Tim Howard autobiography Part I: Fergie, Friedel and Manchester Utd
This is an exclusive excerpt from Tim Howard's forthcoming memoir, "The Keeper." Warning: This material contains explicit language.
One day, early in the 2003 season, my phone rang, displaying a number I didn't recognize. When I answered, the voice on the other end spoke quickly, in a crisp British accent.
Tim Howard? Tony Coton here. I'm the goalkeeping coach at Manchester United. We've seen some tapes of you play, and we're a bit interested. No need to do anything. Just wanted to let you know we've got our eyes on you. Maybe we'll even come see you play sometime down the road. Take care.
When you get a call like that, things register in different stages. British voice ... not a name I know ... Manchester United.
And then: Holy cow. Manchester United!
After Coton hung up, I stared at the phone. It had happened so fast, part of me wondered if it had happened at all.
Manchester United could have any goalkeeper in the world. I was a 23-year-old kid from New Jersey who, from an early age, had to cope with Tourette's Syndrome, a brain disorder that can trigger speech and facial tics, vocal outbursts and obsessive compulsive behavior. Sure, I had some talent, but I was young and relatively inexperienced. In the last World Cup, I'd been ranked the No. 4 keeper for the U.S. national team, behind Kasey and Brad and Tony. I had yet to play in any international match of consequence.
I dialed my agent Dan Segal. "I just got this crazy phone call ..." I said.
In March, Coton called again. He'd be coming to Houston to see me play in a U.S.-Mexico exhibition game, one of my first starts with the national team. It would be the first match between the two teams since the U.S. had knocked Mexico out of the World Cup the previous year.
The game that Tony Coton would see on May 8 had been billed as La Revancha en la Cancha. Revenge on the Field. Mexico was planning to take back their honor.
The crowd at La Revancha en la Cancha -- all 70,000 fans, overwhelmingly pro-Mexico -- was deafening. The stadium was a sea of green El Tri jerseys. My body vibrated from the noise.
But out there in front of me was a team I knew could handle the next 90 minutes: Carlos [Bocanegra] was at the heart of our defense, Clint Mathis was in midfield and Landon Donovan, the boy wonder, was up top.
I glanced toward the stands.
Somewhere in that stadium is Tony Coton, I thought.
Mexico put us under pressure right from the start, and their fans made such a racket that my defenders couldn't hear me shouting at them.
Twenty-four minutes in, El Tri thought they had drawn first blood when Jesus Arellano's shot from the edge of the box arrowed toward the top corner. I have a pretty decent vertical leap -- something that was always helpful in both basketball and goalkeeping -- and I needed every inch of it. Launching myself as high as I could, I was able to get my fingertips to the ball, barely deflecting it to safety.
I was hoping that Tony hadn't taken that exact moment to go to the bathroom because I was proud of that save. The game ended in a scoreless draw -- a shutout. Dan called me after.
"How did Tony like the match?" I asked.
Dan thought for a moment. "He didn't give us a final answer. He said he saw what he needed to."
"Well," Dan said with a laugh, "he wanted to check out the Galleria Mall. I dropped him there on my way to the airport. Tony was excited about the pounds-to-dollars exchange rate. He brought an extra suitcase to fill up for the trip home."
It was the biggest game of my life. Tony saw what he needed to see and then went to the mall to fill an empty suitcase. What the ...
"For now," Dan said, "we're just going to have to wait."
Then, a week later, Dan got the call. Manchester United wanted me.
But will you actually play at Man U? That's what everyone -- teammates, family members, my mom -- wanted to know. It was a polite way of saying that I wouldn't.
Which made sense. After all, I was young and unproven. And Man U had Fabien Barthez, goalkeeper for the 1998 World Cup champions, France. I figured I'd sit on the bench, as I had under Tony Meola with the MetroStars.
But I was hungry. And this was Manchester United. I'd have gone there to wash cars if they'd asked me.
