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Back in the 90s, Newcastle and Sunderland emerged from their slumbers to reach the Premier League. Two big local lads were at the heart of their respective ‘success’, as Kevin Ross remembers.
16th August 2017, it is a warm, sunny evening as I amble down the bank towards the away end at Hillsborough. A chant goes up from a group of lads in front “Lee Howey, Lee Howey, Lee Howey…..”. I smile to myself; my first away trip of the season and it has taken less than 30 minutes to hear those words. I don’t think I have been to a Sunderland away game and not heard those words. Not even club legends like Charlie Hurley, Gary Rowell, Kevin Phillips or Niall Quinn get a mention every week. Anyone from outside the North East, and probably many within it, will be wondering who is Lee Matthew Howey and why is he so popular 20 years after leaving the club? A record of 69 league appearances and 8 goals for the striker cum defender in 4 years does not immediately scream ‘club legend’.
You could possibly consider him a cult figure – he was to me anyway – but the real reason can be found in the next line of the song:
“Lee Howey, Lee Howey, Lee Howey…..your brother is a c***” (to the tune of the old Direct Line advert).
His brother is ex-England international defender Steve Howey who spent over 10 years playing for Newcastle United between 1989 and 2000. Both brothers were born and schooled in Sunderland. Whilst Lee found his way to his boyhood club from non-league Bishop Auckland via an apprenticeship at Ipswich Town, a spell in Belgium and a potentially career ending knee injury, Steve elected to sign as a schoolboy for Newcastle. Apparently despite interest from Sunderland, although he was said to have met Lawrie McMenemy on a visit so perhaps it’s not so hard to see why. For this unforgivable sin his name will be sung in less than complimentary terms in perpetuity. The chant probably sums up the nature of the rivalry between the two clubs; it can be a little light hearted at times, sometimes offensive but often with an undercurrent of aggression and bitterness from some quarters.
Lee signed for Sunderland in early 1993 when the club was at a low ebb. Despite reaching the FA Cup Final the season before, they were again struggling at the lower end of Division 2. The previous seasons had not been much better for Newcastle. They had only just narrowly avoided relegation to the third tier in 1992 but following the takeover by John Hall and the appointment of Kevin Keegan as manager things were looking much brighter.
The final derby of that season came too soon for Lee to be pitted against his brother as he was still finding his fitness. However, Steve – two and a half years younger than his brother – had become a mainstay at the centre of the Magpies’ defence that season following his conversion from striker to centre-half by Keegan’s predecessor, Ossie Ardiles. Not that Steve had an easy ride as he was up against another bustling Mackem striker in Mick Harford, from a similar part of Sunderland. Newcastle ground out a one nil win and ended the season as champions; Sunderland again just avoided relegation.
Newcastle moved into the modern Premier League era, becoming a prototype for the teams we see nowadays. Awash with money, making top drawer big money statement signings like Les Ferdinand, Alan Shearer, Peter Beardsley and David Ginola. Appearing on Sky Sports rather than Tyne-Tees TV; wearing Adidas kits considered classics to this day and being dubbed ‘The Entertainers’. Newcastle took a leap into the future and competed at the top of the new Premier League. Steve joined the ride to the summit and was able to display his class along with some of Newcastle’s other talented younger players like Lee Clark.
Sunderland had their own group of youngsters, perhaps just as talented, like Martin Smith, Mickey Gray and Craig Russell but they didn’t have the same class of players around them. Sunderland stayed stuck in the past, scraping by in the second tier in a team stocked with journeymen signed from Scotland or the lower leagues for modest sums. Second rate managers came and went as did the glorious Hummel kits that were ditched in favour of the less than glamorous Avec ones. It was to be another three seasons before Sunderland would reach the promised land of the Premier League, despite minimal investment, following the inspired appointment of Peter Reid.
During this time Lee found his way more regularly into the Sunderland side scoring some crucial goals such as those against Portsmouth and Middlesborough before Peter Reid decided that Lee’s bruising no nonsense style would be more suited to centre-half like his brother. Meanwhile, Steve continued to make the centre-half spot his own while Newcastle occupied their loftier position. He had been called up to England’s Euro ’96 squad but a fluke injury meant he never made an appearance at the tournament. He had already won his 4 England caps by the time Sunderland first appeared the Premier League in the 1996/97 season.
It feels like the derby has mellowed a little in recent years. It can still be visceral and aggressive, and I hope it always retains some of that edge, but there has been more dialogue and interaction between the two sets of fans – for example, when the police tried to make the derby a ‘bubble match’. Perhaps partly as it is easier to communicate and perhaps partly due to the fans mixing more in everyday life but there have also been other issues that go deeper than football, like illness and tragic disasters that have resulted in fans showing support for their rivals. Or maybe it is the same as it always been, and I am just older and my living away from both cities gives me a little more distance and makes it less all consuming.
However, back in the 1990’s it was certainly not mellow. It was lunchtime kick offs; Newcastle’s keeper John Burridge being kicked by Paul Hardyman after he saved his penalty; pitch invasions in an attempt to get a game abandoned and running the gauntlet in police escorts to and from the ground. Previous misdemeanours meant the first derbies in the Premier League in 1996/1997 were played out with no away fans allowed.
After three seasons apart the build up to the derbies were intense but unfortunately the brothers never got to meet in either of the derbies that season. Lee missed the first derby played in a surreal Roker Park atmosphere. The only sound when Newcastle scored as they ran out 2-1 winners being the sound of the players celebrating before the torrent of abuse kicked in. Steve picked up a serious injury not long after that game and missed the return game at St James’ Park. Lee completed the full 90 minutes, picking up a yellow card in a one all draw.
I would have loved to have seen a Lee Howey vs. Steve Howey derby battle. Both men standing at over six foot tall and considerable units, with uncompromising styles representing their respective clubs would have been quite a tussle in the wider derby day story. Their styles and paths to the riches of the Premier League possibly symbolic of where both clubs were at that time.
Unfortunately, that was the last chance of a derby meeting. Sunderland were relegated at the end of the season and Lee was sold to Burnley to be reunited with Chris Waddle who had taken the manager’s job there. It never really worked out at Turf Moor and the chance to be pitted against his brother in a senior game never came round again as he saw out his career at Northampton Town, Forest Green Rovers and Nuneaton Borough. Steve carried on at Newcastle till 2000 before spells at Manchester City and Leicester City before brief spells at Bolton Wanderers, New England Revolution and Hartlepool United. A succession of injuries meaning he never quite reached the same heights he had done before.
Their paths would not cross on a pitch again until 2007 in a Masters game. Steve’s Newcastle ran out 3-1 winners but it doesn’t really count – does it?