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Jun 27, 2013

Standing his ground

Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard has come out fighting; that much is clear just from listening to him speak. "I train hard; I don't miss training," he said in an interview with the United States media last week. "I have to mind my age. My maintenance is higher. I lift weights harder and heavier than I ever have now at 34, to keep my body fit."

Howard's work ethic has never been in doubt. To an outsider, his self-belief has always appeared strong. Until recently, his performance levels have rarely been questioned either. But these have been an awkward 12 months for the American.

Howard's status as undisputed first choice for Everton and the United States has been debated, publicly. A man who has established himself as one of the Premier League's most reliable goalkeepers enters the summer of 2013 in an unfamiliar position: he has a point to prove.

For Howard, 2012-13 ended with two clean sheets, as the United States earned victories over Panama and Honduras and edged closer to a place at the 2014 World Cup finals. It was a positive end to a mixed season. To put it bluntly, Howard was poor for Everton during the first half of the campaign. Errors in Premier League games against Newcastle, Fulham, Norwich and Stoke cost his side points.

Consistently excellent since arriving from Manchester United in 2006, Howard was increasingly fallible last autumn. Everton did not keep a single clean sheet between September 22 and January 12. It would be grossly unfair to lay the blame for that solely in the goalkeeper's hands, but to the casual observer, Howard was not the athletic, commanding presence that had made him an automatic choice for club and country.

David Moyes was not slow to pick up on that. Everton's then-manager grumbled more than once about his team's defending at set-pieces. In late November, Howard was slow to claim a free-kick in the late stages of a Premier League game against Norwich, allowing Sebastien Bassong to head in an equaliser. Immediately afterwards, Moyes stated that he needed a stronger contender to challenge Howard for his place.

This had been brewing. The manager, unhappy with the level of competition provided by second choice keeper Jan Mucha, made enquiries about the availability of young England international Jack Butland last August. Birmingham were unwilling to sell at that point; when financial circumstances at St Andrew's forced them to change their position in January, Butland agreed to sign for Stoke.

Goodison goalkeeping great Neville Southall was not alone in his recent assertion that Everton "missed a trick" in not snapping up Butland.

Howard improved after Christmas, but was then frustrated by injury. The keeper broke two bones in his back during an FA Cup fifth-round replay victory over Oldham in February, bringing to an end his run of 210 consecutive league appearances for Everton; just two short of equalling Southall's club record.

The American spent his 34th birthday, in early March, recuperating. He recovered quickly and, despite solid form from Mucha in his absence, regained his place when fit. The season, though, ended with another error, as he spilled a Demba Ba shot to allow Juan Mata to score as Chelsea secured a 2-1 win on the final day of the Premier League season.

Everton's goalkeeping situation is no longer Moyes' concern. Instead, it is a puzzle for Roberto Martinez. The new manager needs to bring in a keeper following Mucha's release, but is in a difficult position. At his best, Howard remains one of the Premier League's top keepers, and it would be a major surprise if he did not start next season as first choice.

But Everton need a keeper with more potential to push him than Mucha showed. In short, Martinez needs someone who can play in goal straight away if anything happens to Howard, but who also has the look of a long-term replacement.

Joe Hart, who learned his trade in non-league football at Shrewsbury and then gained loan experience at Tranmere, Blackpool and Birmingham, fulfilled a similar role at Manchester City before ultimately usurping Shay Given. But promising young keepers with match experience and the willingness to show a little patience are thin on the ground.

In that respect, it is easy to see why Butland would have been an ideal signing.

Howard's status as the United States number one seems secure, for now, despite his up-and-down form and the emergence of Aston Villa's Brad Guzan as a serious contender for his place. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann stated in April that Howard was "undoubtedly" his number one, then followed it up in May by saying that the Everton keeper "deserves to be in the top five in the world".

One consideration for the coach is that Howard would be unlikely to continue flying from England to the US for international matches just to sit on the bench. If Guzan were promoted to first choice, Klinsmann would probably have to find a new back-up.

For Martinez, the problem is a little more complicated. He has no Guzan to call on. At present, his back-up keeper is the untested youngster Mason Springthorpe. Another keeper is needed, if only to ensure Howard is kept on his toes.

Finding the right candidate promises to be one of the first significant tests of the new Everton manager's reign. Whoever the next Goodison goalkeeping contender is, though, faces a battle. Howard has made clear he will not be giving up his place lightly.

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