LONDON — Tim Howard, an American goalkeeper who has a tattoo on his right bicep and suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, never thought he would have the chance to play for a big Premiership club, let alone the biggest club in the world.
Even when Howard signed with Manchester United this summer, Fabien Barthez’s position seemed safe despite one or two costly errors from the French international. After all, Barthez is a European Championship and World Cup winner — Howard is a Premiership rookie and third choice behind Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller for the United States.
But after three Premiership games, Howard is slowly but surely establishing himself as United’s first choice goalkeeper. An unlikely new star at Old Trafford — has Sir Alex Ferguson finally found the long-term replacement for Peter Schmeichel, who left the club four years ago?
Ferguson’s record in the transfer market is second to none.
Roy Keane, Eric Cantona and Ruud van Nistelrooy to name just three, became United legends, yet when it comes to goalkeepers Ferguson has struggled to find an adequate replacement for Schmeichel who, at £500,000 from Brondby, is, pound for pound, probably the biggest bargain of all of Fergie’s buys.
The goalkeeper was an inspirational figure both as a player and a leader as United dominated English football during the 1990s, but replacing the great Dane, who quit Old Trafford after United won the Champions League in 1999, has not been easy.
No fewer than 10 different players have worn the goalkeeper’s jersey in the past four years, with Howard the present incumbent following his summer transfer from New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
After an Italian, an Australian, a Dutchman, two Englishmen, a Scot, a Spaniard, a Frenchman and one from Northern Ireland, it is an American who is the latest in the long line of would-be long-term successors to Schmeichel in the last four years.
Massimo Taibi is probably Ferguson’s biggest transfer clanger. The Italian goalkeeper allowed the ball to slip from his grasp to gift the opposition a goal in an early game and never recovered.
His confidence shot to pieces, Taibi came, saw but certainly did not conquer Old Trafford and his four matches for United worked out at £500,000 each.
Mark Bosnich was another who failed to establish himself despite helping United win the Premiership in 1999-2000. In Fergie’s eyes he was not up to the task, so in came World Cup winner Barthez from Monaco.
Barthez has proven to be a fine shot-stopper, but some high profile errors saw the French international replaced by Roy Carroll last season. Unlike Schmeichel, Barthez does not have the physical presence to command his penalty area and when Ferguson brought Howard in this summer, the alarm bells were sounding for the Frenchman.
Howard, 24, has the physical attributes a top goalkeeper requires and is the third American ‘keeper to arrive in the Premiership after Friedel (Blackburn) and Keller (Tottenham).
“These guys have done it at the highest level for 10 . . . 12 years,” said Howard. “I really admire that and it is something I must aim to do.”
Howard’s arrival inevitably saw his inherited disorder highlighted with some cheap gags about how he would swear at referees and be sent off.
In fact, Howard’s case does not include this. “At the moment it’s usually a clearing of my throat and my eyes blink,” he said. “If you don’t have Tourette’s, my case is severe, but if someone has a severe case then mine is probably mild.”
The disorder manifested itself when Howard was nine. “It was difficult because the disorder was coupled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder.”
Howard would tap furniture a certain number of times, count steps in his head. “It’s crazy but you deal with it and it improves as you grow older,” he said.
“When I was younger it was difficult because people notice and say things. That was a problem, but now anyone can call me anything and it won’t affect me at all.
“It’s one of the things I’m known for. I’m not going to shy away from it. This is the hand I’ve been dealt, but I hope people judge me on how I play.”
Such strength of character will serve Howard well as he continues his career at Old Trafford.
It is, so far, so good with Howard playing in United’s opening three Premiership games and winning praise from Ferguson, who was sent to the stands at Newcastle last Saturday — for swearing at an official.
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