Some serious obstacles still stood in my way. First, Manchester United had to buy me out of my contract with MLS. In Europe and other soccer leagues around the world, players are routinely bought and sold. There's a tacit understanding among clubs that a good player shouldn't miss out on the big break of his career, or a chance at exponentially improved earnings.
TIM HOWARD'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY, 'THE KEEPER'
- Excerpt 1: On Friedel, Man United
- Excerpt 2: Klinsmann enters, Donovan departs
- Howard: Klinsmann banned PB&J sandwiches
- Howard: Friedel tried to block United move
- Friedel wants Howard apology
- Keller and Howard: Talking about breaking records vs. Belgium
- Toe Poke: Friedel scores in NBA challenge
- Martinez: Howard is Everton's rock
- Video: Howard the Prem's best American?
- Friedel on MLS vs. Europe: Playing time matters
- Howard takes break from USMNT
But MLS didn't buy that logic. It had only a few American stars, and it didn't want to lose them. Bayern Munich tried to acquire my former MetroStars teammate Clint Mathis immediately after the 2002 World Cup. MLS asked for more money than Bayern would pay; Clint was only able to move to a lesser club in Europe years after when his MLS contract expired. That was the MLS strategy: don't say no outright; instead, quote a price that's out of reach. Or, if the club doesn't balk, keep moving the finish line until it gets frustrated and ends the negotiation.
In my case, Man U made an offer. A few days later, MLS made a counterproposal.
Negotiations got bogged down. Both sides had dug in and were holding firm. Dan made a suggestion. "What if you offer to make up the difference from the first year of your salary? Even doing that, you'd still earn seven figures next year. And you'll be at Man U."
"Done," I replied.
Now I needed that elusive work permit. Manchester United would be presenting my case to an appeals panel. If four out of the six panelists agreed to grant the appeal, I'd get my permit.
Still, there was no guarantee. Players are denied work permits all the time. Cobi Jones, one of the most accomplished American players, had been turned down. If the same thing happened to me, I could forget Manchester United, forget the million-dollar contract they'd dangled in front of me.
All this work -- the hopes, negotiations, the phone calls, the scrambling to pull together myriad documents for Manchester United -- would be for nothing. I'd be going nowhere.
I needed character references from other players. Manchester United asked former U.S. captain John Harkes, the first American to play in the Premier League, and they asked Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel, among others. Most signed without question.
However, Man U told us that Friedel had refused to submit a statement on my behalf.
"You're kidding me," I said. Friedel was among what was then a handful of American players in the Premier League; his influence was huge. Having himself been denied several times, he understood better than anyone exactly what was at stake. Why wouldn't he vouch for me?
I mean, who would sabotage his own countryman like that?
In the end, very little gets in the way of what Manchester United wants to do. I got my work permit. Apparently Alex Ferguson himself appeared at my hearing and said that I would be his goalkeeper.
Almost immediately, the headlines began appearing:
UNITED WANT AMERICAN WITH BRAIN DISORDER -The Guardian
MANCHESTER UNITED TRYING TO SIGN DISABLED GOALKEEPER -The Independent
WE SWEAR IT'S TRUE: TOURETTE'S SUFFERER TARGET FOR UNITED -The Mirror
I never read the articles below the headlines. I didn't need that kind of garbage cluttering up my brain.
My first official match for United would be in the Community Shield against FA Cup Champions, Arsenal. The game was a war from the first whistle. Seconds in, Phil Neville got a yellow card for a hard tackle on Arsenal's Patrick Vieira. Then Arsenal's Ashley Cole was booked for a clumsy challenge on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. We took the lead when Mikael Silvestre scored on a header off a corner kick, but Arsenal responded moments later when Thierry Henry -- Arsenal's all time goal-scorer -- won a free kick about 35 yards out.
With free kicks in scoring range, the goalkeeper sets up a defensive "wall" -- a line of players, shoulder to shoulder, 10 yards from where the ball is spotted. The idea is to close off parts of the goal to the shooter, reducing the total area to be covered by the keeper.
