RR: Welcome Lee, and thanks for taking the time to sit down with Roker Report.
LH: No problem, it’s a pleasure.
RR: Let’s start back in 1992. You were playing for Bishop Auckland but watching the Lads at Roker Park as a fan. How did you enjoy the cup run?
LH: When I could, I always went. My life was always mad-daft Sunderland, really.
I tried to get to as many of the games as possible during the cup run as I could. I got a semi-final ticket, so I went down to Hillsborough to watch them there – wasn’t the best of games, but who cares, we won – but I couldn’t get a ticket for the final.
We ended, like probably most Sunderland fans, round the TV. I watched it with my mates: it was a fairly sunny day so we had a bit of a barbecue and a few beers, as you normally do. Must have been about twenty of us crouched round the telly. The telly’s weren’t like they are now though!
RR: The next season didn’t start too well under Malcolm Crosby, but that perhaps opened the door for others to come in, like yourself?
LH: Yeah, it’s really hard to put your finger on it. You can feel like you have the best manager in the world or you can sense the optimism in the summer when we get new signings, but, yeah…
I met Crozzer a few times - a really nice fella, but whether or not he was cut out for management...
Everyone in the game says what a lovely fella, what a great coach, but maybe not tough enough really to be a manager cos he’s just so nice. Maybe he just wasn’t able to pull it all together, which is a shame cos on the back of a fantastic cup run and a couple of good signings it just never happened.
But the gods were looking down on me because the change gave me my chance.
RR: Aye, because Terry Butcher replaced Crosby in the February and he signed you & Mick Harford. How did that come about?
LH: Aye, I arrived just before Mick.
When I first left school I signed for Ipswich Town and at the time Terry Butcher was England captain and virtually ran that side. He was a mega-hero of mine, so obviously to be around him and see him… I played a few practice games and had a few tussles with him as a 16-year old, but he didn’t mind. He obviously kicked us up a height but didn’t mind at all. He went away and I saw him a couple of times when he came back from Rangers and he was always ‘How you doing, Lee? How’s things?’
So when he did get the job [at Sunderland] I actually said to friends ‘D’you know what, if I’m gonna sign for Sunderland this is it’. I was back playing and doing quite well and I started to get a couple of clubs interested while I was playing for Bishop Auckland and I just thought ‘if this is not the time to get a chance, it’ll never happen’.
I’d gone for a trial with Doncaster, but then I went down to Ipswich and I scored probably the best goal of my life. They wanted me to sign. They said ‘come back down’, but I said, ‘look, I’ve been invited to play for Sunderland at Roker Park against Newcastle in a reserve game. I want to play!’
Newcastle had a decent side out - Christiansen, Nielsen and so on - some really good players. I played up front with Craig Russell and I had the bit between my teeth. I was going round thinking I’d died and gone to heaven, really, playing the Mags. I’d scored after 15, 20 mins and played really well, but I’d twisted my ankle when I was on trial with Ipswich so I’d had to strap it up. By the second half it was getting sore. Anyway, we won 4-1 and I’d come off after an hour and then Butch came down to the changing room. I was thinking I’ve had to come off; I’ve lost my chance but he just said ‘come in tomorrow and we’ll sign you’.
I don’t think I slept. With dawn breaking, I thought I’d get myself down and sit outside the ground…
At 19 I was told I’d never play. I smashed my knee - I was a ticking time-bomb. I had no cartilages in my right knee so I was playing bone on bone and they said you’ll just ruin yourself if you keep on playing but I just kept taking tablets and I was 19, so I just carried on playing. How I passed any medical in my life I have no idea! But them were the days.
RR: How was it transitioning from being a fan, standing among us at Roker Park, to being inside the dressing room? Every kids’ dream, surely?
LH: It was quite hard to adjust. I was actually still a fan - well, you’re always a fan - but I was still looking at these guys and, at the time, we weren’t playing very well.
