ‘necessary’ and no one disapproves of them, because they make life ever so slightly better.”