by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

12 October 1869: The birth of Rab Howell – England’s Gypsy footballer

Rab Howell was born on 12 October 1869 in Wincobank, Sheffield to Gypsy parents.  He was the fifth of eight children, and was raised in a traditional Gypsy caravan while his father worked variously as a horse dealer, a seller of pots and pans, and a labourer.

Howell himself originally worked as a coal miner but made a reputation for himself as a skillful footballer, first with the Sheffield club of Ecclesfield before then moving to Rotherham Swifts in 1889, finally signing for the newly formed Sheffield United in March 1890 for £250.

Howell was a regular over the next few seasons as the club made steady progress.  They got accepted into the Football League in 1892 and won promotion to the first division at the first attempt.  After three seasons of consolidation, the 1896/97 season saw them challenging for the championship, eventually finishing runners-up to a strong Aston Villa side that won the double that year.

The secret of their success was built on a strong defence.  They only conceded 29 the season they were runners-up, by far the best record in the League, and Howell was a major part of that.  He had teamed up with Tommy Morren and team captain Ernest “nudger” Needham (so-called because of his ability to nudge opposing players off the ball) to make what was described as “the midget” half-back line as none of the three were over five feet five inches tall.  The slightly built Howell, who also weighed less than 10 stone, must have been dwarfed by the Sheffield United keeper, the famous William “Fatty” Foulke, who stood 6 foot 4 inches tall and weighed at least twice what Howell weighed.

Despite his lack of height, Howell was described as being as “hard as nails,” but he had other attributes as well.   A book published in 1895 entitled Famous Association Footballers, noted, “he has always occupied the position of right half with conspicuous success. He is small, but for his size he has not many equals. Very quick in his movements, he never tires, and plays equally well to the end of the game.”

In another book his teammate Ernest Needham wrote, entitled Association Football, he said about Howell, “a gypsy by birth, perhaps owes some of his inexhaustible vitality to his lucky parentage. Certain it is that no man is more untiring. In his right-hand position this light-weight player always excels. He rejoices at meeting the best of forward wings, and should the outside man indulge in dribbling he sticks to him like a leech.”

While at Sheffield United Howell made his debut for England in a 9-0 win over Ireland on 9 March 1895 and scored once, netting England’s fifth goal in the 36th minute of the game.  Things were not always going to run so smoothly though for Howell.  Sheffield United’s directors were a stickler for discipline and Howell was frequently in trouble for some minor misdemeanour or other.  However, he never received more than a lecture about good behaviour.  However, in 1898 he was to face a serious allegation.  The Blades were top of the table and pushing for the title they had narrowly lost out on the season before when Howell was accused of throwing a game away to second-placed Sunderland that was vital for the championship by scoring two own goals.

The first own-goal came when he diverted a Sunderland cross in to his goal, the second saw him obstruct the keeper Foulke to let the ball enter into the net.  Sunderland won the game 3-1 and a furious Foulke refusing to believe that a player of Howell’s skill could commit two such basic blunders in the same game accused Howell of acting underhand.  No charges were ever bought but the club dropped him for their next two games, a friendly against Celtic and a game against the Corinthians in the Dewar Shield, a charity competition between the top professional team and the top amateur team.  He was recalled for the next game but seemingly rattled by the allegations swirling around he played poorly as Sheffield lost 2-0 away to West Brom.  After eight years and over 240 appearances for the club it was to prove to be the last game he played for them as he was quickly and quietly sold to Liverpool for £200 shortly after.

While Sheffield United went onto win the League Howell made his Liverpool debut in the last game of the 1897/98 season in a 4-0 home win against Aston Villa. He became a regular in the side the next season missing only four games.  It was while at Liverpool he would win his second and last England cap, four years after his first, in a 2-1 victory over Scotland on 8 April 1899.  He played 68 times for Liverpool before a knee injury saw him lose his place in the side and he moved to Preston in 1901 who had recently fallen out of the top division for the first time.   Sadly he was to suffer a serious broken leg in September 1903 in a game against Burnley that would end his career just short of his 34th birthday.

With his career over, it was a demonstration of the esteem he was held in as his teammates immediately had a whip-round for him and collected £29.  A benefit game was also arranged for him between Preston and Liverpool on 30 September 1904.  The man who had been described by a journalist as “the happiest-go-lucky individual it has ever been my lot to rub shoulders against” seemed to take the blow of the forced ending of his career well as the Manchester Courier reported that, “fortunately the little fellow is reconciled to the fact.”

After retiring he opened a fruit and vegetable shop, doing home deliveries on his horse and cart.  A newspaper report of his son’s wedding sixteen years after his retirement in 1919 shows he was not quickly forgotten with the groom being described as the son of “the well-known footballer, Rab Howell” who was still residing in Preston.

Howell, by the end of his life was almost totally blind, and died on 21July 1937 at the age of 69.  Sadly, while the names of Frank Soo, who had a Chinese father, and played for England in the wartime internationals in the 1940s; and Viv Anderson, who became the first black English international in 1979, are given as being trailblazers for the representation of players from ethnic backgrounds, the achievement of Gypsy born Rab Howell seems to have been lost in the mists of time.