It’s hard when you’re sat in the dressing room and you’re seeing things for real; seeing that they’re not really happy with the way the club’s going and they’re arguing with each other and stuff, but I was still just ‘ha’way, for f***’s sake, we need to win a game!’
I used to get annoyed and on the bus they’d be like ‘Lee, please’ but I was like ‘what yous doing?’ I was just a fan let loose. It took me a good few weeks to think ‘right, OK Lee, this is a job and you have to realise that’. It wasn’t that they didn’t care; just probably not as passionately as I did.
RR: It took a while to make your debut, but you got on for the last home game of the 1992-93 season against Portsmouth. A game you’ll never forget, no doubt?
LH: I’d travelled with the squad but I had that injury from the Ipswich trial so I couldn’t play for about 4 or 5 weeks. Starting from non-league football to getting in the first team, but not being able to play, I was some way behind.
I worked hard and I just got the shout to be on the bench that day.
The game was all over. It was 4-1 and Martin Gray had scored his only goal for Sunderland that day. I can remember coming on and I can’t remember another thing! Just a haze. I was just running around really.
And you finish the game and you come off and you’re clapping the fans and we’d won and I just think that’s it; that’s everything I’ve ever wanted and it had just happened there.
I could have gladly gone home and never played again.
RR: You were one of the lucky ones to make it, but it’s tough on kids now who may not make it, even if they’re in the Academy. Any words of advice?
LH: It’s hard. I tell the young lads - I’ve coached U14s - I try to drill into them that this is hard work, but you need to be lucky, too. It isn’t just how hard you try or how long you’ve been there; you need a bit of luck. That’s why only a few actually make it.
RR: This season we’re obviously flirting with the third tier of English football once more, but that was the same situation you faced as a player in 1993. There must have been a lot of tension and worry about relegation going into that last game of the season at Notts County?
LH: They were tough times, that season. You had the likes of Kevin Ball, Gary Owers, Gordon Armstrong, Don Goodman, Tony Norman in that changing room, so we had characters and decent players. And there I was, a fan, with my chin on the floor because I couldn’t believe what was happening.
I think there were still two teams to go down from seven that final day. I wasn’t involved at Notts County but I was next to John Cairns who was doing radio for BBC Newcastle at the time and he was telling us all the results. It was horrendous on the pitch. The changing room was awful at half time. I don’t know if it goes on now cos it’s a different mind-set, but we had some really strong characters in that dressing room and it all went off!
We lost 3-1, but other results meant we stayed up. It was a mad ending: the fans carried Bally around the pitch; it was mental. ten minutes before, they were fighting in the stand! It was madness that day.
RR: Mick Buxton replaced Terry Butcher early the following season in one of the strangest appointments I can remember as a fan. How was it viewed in the dressing room?
LH: Well, when Crozzer got the sack Terry Butcher was already there, so they give him the job.
Mick Buxton is brought in as youth team manager or reserve team manager, but has nothing to do with Butch. That was all done above. And that was it, so when Terry went, it was just ‘ah well, he’s there we don’t need to do anything. He’s got some pedigree, he’s managed Huddersfield amongst others and he’s born locally’ - so they give him the job as well.
It was the most uninspiring appointment ever. I mean Mick was a nice fella, but...
RR: What did Buxton bring to stabilise the side? We ended up 12th the 1993-94 season...
LH: We played just like him, really. He got us a little bit more organised - talk about back to basics, I mean, back to virtually like THE basics. Training was dire.
But that’s what it was and we just muddled along very uninspiring. It was just mundane. We had as many 0-0 draws that you could imagine! I think it was 11 games or something that ended 0-0. It was ridiculous.
RR: Having been signed by someone who clearly knew you and liked you, how did you get on with Buxton?
