By Joe Davies
“Tim, I think I don’t know how you are going to survive the mobs when you come back home man. You are going to have to shave your beard so they don’t know who you are.”
These were the words of Barack Obama after the USA went to the Round of 16 stage at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, one step further than Roy Hodgson’s England managed in the tournament. Four years earlier, the US national side topped their group, again above England, meaning the 2014 run was the first time in ‘soccer’ history that they had reached the knockout stages in consecutive World Cups. The players united a country not traditionally associated with the sport, allowing fans in the States to dream for the first time, and demonstrating the potential of a country of 318.6 million people could have in the game. Unfortunately, they went out to Belgium after a 2-1 loss, but the wave of enthusiasm that swept a nation remained after Tim Howard made a record 16 saves in the match.
With the exception of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, the US has not produced a great deal of outfield players plying their trade in the English Premier League. However, for some reason or another, they have always seemed to roll-out top quality goalkeepers. Brad Friedel, now the head coach of New England Revolution in the MLS, had a fantastic career in Britain’s top flight, first signing for Liverpool in 1997, and having successful stints at Blackburn, Villa and Spurs, where he went on to join the backroom staff having developed an affinity with the club. Another Brad at Aston Villa, Guzan, won the midlands club’s Player of the Year for the 2012-13 season after playing a huge role in ensuring they avoided relegation. However, no American custodian has done more to bridge the Atlantic sporting divide, embedding himself in British footballing culture and leading the US mens’ team to unprecedented heights as their highest-ever capped player, than Everton’s old number 24, Tim Howard.
Much like Friedel, Howard signed for one of the two most famous British clubs in America back in 2003, replacing French World Cup winner Fabien Barthez between the posts at Manchester United. The New Jersey native won the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2001 and was named in the MLS Best XI two years in a row before joining the Red Devils. Howard performed well at Old Trafford, becoming the first American to pick up a FA Cup winners medal since 1873 in 2004, but eventually lost his place to Prem stalwart Edwin Van der Sar in 2005.
Howard’s real Premier League career, however, began 34 miles down the M62, where he joined old teammate Phil Neville at Goodison Park. In 2013, he missed his first Premier League game for Everton in 210 consecutive appearances since 2007, narrowly missing out on the 212 record set by Neville Southall. In May of the same year, however, he cemented himself in the Everton hall of fame alongside fellow ‘keeper Southall, keeping his 100th clean sheet for the club against Liverpool in the Merseyside derby.
“I will remain an Evertonian for life. This will always be my team, my club,” he said when leaving in 2016, and Evertonians will no doubt agree that he was one of the greatest goalkeepers to have played in England during his stint at the club. Donning the un-traditional 24, Howard set the club record for Premier League clean sheets in the 2008-09 season, and saved two penalties to send Moyes’ toffees to the FA Cup final in 2009 against his old club, United. He became a mainstay of the blues side, acting as a leader in the dressing room alongside the likes of Neville, Jagielka, Baines and Osman.
After his heroic performances for the US in Brazil, Howard released his autobiography, The Keeper: A Life of Saving Goals and Achieving Them, in 2014. He opened up about growing up with Tourettes Syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive-Disorder in the States, and how they affected his trajectory towards sport as a schoolboy. Howard began developing tics and the insatiable need to touch specific objects (rocks, light switches etc.) at around the age of 10. These sort of irrational behaviours were distressing for him as a child, but he found solace on the football pitch, where the noise in his mind was dampened by his ability to ‘hyper-focus’ on the game, one positive consequence of the disorders.
“While the ball was far away, my mind might still order me around (touch the ground, twitch, snap the Velcro on the goalie glove, cough, touch the goalpost, blink). But the closer that ball came, the more my symptoms receded. The tics, the crazy thoughts, the conflicting mental messages – poof! They were gone in an instant. So were the details around me. Players, colours, people on the sidelines, they all blurred and fell away. Only one thing remained in sharp focus, it’s every detail vivid: the ball, moving toward me,” Howard wrote in his book.
By writing about his own experiences, Howard acted as an inspiration for those suffering from TS and OCD, demonstrating how the conditions do not have to be an obstacle to success on or off the field for anyone. Howard used some of the notoriety he had gained leading the US in their 2014 World Cup run to help educate the public about conditions that are largely misunderstood. It is a testament to the man’s character, something he had demonstrated throughout his career, from winning the MLS Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2001 to being the first-ever winner of the “Tourette Syndrome Association Champion of Hope Award” after releasing his book.
Howard is currently playing back in the MLS, captaining the Colorado Rapids and wearing the number 1. However, it is the number 24 of Everton he will be remembered most for in England. As a leader on and off the field, Howard demonstrated the power football can have, bringing popularity to the sport back home in America and raising awareness for TS as well. In Britain he became an icon, embracing what it means to be an Evertonian. The US and England have always had a ‘special relationship’, but in sporting terms this has never really come to fruition. Tim Howard has done as much as anyone to help bridge the divide.