Long Reads

Tim Howard: Everton’s very own Captain America

It’s undoubtedly an exciting time to be a United States football fan. After a somewhat insignificant period in the history of their national football team, the latest crop of players look set to guide their country to some form of success in the coming years, such is the talent that is coming through. Tyler Adams, Sergino Dest, Josh Sargent, Weston McKennie, Chris Richards, Giovanni Reyna. The list is endless.

Fortunately for the English Premier League, a handful of the nation’s talented players have ended up plying their trade in the division. The names of Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Manchester City’s Zach Steffen perhaps come to mind first up, but Fulham full-back Antonee Robinson and Wolves youngster Owen Otasowie are also impressing on the main stage.

There is understandably a lot of excitement surrounding this current generation of Stars and Stripes. But they all have a long, long way to go if they ever want to emulate the American stars of old, with the likes of Brad Friedel, Clint Dempsey, Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride all leaving a lasting mark on English football.

One other US national that certainly left his mark is Everton hero Tim Howard. The Toffees legend was and still is a fan favourite, and will be remembered long into the future on the banks of the River Mersey. In a turbulent time for the club, the Goodison Park faithful needed a constant, a rock, a loyal servant, and they found it in the form of the American goalkeeper.

Many Premier League fans could be forgiven for forgetting that Howard had a spell at English footballing giants Manchester United before the move to Everton, with his legacy at the latter perhaps overshadowing his time spent with the former. Nonetheless, his stint at Old Trafford was unsurprisingly a success, such was his ability even at a young age. The Manchester outfit had plucked the goalkeeper from out of nowhere, with the youngster arriving from the MetroStars in 2003 for a reported fee of $4m (£2.9m).

Taking over from Fabien Barthez was certainly no mean feat, neither was adapting to life in a foreign country, but Howard managed both with ease. He became an instant hit under Sir Alex Ferguson, saving two penalties in the Community Shield shootout victory over old rivals Arsenal. The keeper went on to make 32 league appearances in his debut season in England, while also helping United clinch the FA Cup. Individual recognition followed in the form of a place in the PFA Team of the Year.

But such success was short-lived. A string of mistakes from both Howard and his closest competitor Roy Carroll frustrated Ferguson and United fans alike, leaving the boss with no choice but to look for a suitable replacement in the transfer window. And that replacement arrived in the form of Edwin van der Sar. Needless to say the experienced Netherlands international took over the reins dramatically, and quite simply never let go in the years that followed.

Fortunately for Howard – and indeed Everton – the Toffees were in desperate need of an agile shot-stopper. The American was the ideal man to put between the sticks at Goodison, and his initial loan in 2006/07 was quickly turned into a permanent deal by the Merseyside outfit.

Slowly but surely, he began racking up the appearances in blue, which in turn brought about countless saves, punches, catches and kicks, all of which were cheered on boisterously by the Toffees faithful. A 100th Everton game arrived in November 2008, with a memorable FA Cup semi-final meeting against former club Man United coming soon after. The keeper stole all the headlines as he saved two penalties in the shoot-out to send his side to the final against eventual winners Chelsea.

From then on in, the honours continued to pop up. While the early 21st century may not have been trophy-laden for Everton, Howard continued to impress on a personal level. He set the club record for most clean sheets in a league season with 17, just four off leader and former team-mate Van der Sar. The captaincy at Goodison came his way shortly after, followed rather uniquely by his very first goal in football, when a wind-assisted clearance extraordinarily bounced over the head of Bolton’s Adam Bogdan. Howard refused to celebrate, however, such was his compassion for the unfortunate circumstances that his opposite number fell victim to that afternoon.

March 2012 saw the now-experienced keeper secure a much-deserved contract extension, with neither party planning on ending the harmonious relationship anytime soon. His continuous top-drawer displays were one thing, but to maintain such high standards time after time was a truly remarkable feat. That feat is perhaps best epitomised through Howard’s 210 consecutive Premier League appearances, ending only because of an unfortunate finger injury. Despite falling just two games short of Neville Southall’s club record, the six-year spell remains an astonishing achievement, the likes of which may not be seen again for quite some time.

Nonetheless, Everton’s number one did pick up his 100th Toffees clean sheet soon after, appropriately arriving in a fiercely contested derby against local rivals Liverpool. But after a decade on Merseyside, it was announced in 2016 that Howard would be leaving, with the goalkeeper proclaiming before kick-off: “I will remain an Evertonian for life. This will always be my team, my club.” While he may not have surpassed Southall’s clean sheet run, he did exit Everton as their most-capped Premier League player of all-time with 354 appearances, a record that still stands to this day. Howard’s 148 wins in the league meanwhile place him second, eight behind leader Leon Osman.

But it is perhaps his total league clean sheets that stand taller than any other statistic. The magnificent shot-stopper left with 132 shutouts to his name, placing him joint-eighth in the all-time list. Who does he share that spot with? Well, rather fittingly, compatriot Brad Friedel and old friend Van der Sar join him on a hugely impressive 132 clean sheets throughout their time in the competition.

Star-spangled recognition

Such an impressive club career certainly doesn’t go unnoticed, with Howard’s senior US venture beginning in 2002, after a number of successful appearances in the U20 and U23 setups. Having been forced to wait patiently for an opportunity, his number one role finally arrived in 2007 at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Sharing duties with Kasey Keller throughout the tournament, it was Howard who was selected in the all-important starting XI by Bob Bradley, with USA defeating Mexico 2-1 in the final.

His appearances grew in number as the years went on, with consecutive World Cups in 2010 and 2014 undoubtedly producing his most memorable displays on the international stage. The former saw the keeper produce a man of the match display on his World Cup debut against England, with the latter resulting in two further man of the match performances against Portugal and Belgium. And despite ending in an agonising extra-time defeat, the meeting with the Belgians will be remembered fondly by the man himself, with Howard’s 15 stops breaking the record for the most saves in a World Cup match. The heroics then broke the internet, with the hashtag #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave going viral not long after.

He retired from the national setup in 2017 as the most capped goalkeeper in the country’s history with 121 appearances, with three consecutive CONCACAF Men’s Goalkeeper of the Year awards going his way between 2013 and 2015.

Running the show at Memphis 901

Outfield players – perhaps understandably – often call it a day in their late thirties. Injuries eventually start to take their toll, with the mental demands of the game almost as exhausting as the physical. For goalkeepers, however, it is a different story entirely. Juventus legend Gianluigi Buffon is undoubtedly the first name that springs to mind in such a scenario. The Italian is admittedly largely playing second fiddle to Wojciech Szczęsny at Juventus this season, but he remains a vital figure both on and off the pitch, having recently celebrated his 43rd birthday. Everton hero Howard isn’t far behind.

After leaving England, Howard was welcomed with open arms back to the MLS, with Colorado Rapids the lucky club to land the goalkeeper on a three-and-a-half-year deal. His phenomenal reflex saves and wise decisions inside the box continued throughout that period, with a crucial penalty save or two popping up every now and then.

Four quick years passed, with 2019 seemingly bringing an end to his playing career. But his retirement announcement in October was short-lived, with Howard returning to the game in March 2020. Much like he has blocked the shots fired at him over the years, the American is now blocking any effects of the ageing process, and is still going strong at the age of 41. But while those that have come before him are restricting their duties to the pitch, Howard is living a double life at Memphis 901.

The Tennessee outfit compete in the United States League Championship – the second division of American football – and know Mr Howard as sporting director, minority owner, and number one goalkeeper. Add to that list his ambassador role with former club Everton and it’s quite an extraordinary CV, and an equally extraordinary footballing career.