LH: Mick and I didn’t really see eye to eye at times. It was hard, because I’d never get a day off. Ever. I’d play centre half for the reserves and he’d want me in the [first team] squad. So we’d get back, say 2am after a reserve game somewhere and then I’d be in with the first team on the Thursday. They [first team players] had been off Wednesday and the reserves would have Thursday off after the game. But it was perpetual for me.
I was playing the Wednesday and then training, which was largely running, on Thursday with the first team. My knees... I wasn’t exactly 100% fit to start with! I went to Mick and he just absolutely dismissed it. It was just non-stop. It was the same for Martin Smith as well, and it was difficult.
You couldn’t really reason with Mick and then, out of the blue on deadline day, in comes Brett Angel and I just thought that was it – the writing’s on the wall – I was gone.
RR: Mick’s second season (94-95) hadn’t gone so well and we back to fighting relegation, which was almost a certainty when Peter Reid arrived. Another former England international as manager, how was he with you?
LH: Under Mick I was involved in the squad, sometimes unused or on the bench, so I was coming on every now and again, which seemed to be my career.
But when Reidy came I was out of the squad, so I went and knocked on his door – I was probably one of the first ones – and I just said ‘Look gaffer, I’ve been involved in the squad and all of a sudden I’m out. Is there anything?’
His eyes and ears at the time were Trevor Hartley who I never got on with, so I think there was maybe a little bit of ‘we’ll leave him out’, but anyway, Peter was great.
He was like ‘Look, Lee, I’m just getting my feet under the table. Let me see what’s going on. Let me have a look at you and I promise you, I’ll be giving you a fair go’, which is all I could ask for.
I actually wasn’t involved in any of the last six games but, fair play to him, when it came to pre-season I was never out of his teams and for the rest of that season - the season we went up - I was involved in about 38 games.
RR: It’s a bit of a fairy-tale, really, the Reidy years. From almost being relegated we won promotion within 12 months. I seem to remember you played a big part in that though, scoring a late equaliser against Portsmouth that started a huge run for us?
LH: We were chatting about that on the bus when we were getting promotion and all the backroom staff said THAT was the moment. We’d absolutely battered Portsmouth but we were getting beat 2-1. It was virtually the last kick of the game and it was one of those that you just know you’re going to score.
Obviously, at the time, you just carry on, but looking back you could see that was the turning point and we believed – we actually believed that we wouldn’t get beat.
RR: Promotion was just amazing for the fans, but I guess it was very special for you personally?
LH: I was drunk for about four weeks after we won it! We just celebrated and celebrated and any excuse let’s just have another celebration! It was just everything. Every day I just woke up feeling the best that I’d ever felt; it was just amazing.
You’ve won promotion and you’ve done fantastic well and everyone’s jumping up and down, and then the realisation hits you - we’re in the Premier League. Suddenly you think ‘oh my God, I’ve just watched the best players in the world play there and I’m going to be there.’
Within two or three years of playing for the club I’m going to be paying against Klinsmann and Cantona...
RR: Your family has a unique connection with both Sunderland and Newcastle, through you and Steve. How did you approach those derby games and maybe playing against your brother?
LH: First time we played them was when Terry Butcher was there and I was just on the bench and I knew I wouldn’t be involved in that one, but then we went to the Premier League. The home one I was injured so I knew I wouldn’t be involved in it, and then the one at St James’ Park which, if you remember, didn’t have any away fans, and it looked like both Steve and I would be playing. I knew cos of injuries and suspensions and stuff that I’d definitely be playing.
So I did put the eyes on our Steven and said if you come anywhere near us, I’ll smash you and strangely enough he never appeared!
RR: I presume Steve, like the rest of your family, grew up supporting Sunderland, though? How did even end up at Newcastle?
LH: Going back to the McMenemy era, our Steven was one of the top players for his age at 14 and Newcastle had seen him. Newcastle had said, at 14, we’ll give you a six year contract – two years schoolboy, two years apprenticeship, final two years, so six year contract. My Dad said thank you very much, but we’re Sunderland people, we’d like to go and see Sunderland first.
