Watford’s Javi Gracia has been named the Barclays’ Premier League Manager of the Month for August.
Gracia wins the coveted prize after the Golden Boys got off to a 100 per cent start in the Premier League, and he celebrated by gathering his staff and players for a photo at the training ground.
Gracia was nominated after the 2-0 opening day victory over Brighton & Hove Albion was followed by a 3-1 away win against Burnley at Turf Moor - a notoriously tricky place to visit - and a pulsating 2-1 home win over Crystal Palace meant that his Hornets started the 2018/19 Premier League campaign with maximum points.
The Hornets’ Head Coach beat off competition from Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp, Chelsea’s Maurizio Sarri, and Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettin - all of whom also boasted 100 per cent records as well.
Walking into a GCSE exam is a daunting experience at the best of times, but for Watford Under-23 keeper Sam Howes, collecting his thoughts for an exam paper must have been extra tricky.
For one thing, he was sitting his exams in Malta, over 1,000 miles from his school. Then there was the small fact that he was slap bang in the middle of winning a European title for England.
In the summer of 2014, Howes was part of the victorious England squad in the Under-17 European Championships and juggling his international football career with maths and English. The day after the side beat Portugal in the semi-finals, Howes and his teammates stepped into an exam hall, only to be greeted by a standing ovation from the England-supporting Maltese locals.
But that experience was just part and parcel for Howes during the barmy summer months of 2014; a summer that started with the young keeper winning the Young Hammer of the Year award at just 16, and ended with his senior West Ham debut halfway around the world.
Howes joined West Ham at Under-10 level and for a while presented a dual sporting threat. As he made his way up the Hammers' age groups he was also carving something of a cricketing future in the youth ranks of his home county Sussex.
Batting number three and bowling the odd bit of off-spin, Howes says he was more of a Joss Buttler than an Alastair Cook.
“I could never come in and play defensive cricket or anything like that,” he says. “I just went out and whacked it as far as I could, so I obviously got a few tellings off from my teachers.”
However, as his standing in the West Ham academy grew and England came knocking, football took priority, and the two came to a head one summer before Howes went off with England Under-16. Days before travelling to the Nordic youth tournament, the keeper was called on to keep wicket for his club cricket side. A rogue delivery caught him awkwardly and cracked the tip of his thumb, forcing him to miss the tournament and cementing his resolve that football had to take priority.
It was a choice that paid off. Howes made his debut for West Ham’s Under-18s aged just 15, and by the end of the 2013/14 season had featured regularly for the Under-21 side as a 16-year-old.
“I’m a perfectionist,” says Howes, explaining his rapid rise up the Hammers' pecking order. “If I see something I want I’ll go and get it, and I’ll work hard to get it. The way I see it, my parents have backed me, they’ve driven me everywhere, and so it’s my way of giving something back to the people who’ve helped me. I could’ve just rested on my laurels and thought ‘Yeah I’m at West Ham’, but I had the aim that I could be better than the 16s keeper at 15, and then the 18s keeper and before I knew it I was playing in the 21s.”
That season earnt Howes the Young Hammer of the Year award, and a call-up to those 2014 Under-17 European Championships in Malta.
Howes went as second choice keeper, backing up Newcastle’s Freddie Woodman, though he did play in the group stage against the Netherlands, who England would go on to beat in the final on penalties. “There wasn’t that much pressure on us at all in that tournament,” Howes recalls. “We went out there and we knew the squad we had, we knew it was going to be effective, otherwise we wouldn’t have got through qualifying without even drawing a game. But to win that in that way was a great feeling, probably one of the best feelings I’ve had in football, if not the best.”
Howes has represented England in every age group from Under-16 to Under-19, where he was coached by former Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd, himself making his way up the England ranks. “He was a very good manager, very good tactically. He’s a top bloke and very detail-driven. We had lots of meetings, and though a lot of players don’t usually like meetings, his were good and obviously worked to help us win and progress.”
The England experience has certainly added to Howes’ game and provided an extra incentive to keep developing. He explains: “It’s perfect really. You’re surrounded by the best players for your age in the country. Some of the boys today are playing in first teams in the Premier League or elsewhere.” Joe Gomez, Dominic Solanke and Lewis Cook are perhaps the best examples of players from the champion Under-17 side kicking on into senior football. “To know that I’ve been playing and training with those boys, it can only stand me in good stead for the future. Without all that I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, because I’ve learnt so much through international football.”
Returning from Malta, with an award-winning club season, a major international trophy and a set of GCSEs in the bag, it might have been time for Howes to recover from what he admits was a “whirlwind” season. Far from it.
As he was making his way down to Havant & Waterlooville to play in a pre-season friendly for West Ham’s Under-21s he got a call that would start the whirlwind all over again. “The first team coach called me and said ‘you’re travelling tomorrow to New Zealand with the first team, so you better go and pack up your things’. By this point I was down in Portsmouth, and had to get back to digs in Essex to pack my stuff and then get in a cab and fly to New Zealand.”
The high-point of the nine-day tour came when, in front of over 30,000 fans in Wellington, Howes, still only 16, was given his West Ham bow against A League side Sydney FC. A strong Hammers side was 3-1 down when Howes took to the pitch as a second half sub, and the young keeper managed to stem the flow and keep a clean sheet.
“Considering how the game was going, the clean sheet wasn’t bad going really,” the understated Howes says. “The crazy thing is that it was 3pm in New Zealand so it was the middle of the night over here. My parents didn’t know it had happened until they were scrolling through Twitter in the morning and seen that I’d come on. So then my phone started pinging and pinging, and by that point I was ready to go to sleep. It was a different experience, shall we say.”
Despite the early start to his West Ham career, he didn’t see much more action and being named on the bench for an FA Cup tie at Anfield was the closest Howes got to a competitive game. After a season as the travelling third choice, Howes had a brief loan at Wealdstone and then Hampton & Richmond, a stint that would be the catalyst for his move to Watford last summer.
“The first loan I went to at Wealdstone I didn’t know what to expect. At the time it was during the Christmas schedule so I stepped out there and you have fans shouting at you from five yards behind your head, calling you all sorts. For a young keeper looking to develop it’s perfect, because when you come back into the 23s you feel much more relaxed.
“Then when I was playing on loan at Hampton & Richmond in the Conference South, the manager took me to the side and told me that some guys from Watford were watching, and they expressed an interest and the ball started rolling from there.”
After a decade in East London, Howes felt it was time to seek a new challenge: “I had done most things there that I possibly could do, and wanted to try something a bit different. It was difficult because every day you go into training, you know the place, you knew everyone around the club, but it was something I had to do.”
Now a year into his time at Watford, Howes, who was the third choice keeper for August’s Carabao Cup tie with Reading, is loving the learning environment, especially with two textbook goalkeeping examples in Ben Foster and Heurelho Gomes. “My aim is to learn off them; to see how they conduct themselves around the training ground and on the pitch. They’re two top class keepers, keepers I’ve grown up watching. So now to share training sessions with them and watch them train is perfect for me as a young goalkeeper.”
Howes also emphasises the coaching talent moulding the Under-23s, particularly Hayden Mullins - a former West Ham favourite himself. “Hayden is perfect to learn off from the experience he’s had. He’s been there, done it, and got so much experience. So I know I’m in good hands.”