‘Massively violent and decidely average’ is the beautifully named new book from Lee Howey, a self-deprecating and remarkably honest reflection on the cult hero’s career.
Right from the start, he was determined that it would not be just another football autobiography.
It couldn’t possibly be. A boyhood supporter, Howey was a central character as Sunderland rose from one of the lowest points of the modern era and began a remarkable rise under Peter Reid.
From the dressing room acrimony of the Terry Butcher era, to the ‘mundane’ Mick Buxton to the ‘full-on’ Reid and Saxton, Howey has spared no detail and is at times movingly frank about his off and on field issues.
He had worried that ‘no one would would want to read a book about Lee Howey’ but as anyone who has seen Premier Passions will already know, the source material from that era was utter gold dust.
“I thought about [writing] it 10 years ago,” he says.
“I actually had lining paper across three walls in my office, and every time a memory or a story came back to me I would scribble on it. I’ve still got that paper so when I came to get it down it was there.”
The book tells his unlikely tale, going from an early setback to playing for his hometown club during an era of dramatic highs and lows.
There were spectacular moments but by his own admission, it was rarely easy.
“I was told at 19 that I’d never play football again. To get back in and to sign for Sunderland...wow,” Howey reveals.
“I could have signed for Ipswich a week before but I was invited to play against Newcastle in a reserves match at Roker Park. How can you turn that down? I scored and came off just after half-time, I actually had a twisted ankle, you just strapped it up and got on with it.
“So I signed for Terry Butcher, I wasn’t bothered about the money, I was just ready to snatch the pen out of his hand. I wasn’t the finished article by any stretch, I was straight out of Plains Farm working mens club and Bishop Auckland.
“Being a Sunderland fan, it meant so much to me. I actually suffered from really bad anxiety, I was terrified at times.
“I knew what the fans wanted more than anyone, that anxiety came from feeling that responsibility. It actually affected me really badly at times but what could you do? You just had to get on with it.
“The transition was hard, I’d basically just watched and celebrated Sunderland’s FA Cup run. I went to the semi final, waving at the bus when it came past The Prospect, suddenly a few months later I was in the dressing room and sitting on the bus.
“If we’d lost a game I’d be absolutely furious. I was just a fan let loose really, and it took me a while to adjust.”
Howey reflects in the book on the culture of the game at the time and how remarkably it has changed in the decade or so since he retired.
At the heart of it he ponders the connection he had with supporters and how much harder it is for players to achieve that now.
Football did not offer Howey financial security as it would now but he wable to enjoy success in a way players now could not possibly consider.
“We would go to Annabels on a Saturday night in our club tracksuits,” he says.
“I live in Seaton Village these days, we’ve had a couple of footballers there and they just shut the gates, they’re virtually cocooned in this bubble, never engaging.
“I was in the town after most home games with my friends, but I’d spend so much of the night talking to fans. They’d come up and say, ‘Jesus, Lee, you were sh*t today.’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, you’re right’. They knew, though, I’d put a shift in and there was that respect there.
“The night we got promoted, though, that was just absolutely euphoric. I was in Chaplin’s, standing on the tables, that was the best feeling ever. Money can’t buy that feeling but I’d probably have been lambasted these days.
“I was singing all the songs, including THAT Lee Howey one. There were probably 400 renditions and I was leading just about everyone.
“I was on that table for about an hour and a half singing non-stop.”
His journey has been from fan, to player, and back to fan.
Howey works in financial services but can be seen on matchdays at the Stadium of Light, despairing as much as anyone at the on-field woes.
It said much for how fondly his era is rememebered that after Simon Grayson’s departure, many called for the return of Reid.
Howey hopes that Chris Coleman can bring the same presence as Reid did and saw much that he liked in the 1-0 win over Hull City last weekend.
He said: “I do a bit work in Jimmy Montgomery’s lounge and I said after the game, for me Ethan Robson was the man of the match. He got us started, all of a sudden he was getting those tackles in.
“It picked the crowd up, Cattermole followed and that bite in midfield made all the difference.
“I always say to my lad, at the old Roker Park and even now, a good tackle can get the crowd going as much as a goal. Football can be so passive these days, so sterilised, you have the ball, we have the ball.
“You want to see people getting stuck in, a bit of blood and guts, people still want that.”
“I met Chris a couple of times in a Manchester nightclub with Andy Melville! He seemed a top bloke, and everything you hear, from Bally and a couple of other people in the game, they all say how good he is.
“He has that aura about him, he just has that dressing room presence and it takes a lot to have that. Players want to play for him.
“The Simon Grayson team, it was hard to see what we were trying to do, but we have a shape and balance now. After Rodwell-gate, he’s getting players in who want to play and that is just paramount.”
As honest in person as he is in the book, Howey has left no stone unturned in a vivid depiction of his career.
“I wish I scored more goals, I wish I didn’t suffer anxiety as much, but I’ve no regrets,” he added.
“I played for the best fans in the world and I just hope they get what they deserve.”
l ‘Massively violent and decidedly average’ is available to buy from February 6, priced £12.99