So we went down and McMenemy was there and he just called him a cocky kid and said ‘I’ve never given anyone more than two years so that’s all we’re offering you’.
And that was it. So Steven went OK. All he had to do was offer him maybe four years or matched it and he’d have been at Sunderland.
RR: How did your Dad react to that - did it affect the way he saw the club?
LH: I think [it affected the way] he saw McMenemy, not the club. My Dad said McMenemy virtually looked down on us, you know, ‘who are these people, asking me for six years – I’ll tell you… ‘
So anyway, Steve signed for Newcastle and went through the ranks there and ultimately became an England international and captained Newcastle.
RR: I guess I have ask about THAT chant…
LH: I didn’t get it at first. I was warming up with Mickey Gray – I can’t remember which game it was – and I was just warming up and I heard ‘Lee Howey…’
I’ve never been the best at picking stuff up myself anyway and I could just see Mickey crying – virtually crying laughing – so I said ‘what did they say?’
And he’d chant it so I’d start laughing and just applauded them and put my thumb up and that was it. It was just non-stop. It was maybe a pocket of ten people and before you knew it it was the whole of the Fulwell End!
RR: You have to feel for your brother!
LH: Not really. I actually agree, so it’s OK!
RR: You were part of the side featured on the TV show ‘Premier Passions’ - how did the players react to be constantly filmed?
LH: When you know the cameras would be there, everyone was like ‘oh, be careful; be careful’ but when you’re in the thick of it you didn’t even notice them.
They’d been there in training and all of a sudden they’re in the dressing room, but they were really good. They just said look, they wouldn’t put anything on you didn’t want, so there was a lot of stuff that went on that you couldn’t have got on… for lots of reasons!
But the dressing room and how it all went was with Reidy was just about as real as it got, and obviously twenty-something expletives in a matter of minutes, that was it. We were men and you just had to take it - you had to take an absolute, you know, right in your face, not happy about you. But now that just wouldn’t happen.
RR: Things have changed a bit these days, with the Premier League, I guess?
LH: I remember Ricky Sbragia when we just stayed up after Keane left – I know Ricky well and he came to my local pub and we had a beer. The man was nearly crying and he said ‘I’ll never do that again… manage… they take absolutely no notice, Lee. There’s just nothing. It’s not like the old days where you could say just do this and they’d say OK’. He said they’re just not bothered and some of them just don’t care. And that hurts.
It’s changed a huge amount from then to now. The whole system’s changed.
When we were kids you were grateful. I mean we had to do jobs and clean boots and stuff like that, but it did give you a perspective of the hard work you had to do.
I was chatting to Ian Sampson who’s working for Crystal Palace and when he was at Chelsea and they were looking for kids and he was saying there were kids there on 4 grand a week, 5 grand a week, and I was just like ’what?!’ If you’re there as an U23, you’re a millionaire before you’ve even done anything.
RR: And so we’ve come full circle, not only for you as a fan again, but with the club battling relegation to League One. Where has it gone wrong this season, do you think?
LH: It’s more old school football once you drop out of the Premier League and we just get over-muscled everywhere. We’re so weak. We’re weak in terms of physically and I think we’re quite weak mentally. We just capitulate.
I think we’ve gone through years and years and years of struggling and getting beat and not having that winning mentality. I think it’s just ingrained in some of the team now that it’s difficult for them to shake that. And even when you arrive you pick up the vibe that this is a struggling club.
Hopefully Coleman can rekindle the days of Reidy and pull us clear. I hope, as fans, we’re both celebrating come the end of the season. For now, thanks for joining us, Lee and thanks so much for your time.
Lee’s book, ‘Massively Violent & Decidedly Average’, is now available.
We will have a review of it on the site soon.
Readers can order a signed copy from www.leehowey.wordpress.com
Also available at Biteback publishers and Amazon.