- Tim Parks
Big interview: Sam Howes on West Ham, near miss at Anfield and playing as a midfielder at Watford
Football never fails to amaze with its random tales of success and glory.
At 24, Sam Howes still has the chance to hit those heady heights but he could be forgiven for believing his big opportunity came and went in the early months of 2016 when he was a teenage West Ham player on loan at Wealdstone.
Sam was a bright young shot-stopper at West Ham with caps for England at under-16, under-17, under-18 and under-19 level, winning the Euros with the Three Lions at 17, and had been perilously close to a breakthrough at an FA Cup tie at Anfield.
“Yeah, it was a crazy story really,” said Sam. “I’d made my West Ham debut as an 18-year-old on a pre-season trip to Sydney, Australia, but with keepers like Adrian and Darren Randolph and a couple more ahead of me I knew my chances were slim. Adrian was just brilliant, ridiculously so, and when Wealdstone contacted them for an emergency loan (Northy had got injured) I was off to the Stones for my first-ever loan spell.
"And I liked it! Gordon Bartlett was the manager and I made my debut in 2-0 win at Chelmsford. Then a couple of draws, a horror pitch at Gosport, a five-times postponed Trophy game at Weston (which Sam wasn’t able to play in) and then a trip to Eastbourne we lost 3-0… and then I was preparing for the next Stones game when I had the call to return back to Upton Park .
"West Ham were at Liverpool for a 4th round FA Cup tie and short of keepers… I was No.3 in line but in the hotel on the morning of the game Adrian had to leave as his wife was giving birth! So I was on the bench - and just a few minutes into the game Darren Randolph took a heavy knock and my heart was beating fast!”
Sam was told to warm up and for a minute or two it looked like he would be handed his big chance. But Randolph recovered and had an outstanding game in the goalless draw… and Hammers even won the replay 2-1 at The Boleyn Ground, the last season of football at the club’s iconic home.
So he nearly got to play in front of 50,000 at Anfield, but it wasn’t to be. Instead he has the memories of that magnificent stadium, days after turning out on a sodden pitch at Gosport where Sam remembers the game being in serious doubt “until a bloke turned up with a tractor with a ton of sand and dumped it in the centre circle!”
When the keeper returned to West Ham the Stones had to apply for ANOTHER emergency loan and Joe Taylor arrived from Fleetwood, quickly followed by James Bransgrove from Colchester who stayed until Northy recovered to complete the season. Six keepers in one season, if you include the forgettable Garry Malone and Scott Dutton!
Meanwhile, the one we wanted to keep returned to the first team squad at West Ham for an unhappy season.
“I knew I wasn't going to get close to a start” said the realistic Sam. “Tony Carr, the legendary Academy Director left and the new man didn’t really fancy me. That’s the way it often is in football - so I cut my losses and went to Watford, who also had a stack of keepers!”
Sam says he quickly knew that his chances at the Hornets were slim. “At one point they didn’t have a goalkeeping coach so I spent some sessions playing out as a midfielder - which ironically made me a better keeper as we are expected to be as good with our feet as with our hands these days. I was out there playing with half the current Stones squad, people like Ashley Charles, Dom Hutchinson and David Sesay”.
The writing was on the wall at Vicarage Road for the 6ft 1in keeper especially with the revolving door of Italian managers and the constantly evolving squad of players - so Sam accepted a two-year offer to go to Woking in the Conference, teaming up with Alan Dowson who had been his boss when earlier on loan at Hampton & Richmond Borough.
“You must have played against the Stones a few times after being out on loan at Chelmsford, Hampton and Eastbourne during those Watford 2022-23 days?” I asked him.
“I played against Wealdstone loads of times!” he laughed. “We always seemed to be playing you when I was at Hampton, in the league and in county cup finals. And I used to hate com - ing to the Vale ‘cos the ground is so tight and intimidating and the away changing rooms aren’t the best! “But my worst memory was playing against the Stones for Eastbourne a few years ago when I was sent off after six minutes for volleying Tarryn (Allarakhia) in the face. I hope he’s forgiven me for that”. After being left out of the Wok - ing side Sam turned down the offer of a further year at Kingfield and opted to drop two divisions and play for his local club Horsham in the Isthmian Prem.
“A pal of mine from schooldays said ‘why not come and play here?’ And, to be honest it was the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Sam was born in South East London but was brought up in East Grinstead - and moved to Horsham with his girlfriend Emma when he dropped out of the full-time pro game. He’s now set up his a grassroots goalkeeper-coaching business with friends across Sussex, a one-to-one training scheme that has expanded from just a few young keepers to around 120. That proximity to home was a big appeal.
“I just needed to be playing games and I played 63 or 64 for Horsham last season! We won the League Cup 4-0 in the final against Margate and finished halfway in the league - so when our season was over the last thing I was expecting was a phone call from Jason (Scannell) at Wealdstone. I’d not spoken to him in nearly a year so I thought ‘what on earth does he want?’ “He told me George (Wickens) had concussion and the Stones needed a keeper for the two games over the May Bank Holiday - could I help them out?’
"I nearly said ‘No, I’ve played 64 games and I’m on holiday’ but I’m so glad I didn’t! I played against Dagenham and then at Yeovil and I thought ‘I enjoyed last season but this is the level I want to be playing at now’.
“The National League is a big step up and certainly different from six years ago when I last pulled on a Wealdstone shirt. Then it was more physical, more direct, we got the ball from back to front more quickly and it was a case of hitting the ball onto the head of Jonny Wright on the right wing! “When I had the call from Stuart Maynard in the summer it was a no-brainer to come and sign… I really liked the club before, the people and the fans but I’ve noticed the ground is bigger, new stands and a great playing surface but it’s still got that intimidating feel for the opposition.
“We had those hiccups in preseason - being 6-0 down to QPR was a shock, despite the calibre of their players , and then the 3-0 defeat by Chelmsford - but I really think it did us a lot of good. It shook us up and we knew we had to defend the box better, and after the poor first half against Bromley we’ve got better every game”.
Asked if his performance at Gateshead was his standout display so far. “Personally? Yes it probably was, everything seemed to stick to my gloves but it was a team performance of real character - we showed a great mentality and maturity to defend for that entire second-half with 10 men but I think we deserved it. We showed how tough we can be. “By the time I got back to Horsham it was about half past midnight but we were all buzzing from the performance and the fact that we were top of the league. But we’re not daft, we know the main target is to avoid relegation but the way we’ve started has made people take notice. Long may that continue."
* Pictures by Darren Campbell
This article originally featured in the multi-award winning Wealdstone match day programme. Lewis Kinsella is the feature interview in Saturday's programme for the home game against Torquay. Make sure you pick up a copy priced at £3.
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