The number of men you might put in your wall depends on many variables. Generally, you're trying to cover as much of the goal as you can, without blocking a clear view of the ball or leaving their attackers unmarked. Against Henry, I called for a three-man wall and positioned myself in the unprotected area of the goal.
But Henry struck his shot with such power and precision that it rendered the wall useless. The ball flew over it and tucked inches inside the right post.
I dove, stretching my body flat out, but I couldn't reach it.
At halftime, Ferguson just about took my head off.
Ferguson was famous for what the media referred to as his "hair dryer treatments," so-called because he'd blow such blistering air at you, it felt like your hair was being straightened.
"A three-man wall!" he shouted, the muscles around his jaw so tight I could see them flex. "Against Henry! You needed four men on that wall. You've got to think" -- he jabbed both index fingers at his forehead -- "when you play this game."
My teammates were quiet. I had heard enough about Ferguson to know that they'd all been through this themselves. But frankly, it scared the wits out of me.
"If you cannae handle the f------ stage" -- his Scottish accent was coming through loud and clear -- "I'll send you right back to the MLS."
The disdain in his voice when he said "MLS" was palpable.
I've made plenty of mistakes as a keeper, that's for sure. I'll make plenty more before I'm through. Granted, the three-man wall turned out to be the wrong strategy, given the free kick that Henry ultimately took. But the thing is, he might have opted for an entirely different shot. What if he had kicked it high and to my left? Then a four-man wall could have made it harder for me to see the ball.
There had been no way to know what a world-class player like Henry would do; in the moment, all you can do is make a judgment call.
But I wasn't going to say that to this legend of English soccer -- and certainly not while his eyes were bugging wildly out of his head. I looked down at the ground and let him berate me -- longer, I might add, than seemed necessary, all things considered.
His final words to me were soaked in derision. "You're not in America anymore, son."
Neither team scored in the second half. The match was still deadlocked at 1-1 at the final whistle. Since there's no overtime in the Community Shield, the game would be settled by a penalty kick shootout.
Sometimes people ask me how I feel about penalty kicks, the ultimate high-stakes moment of a game. My answer is simple: I love them. I have loved penalty kicks since I was 12 years old. I have no proof, but I believe that my heightened senses -- the flip side of my Tourette Syndrome -- makes me better able to read the shooter, to anticipate balls better than most keepers.
And while it's true that the likelihood of actually making a save is fairly low, a keeper doesn't need to stop them all. If you can save one or two, you generally end up a hero.
Plus there's something about that moment standing in goal, just you and the shooter. There's not a time when you're more alert, more alive, more attuned to absolutely everything around you.
Most of the time, a penalty kick is a guessing game. Which way will the shooter send the ball? Which way should you dive? You can try to make it an educated guess -- keepers spend a tremendous amount of time studying videos of different shooters' PK histories. You can also try to read the player's body language, a tiny motion he might make in his run-up to the ball that hints at the direction of the shot. In that case, you might have a fraction of a second to decide.
Against Arsenal, I stopped their second kicker, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, and we led 4-3 when Robert Pires stepped up for the Gunners. A French international who the previous year had scored the winning goal in the FA Cup final, Pires was generally regarded as one of the best players in the league.
If I could stop him, we'd win.
That summer I had watched the French national team on television and happened to see Pires take a penalty kick. For some reason, that image stuck in my head. Standing now in the goal, with Pires directly in front of me, I saw the entire shot play out in my mind almost like I was watching a video replay -- could picture the ball's precise trajectory, how it veered sharply toward the low right corner of the goal.
So that's where I dove. I had to extend my body fully, reach toward it with everything I had. Even before I made contact with the ball, I knew: I had this one. I forced it wide.
Half of the stadium -- the roughly 30,000 fans in red shirts -- sprang to their feet and went berserk.
By the time I wheeled around, Mikael Silvestre was wrapping his arms around me. We were still embracing when John O'Shea flew toward us in a leaping hug. Then Ruud [van Nistelrooy] was there, encircling his arms around the three of us. The rest of the team piled on top: [Ryan] Giggs and [Roy] Keane and [Rio] Ferdinand, all those legends playfully punching my stomach and rubbing my bald head.
