A local lad with a wholehearted approach, Lee Howey became a cult hero at Sunderland in the mid-1990s, signing for the club in ’93 and going on to play under Peter Reid when the club won promotion to the Premier League. He speaks to Deputy Sports Editor Craig Stoddart about his recently-released autobiography, which chronicles his rise from the lower leagues in Belgium to playing for his boyhood team at Roker Park

BATMAN, Little Bo Peep, Madonna, Friar Tuck, Long John Silver and a Mountie walk into a bar. It sounds like a joke, yet it’s the beginning of a story that centres on a mid-1990s Sunderland Christmas party and involves fisticuffs, CCTV and a run-in with the police.

It is one of the colourful anecdotes from Lee Howey’s newly-released book, self-deprecatingly titled Massively Violent & Decidedly Average, the former Sunderland player putting pen to paper two decades since last playing for the club.

Howey is the first to admit he was not a star name, perhaps best remembered among Black Cats fans as a cult hero, while the title is crafted from an introduction he was once given at a Sunderland reunion.

A physical striker by trade, one who sometimes doubled up as an uncompromising defender, he was not even the most high-profile player in the family – his younger brother is Steve, formerly of Newcastle United, Manchester City and England.

But everyone has a story to tell, so it’s said, and given the opportunity to have his say, Lee Howey has employed the same approach he had as a player: 100 per cent, pulling no punches.

He says: “Whatever misgivings people may have had about me, I like to think that a lack of gumption was not among them. Had I been asked to run through a brick wall, my only query would have been ‘Which one?’ It was the only way I could play.”

It has worked well, early feedback being overwhelmingly positive.

Howey added: “I wasn’t a big star and some of the feedback from publishers was that I was a bit localised, but Biteback (the publishers) were taken by the story as they thought it was a good football book. If they like it, then it must be half decent.

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the response from people who have been getting in touch with me on social media, people saying they’ve really enjoyed the book.

“I find out at the end of February how many it’s sold so far, but I’ve given copies to a few supporters and they’ve all come back and said they’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”

He tells his tale with candour, employing little of the reserve that some footballers use when giving their side of the story.

With his playing days long gone and no longer involved in the game, aside from being a compere in the Jimmy Montgomery Lounge on match days at Stadium of Light, there are no concerns over burning bridges, no job in football to protect.

So Howey lets loose. Sol Campbell, Mick Buxton, Geoff Thomas, Stan Ternent and John Duncan are all in the line of fire, while a social occasion during which it’s discovered Fabrizio Ravanelli was as “tight as a duck’s arse” is recalled.

“You get your round in and that’s that. It’s the law.”

Dariusz Kubicki would not enjoy the book either.

Howey says: “Once I’d committed to it I wanted to get things said. The only thing was there were a few legalities so I’ve had to leave a couple of things out.

“Stan Ternent had written something in his book about me, and Geoff Thomas did too, so I was able to reply, which was fine by me. I’ve never been short of giving an opinion. If they want to come back and have another pop then that’s fine!

“I’ve read some books that give you nothing apart from stats about games that you watched a few years ago. There’s titbits in there, but it leaves you thinking ‘that could’ve been so much better’. I’ve been in involved in the game, so I know there’s always so much more to say.”

He ended up at Roker Park after a stint in Belgium, an unorthodox route in a career that began at Ipswich, who released him with a knee injury so bad he should, says Howey, never have played professionally.

“It was down to painkillers really,” he says. “My knee healed bent, so that’s how I played for the rest of my career.

“It took a bit of pace out of me, as you can imagine, and training was difficult, but I just wanted it so badly. You’d finish a game and you’d have eight or nine pints, that’s just how it was, and then I’d recover.”

After Belgium came Bishop Auckland and then Butcher, Terry, a former Ipswich colleague and, as luck would have it, by 1993 player-manager at Roker Park. He plucked Howey from non-league football just before his 24th birthday.

“The planets aligned. Sometimes you have a good feeling, and I felt if it’s not going to happen now then it’s never going to happen. I had to grab it by the nuts.

“At Ipswich I’d been flying, I was a good player and that was taken from me. So it felt like it was a missed opportunity. I knew I was a good player and wanted the opportunity again, even though I had a bad knee and shouldn’t have played.

“I never gave up hope and knew if I got an opportunity I would take it. It wasn’t a case of proving anyone wrong, I just wanted another chance.”

Howey went on to play in three and a bit seasons at Sunderland, which included one promotion, one relegation, and produced a song about Howey’s brother, still sung today at the Stadium of Light. The siblings have not spoken in years.

“It’s a football story. It’s not just about Sunderland, there’s a few vendettas, there’s a few stories and it’s not just stats about Sunderland,” he admitted.

“I’d be out having a beer with friends or work colleagues from the financial world where I am now. For a start they couldn’t believe I was working there – they thought every footballer was a multi-millionaire – and we’d be up until ungodly hours and I’d have them in stitches with stories.

“My wife would say ‘these stories are really funny, people would enjoy reading these’. I wasn’t sure, and it has taken ten years to get the courage to do it, with the help of Tony.”

Tony Gillan of the Sunderland Echo assisted, and Howey added: “Tony focused my mind and did a lot of the research.

“We knew each other at school. Just before one Christmas I was out with a few lads and Tony turned up, over a few beers he offered to help. I told him I didn’t have time, but he said we should put in two hours a week.

“The most important thing was the research – I’ve headed the ball too many times to remember too much detail.

“Sometimes I’d be out walking the dog and something would come to me.”

The book is not simply score settling. Howey fondly describes the high of playing for his hometown team – “Playing for the team you love is an emotion that few people get to have” – and his first goal is clearly a cherished memory too, while he recalls Michael Bridges’ breakthrough as a “sublime display of raw talent”.

A highlight for Black Cats supporters will be the chronicling of promotion to the Premier League under Peter Reid in 1995-96, the following season seeing the infamous Premier Passions television documentary.

“I still haven’t got over that relegation.”

After 82 appearances and 11 goals, Howey’s time at Roker Park was up. He dropped down a division with an ill-fated £200,000 transfer to Burnley in ’97: “I only regretted it after about…a week!” he said.

“Chris Waddle was manager, Glenn Roeder was there as well. I knew Burnley were a real traditional good club.

“With Chris involved I thought we’d be on the up. But once I saw the training facilities it was a shock, it was a cow shed and a few cow fields. I speak to people who are there now and they say the training facilities are like the Academy of Light, it’s pristine. We got off to the worst start ever – we didn’t score in six games.”

Ternent replaced Waddle at Turf Moor, falling out spectacularly with Howey, who eventually joined Northampton Town, where he played alongside ex-Sunderland hero Marco Gabbiadini.

Darlington fans will be intrigued to hear Howey say Gabbiadini knew of Northampton’s interest in him midway through the 1999-00 campaign. The transfer was not announced until the season’s end, by which point Quakers had played Northampton at Feethams in a key game between two promotion contenders, when Gabbiadini was suspended after reaching five bookings a fortnight earlier.

“I think Kevin Wilson, the Northampton manager, knew him from their Derby days and offered him a good chunk of money, which inadvertently affected me,” says Howey, who admitted the Cobblers said they could not afford to keep him beyond the end of 00-01.

“I get on really with Gabbas now, we had a few words at the time, but that’s just football. I think that’s what’s missing sometimes, everybody seems to be a bit too nice to each other.”

*Massively Violent & Decidedly Average is available at leehowey.wordpress.com