Jonny Howson is the best midfielder in the Championship. At least he is according to Neil Warnock.
Following the announcement that Howson had signed an extended contract with the club earlier this week, Warnock said “Jonny has had an outstanding time since I’ve been here. I’d go as far to say that I rate him as the best midfield player in the league at the moment”.
And you know what? It’s hard to argue with that when you think about how vital he has been to the Boro.
While he isn’t the battle-scarred, nasty bastard type of vocal leader that Warnock was crying out for during the transfer window, Jonny Howson has been imperative to the positive start the boys in red have made to this season.
The 32 year old has been a “Neil Warnock Team” personified, chasing and grafting for every single second of the 1170 minutes he’s played so far in the league, always on the heels of the opposition and refusing to give anybody a moment’s rest.
Despite the fact that Boro average more time out of possession than nearly every other team in the Championship, Howson and George Saville’s patrolling of the midfield like two bloodhounds on heat has given the defence a safety barrier, limiting the time for the opposition to create clear-cut chances and move the ball freely.
The pair are consistently first to loose balls and any openings are quickly closed down. These are the basics that allow a Warnock outfit to thrive and Howson’s contribution to this, as well as his experience of years of Championship dogfights, makes him the gaffer’s on-field lieutenant and a favourite of the Red Army.
That hasn’t always been the case.
Joining the club as part of the ill-fated “smash the league” summer splurge of 2017, Howson arrived on Teesside in a five million pound move from Norwich City. With performances failing to meet the lofty expectations of a quick return to the Premier League, the former Leeds man soon became a terrace scapegoat along with most of Garry Monk’s acquisitions.
Brought in as a renowned box-to-box midfielder with an eye for goal, it took 20 games for Howson to open his account for the club, with only a single assist coming before that. While his effort couldn’t be faulted, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Steve Gibson had been looking down the back of the sofas at Rockliffe Hall for a receipt in hope of getting a refund from Norwich.
That first goal came away at Sheffield Wednesday on a night that ended with Garry Monk losing his job on the coach home, infamously assuming that the incoming call on his mobile from Gibbo was to congratulate him on the win. Howson featured regularly in midfield for new boss Tony Pulis in the second half of the campaign which ended in a playoff semi-final defeat against Aston Villa.
Even with the additions of George Saville, Paddy McNair, Mo Besic and John Obi Mikel to the engine room the following season, Jonny Howson started 44 of the 46 league games as Tony Pulis opted to get as many non-attacking players onto the pitch as possible.
His standing amongst Boro fans began to rise as well after a move to right wing-back helped him to show flashes of the creative ability he’d shown at Norwich, notching six assists for the season, earning Howson a player of the year nomination and the terrace accreditation of “he used to be shite, now he’s alright”.
This newly-found versatility was pushed to the extreme under Jonathan Woodgate. In a season of upheaval and turmoil, Howson featured at central midfield, right wing-back, right back and as a centre-half. He was probably preparing for a spell in goal after Darren Randolph’s injury before Aynsley Pears was called into the first team.
His efforts across the park meant he was recently named the Supporters Club’s Player of the Year for last season. The highlight of this nomadic spell as Woodgate’s own Swiss Army knife came as part of the Boro defence in the FA Cup draw against an almost full-strength Spurs side including the likes of Heung-Min Son, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld.
During this time, Jonny Howson would be on the receiving end of almost every footballing cliché under the sun. He was versatile. He was reliable. He was consistent. He was experienced. Howson was playing everywhere and being everything. Above all else, Jonny Howson was (and is) a model pro.
At no time was this more clear than in his decision to continue to play for the club following the restart of the season, unlike some others, signing on for a relegation battle by triggering an extension in his contract. Rather than walking away from the mess the club was potentially facing, Howson alongside Marvin Johnson and George Friend stuck by us in an hour of need.
Pushed back into midfield by Neil Warnock, Howson helped pull the team back from the brink, with a brief wavering in all the model pro chat after a silly sending off in the penultimate game against Cardiff.
With this week’s latest extension, Howson is now committed to the Boro until 2022 at the earliest and in the win against Derby, he showed exactly why the club has shown such faith in him. As poor as Derby County were, it was the trademark Warnock chokehold from the defence and midfield that led to a 3-0 win, suffocating any attempt by the Rams to get into the game and Howson was at the heart of that alongside Saville (who we’ll be talking about soon).
The pair were first to almost all of the second balls and ran rings around Wayne Rooney to win back possession on multiple occasions. They are in the top three in the squad for tackles per game and deserve as much praise as the defenders.
Things have changed at Middlesbrough for Jonny Howson and it isn’t just his post-lockdown heartthrob haircut. He hasn’t and won’t ever be the goal scoring box-to-box midfielder he was at Norwich. He might not have the goals and assists to live up to his price tag but he’s transformed into something else. Something that might be even more valuable.
He’s always been alright but now he’s brilliant. Now, Jonny Howson might just be the best midfielder in the league.
Photo Credits: Middlesbrough FC, Teesside Live, Alex Dodd