The Watford FC forward who became an American idol
The Watford Observer has again teamed up with its friends at The Watford Treasury to share stories from previous issues.
Colin Payne tells how Bobby Howfield retired from English football to become a kicking star in the NFL.
Some Watford players come and go, their tenures brief, achievements vaguely remembered: history on the whole remaining oblivious to their career in a golden shirt. Over the years we have seen, and then forgotten, many of them. Others find greater recognition elsewhere, the promise glimpsed briefly at Vicarage Road blossoming further along the line, sometimes in completely different sports – Mike Gatting being a fine example. And some are remembered for one incident, one moment in time that will etch them in the memories of those present forever. In Bobby Howfield’s case it was all three of these.
A Bushey boy, Howfield was picked up from Millwall in the summer of 1957. A forward with a fearsome right foot, he played two seasons at Vicarage Road, during which time he made 50 appearances for the ‘Blues’, and found the net 10 times. The arrival of Dennis Uphill, and the form of Cliff Holton saw Howfield surplus to requirements, and just prior to the promotion season of 1959/60 he moved to Crewe Alexandra, and then swiftly on to Aldershot. There, his fiery temperament saw him suspended from the club, despite being a terrace hero and top scorer, after an ambiguous bust-up with the management. A return to Watford in July 1962, for a fee of £4,000, saw Howfield begin his second stint at his local club, as the Hornets’ quest for promotion to the promised land of the Second Division gathered pace (although being Watford, it was inevitably to falter).
Against the backdrop of a good start to the season and much optimism, 27 October 1962 saw the much-anticipated return of Cliff Holton, leading out table-toppers and eventual league champions, Northampton Town, in a game filled with passion. This was a massive tie, and not just because of the sides’ respective league positions. The saga over the transfer of the immense Holton had left the Watford faithful bitter and emotional. These wounds were unhealed; indeed the following week’s programme was to rebuke supporters for abusing the visiting players and officials, as well as for the throwing of objects at the game.
And so the stage for Howfield’s memorable moment was set, and it was that fiery temperament that led to it. Over 19,000 people had turned up to see an epic encounter, from which the Hornets emerged victorious by four goals to two, one of which was scored by Howfield himself. Yet his ‘moment’ was not related to that vicious right foot, but instead to his equally ferocious right hook. In a bad-tempered exchange he punched Northampton player Alec Ashworth to the ground, much to the delight of the already fired-up crowd, who were always partial to a good ‘dust-up’ on the field, and practically rapturous that it should occur in such a setting. Ashworth duly responded in the then time-honoured fashion, getting up and returning the blow. Both were sent off, a rarity in an era when football was regarded as very much a ‘man’s game’, and Howfield went into the record books as the only Watford player to be sent off in a ten-year period between August 1957 and November 1967.
Within a year he was gone, his scoring of 15 goals in 50 appearances being enough to attract him to First Division Fulham. He was to enjoy a reasonably successful spell at Craven Cottage, before returning to Aldershot, via a short period playing in New York. He would end his footballing days in Hampshire in 1967, at the age of 31.
And that should have been the end of the Bobby Howfield story. However, that powerful shot wasn’t quite done with. In 1968 Howfield was in a pub with a friend, when he saw an advert in a newspaper for a ‘kicking clinic’, essentially a trial for place-kickers for American Football side the Kansas City Chiefs. This was to be held at Wembley Stadium. His friend was alleged to have bet him a pint of beer he couldn’t make the grade. It was to be the start of a new chapter in Bobby Howfield’s sporting career, one which would see him travelling to the States, as he impressed the coaches present so much with his first two kicks that they signed him on the spot. For Howfield it was a good move, as he pointed out at the time: “I had enjoyed myself when I was in the United States (when playing football out there). I had made some friends in New York, I enjoyed the American way of life, so I decided to see if I could make it as a place-kicker.”
With the Chiefs unearthing another new kicker, he soon moved to the Denver Broncos, where he enjoyed three seasons of regularly kicking goals, before signing for the New York Jets in 1971. It was here that he set a new record for points scored by a place-kicker when on the 3 December 1972 he landed six successful kicks at the iconic Shea Stadium, scoring all of his side’s points as they beat New Orleans Saints 18-17. The winning kick, from a massive 42 yards, came in the dying seconds. With the British stoicism he had become known for, Howfield responded modestly to questions from a baying New York press pack with the line: “I’m still not really excited, and probably won’t feel excited until I have my first beer!”
Howfield was to finish the season as the American Football Conference top-scorer, and second overall in the NFL, and his reputation for kicking was to make him a Jets legend. He was to enjoy seven years in the NFL, before finally retiring in 1974, at the age of 37. He went on to work for a bank in Denver, the city he still resides in to this day.
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