DURING the coronavirus pandemic, Jonny Howson has enjoyed winding up his mates who have been suffering the frustrations of life in lockdown. Faced with the prospect of yet another Zoom catch up, the newly-promoted Middlesbrough skipper has been making his excuses under the pretence of having an ‘early start for work’. Then, he has counted down the seconds for the backlash to begin.

“Work? It’s not really is it.” laughed Howson, on a video link from Boro’s Rockliffe Park training ground. “I like to annoy some of my mates by saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got an early start in the morning at work’. They’re like, ‘An early start? You don’t even know what an early start is. And working? You’re going to spend the day kicking a ball around with your mates’. To be fair, they’ve probably got a point…

Football in lockdown. The assumption from watching a game on Sky Sports, with its piped crowd noise and familiar matchday routines, is that nothing has changed. In some ways, it hasn’t. Players still train and play pretty much as usual, and the narrative of the season has played out largely unaffected by the life-changing realities outside of football’s cocoon. Why aren’t Boro in a play-off place? Never mind that the shops haven’t been open since Christmas.

Yet sit down and speak to a footballer, and you soon realise that the coronavirus pandemic has touched them in exactly the same way as it has prodded and poked each and every one of us. Some can ignore it. Others are terrified of what it might mean for them and their family. Some have been directly affected by a positive Covid test, others have experienced the virus at second hand. All, to at least some extent, have seen their lives turned upside down. So, while it might look like football has sailed through the pandemic with a serene sense of entitled ease, the reality for those on the ground is somewhat different.

“It’s been a difficult time for everyone,” said Howson. “Everyone’s different, and you’ve just got to deal with that in the best way you possibly can. There’s obviously not much you can do to change things. I’ve always been a pretty level-headed person to be fair. My belief has always been that there’ll be somebody better off than you and somebody worse off. You’ve got to deal with life the best way you possibly can. Let’s be honest, we’re in a very fortunate position as footballers. I can still come in every day and do what I enjoy.

The Northern Echo: Jonny Howson

“We are very fortunate in what we do anyway, but even more so at this time when so many people’s lives have been turned completely upside down. We can come in every day, train pretty much like normal, and we still get to play football. Okay, it’s a little bit different with no fans in the ground, and we definitely miss not having that connection with the supporters. But we do get a chance to shut ourselves away in our own little world a bit and forget about what’s going on in the rest of the world and in society. I don’t think we should ever take that for granted.”

From Howson’s personal perspective, it probably helps that his performances over the last 12 months have been among some of the best of his career. The 32-year-old has been the figurehead for Middlesbrough’s revival under Neil Warnock, to the point where he was recently announced as the North-East Football Writers’ Association’s Player of the Year for 2020.

“It’s always nice to get any award,” he said. “Irrespective of the size or magnitude of the award, when you’re recognised for doing something well or you are noticed, it is appreciated. Even more so when it’s an award like this with such a great history. I feel very honoured and privileged, and proud as well.”

Warnock would certainly have agreed with the Football Writers’ choice, having extolled Howson’s qualities on a regular basis since taking over from Jonathan Woodgate last summer. He has described the Yorkshireman as ‘the best midfielder in the Championship’ and the ‘most complete midfielder’ he has worked with during his 40-year managerial career.

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Howson, never one for grand gestures, laughs off the praise, but having made more than 550 senior appearances since making his first-team debut for Leeds United in 2006, does he believe he is currently playing the best football of his career?

“I’ll be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever be happy with the way I’m playing,” he said diplomatically. “I always think I can do more or do better. But I’ve probably been like that throughout my career. It’s obviously nice when you hear the type of things the manager has been saying about me. He’s someone who has seen an awful lot, and when he speaks like that about you, it’s something you feel proud of. It does boost your confidence. But I always believe I can do more.”

Howson feels the shift to his current defensive-midfield role has held the key to his consistent excellence over the last 12 months, and while it can often feel as though he has spent the vast majority of his career carrying out his current duties, the shift to the base of midfield is actually a relatively recent one.

“In terms of being a single sitter as the holding midfielder, it’s probably the first time I’ve done it,” he said. “I’ve done it as part of a two, and some games you have to be a bit more disciplined depending on the team you’re playing, but being the designated sitting midfielder is actually something pretty new to me.

“I hadn’t really done that at Middlesbrough before, and certainly at Norwich and Leeds I was much more the other way, playing behind the striker or as a box-to-box midfielder. Sometimes I’ve played on the wing – certainly at Norwich – but as a single sitter, it’s the first time I’ve properly done it.”

Warnock inspired the switch, just as he has inspired so much at Middlesbrough in the last nine months. The 72-year-old might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but from a player’s perspective, he ticks just about every box going.

“He’s someone you want to learn off, and it’s probably the passion, determination, commitment and will to win that really shines through,” said Howson. “It rubs off on players. When he’s done it for that amount of years and had that amount of success, you can’t be a bad manager. You must know what you’re doing. And he certainly does.

The Northern Echo: Middlesbrough manager Neil Warnock (centre) fist bumps Jonny Howson (right) after the Sky Bet Championship match at the Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 31, 2020. See PA story SOCCER Middlesbrough. Photo credit sh

“He wants to help everyone he can. When you’re working, you’re working, but there’s also times when he’s taking the mick out of lads. He gets everyone going, and he’s good to be around.”

Last season, Warnock guided Boro to safety when they looked destined for League One. This term, he has led them on a promotion push that currently sees them five points off the play-off places with 13 games to play. Their momentum has stalledin recent weeks, but ahead of this week’s crucial away games at Coventry and Swansea, they remain in the mix.

“I think we’ve got a good chance if we can perform to the level we have at certain times this season,” said Howson. “If we can do that a bit more consistently, I think we’ve got a good chance of making the play-offs. If you look at the games we have slipped up in, we genuinely feel we could have got something out of pretty much all of them. We haven’t been on a great spell recently, but we’re still within touching distance of making those play-offs."