Maturing Howson has fully earned belated Three Lions call

DENNIS Wise’s reign as Leeds United manager can hardly be regarded as a golden period in the club’s history with his 16 months at the helm bringing relegation, administration, two swingeing points deductions and a couple of high-profile rows with senior players.

One thing the former England international did get right, however, was his belief that Jonny Howson was destined for a future with England Under-21s.

It may have taken a little longer than anticipated, Wise having first urged Stuart Pearce to take a look at the midfielder ahead of United’s first Christmas in League One.

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But the United midfielder has got there in the end courtesy of the call-up for this afternoon’s friendly against Italy. Whether the 22-year-old plays in Empoli remains to be seen with several Premier League prospects standing between him and a berth in the Three Lions midfield.

What is not in doubt, however, is how deserved Howson’s belated international call is for a player who has moved up a level in terms of his own performances this season.

Having signed for United as a junior more than a decade ago, Leeds-born Howson was always likely to be a popular figure with a group of supporters who love nothing more than cheering on a home-town hero.

His debut came under Kevin Blackwell with a 15-minute cameo from the bench against Barnet in 2006. Wise and his own successor, Gary McAllister, then displayed huge faith in Howson, who was handed the captain’s armband for the first time in April, 2008, at the tender age of 19 years and 333 days. It is this season, however, where the real strides forward have been made.

Thrust into the role of permanent captain by Richard Naylor’s injury, Howson has matured immeasurably with his form in the two months up to Christmas being comfortably his best in a Leeds shirt.

Benefiting from the change of formation that saw him handed licence to get forward in support of lone frontman Luciano Becchio, he responded with a string of quality displays.

Against Scunthorpe – the first game after Simon Grayson’s decision to switch from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 – he netted a 16-minute second half hat-trick as United won 4-1. He also opened the scoring the in a 3-2 win at Coventry, and his winner at Burnley was a stunning strike.

His performances may not have been quite as good since the turn of the year but that has been more to do with a switch in position brought about by Neil Kilkenny being absent for a month at the Asia Cup.

With the Australian away, Grayson had to fill one of the two holding midfield roles and he saw Howson as his preferred option alongside Bradley Johnson.

It soon became evident that the switch was taking something away from Howson’s performances but, typically, he has never complained. ‘Side before self every time,’ may have been a mantra of United’s most decorated captain, Billy Bremner, but it is one the unassuming Howson readily subscribes to.

Such an approach is typical of someone who last season was named as United’s joint Community Player of the Year, basically an award to recognise the squad member who does the most work in the community.

Past winners include Alan Smith and Lucas Radebe, two players who gave their time freely for countless community visits when at Elland Road.

There are other striking similarities between Howson and the pair, namely how his time is spent away from the club.

Just like the teetotal Smith, there is little chance of seeing Howson falling out of a nightclub with his one big passion away from football and family being the sedate pastime of fishing.

Before last month’s FA Cup third round tie at Arsenal, Howson revealed that one of the proudest days of his life had come at a lake near York where he had caught a 14lb carp.

Now, he is tantalisingly close to landing the even bigger prize of an international cap to further justify the faith once shown by former United manager Wise.

ready to step up: Leeds United captain Jonny Howson.