We'd won. Even better, we'd won on penalty kicks.
The Man U fans jumped up and down all over that stadium. They waved flags and twirled scarves in the air like lassos. In front of them stood Sir Alex Ferguson. He looked as if he had forgotten, by now, all about that three-man wall.
Once, when Laura and I were walking home from Starbucks, we ran into Brad Friedel. I was prepared for it to be a pass-and-nod -- no greeting, only a perfunctory acknowledgment that we'd seen each other. Brad had different plans.
"I'd like to come by and talk to you about what I did," he said. He paused before adding, "You know, with regard to your work permit."
I knew exactly what he meant, of course. He was talking about his refusal to help me out with my work permit papers. I had also learned something else. The legal team at Manchester United -- the ones who had originally applied for my papers -- had already told me that Brad hadn't merely refused to sign a statement on my behalf, he had actively tried to block my transfer. He'd written to the appeals committee suggesting that I shouldn't be given a work permit at all.
I hadn't asked for an explanation, and I certainly didn't need one. But I wasn't going to stop him from dropping by.
"Sure, Brad," I said. "Anytime."
A few days later, he showed up at my door with a folder full of documents.
Laura arched her eyebrows at me. This will be interesting, she seemed to be saying. Then she disappeared; she cared for Brad about as much as I did.
Brad began to explain his own struggle getting a work permit.
Would have signed for Nottingham ...
Had to wait until '97 ...
Problems at Newcastle, too ...
Permit for Liverpool denied ...
He showed me one document after another as he spoke without a pause. I glanced at the papers and passed them back. The crux of his presentation was this: if he'd had this much trouble getting a work permit, why should he make it easy for me?
"It's a matter of principle, you see," he said.
A matter of principle? Whatever his principles might have been, I knew they were different from my own.
Besides, the simple fact was that Brad Friedel had tried to undermine the best opportunity of my career. If he'd have succeeded, it could have dealt a tremendous blow to my lifelong earnings and career ... and for what clear benefits?
I'd always be the kid from Northwood Estates watching my own mother scrimp and save. I can tell you right now: that's not something I'd do to anyone. Ever.
After an hour of show-and-tell, Brad stood up.
"Oh, and one other thing," he said. He spoke casually, as if presenting it as an afterthought, "just so you know: Manchester United was interested in me at the same time. So, obviously, there was a real conflict of interest."
I thought about the way Manchester United had signed Cristiano Ronaldo within days of that preseason friendly. I had a feeling that if Manchester United wanted the pope to play in goal for them, they'd have been able to arrange that.
"Okay," I said. I wasn't going to argue with him. I shook Brad's hand, and we parted ways.
It was amicable enough. But as far as I was concerned -- and to borrow a favorite phrase from the Brits -- the guy could sod off.
I was playing well. In my first nine games, I posted six clean sheets, and had allowed only three goals. By January, I'd started in 29 matches, posting a 22-5-2 record, with 14 shutouts.
The tabloids turned around their screaming headlines pretty quickly.
The bestselling Sun noted, THIS YANK'S NO PLANK.
The Express agreed: YANKEE DOING DANDY.
And the more sober-minded broadsheets chimed in as well. "If the American goalkeeper has a weakness," the Telegraph observed, "there has not been a team who have located it."
Before long, the home crowd had even made up a chant for me. Sometimes when I stopped a shot, I'd hear the Man U supporters singing to the tune of "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from Mary Poppins:
We've got Tim Howard and he says "F--- you!"
It was a play on my TS, of course. And while it wasn't remotely accurate, I could live with it. It beat being called "retarded" and "disabled," anyway.
The above was an excerpt from the forthcoming memoir THE KEEPER by Tim Howard with Ali Benjamin. Copyright © 2014 by Tim Howard. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Book goes on sale Dec. 9, available for pre-order at Amazon here.