How all-rounder Brian Howard became a complete footballer
By John Harrington
If you asked an engineer to design a complete Gaelic Footballer, chances are the finished article would look something like Brian Howard.
An All-Star in his first season as a starter for Dublin last year, it’s very rare to witness a young footballer arrive on the scene as fully-formed as the Raheny club-man is.
He’s hugely athletic, highly skilful, and is also a very mature decision-maker in pressurised situations.
How can someone so young have such a complete skill-set and game-sense? Howard himself puts it down to a youth playing a variety of other sports including hurling, soccer, rugby, and, most especially, basketball.
“Oh yeah, big time,” he told GAA.ie. “You hear of a lot of teams now doing basketball training in the pre-season to get the hand-eye co-ordination and it has a massive effect. There's a lot you can learn from basketball.
“I haven't picked it up in a while but I used to play it in school in St. Fintan's (Sutton) and it is something I'd like to go back to.”
Howard is one of those rare players who does everything well on a pitch, but one particular skill he seems to have mastered arguably better than any other player currently playing football at the highest level is his ability to sidestep would-be tacklers.
The sight of a defender grasping at thin air after Howard dips his shoulder and makes a sudden change in direction after stepping from one foot to the other is now a common one. Maybe his knack for side-stepping comes from his days as a rugby player?
“Yeah, I was playing a good bit of rugby there around fourth or fifth year in schools,” said Howard.
“It was something I kept doing, there are loads of variations of what you can do and some that I, hopefully, haven’t shown just yet.
“The thing is, I don’t even know what I’m going to do. If the defender can read it, fair enough, but it was never something I worked specifically on. It was something that I always knew I had but I never know when I’m going to do it or use it up until the last second really, you’d look then and you’d be like, ‘Aw God, I got around someone.’
“It’s not something that I’ve really worked on. There are a few other things I can do but I mightn’t have shown them yet.”
Game recognises game, and that’s presumably why Diarmuid Connolly name-checked Howard during an interview in late 2017 when most people wouldn’t have known who he was.
At that stage Howard had just completed his first season in the Dublin panel but hadn’t seen much game-time.
Connolly predicted he’d make a name for himself in 2018 and was proven right, though the irony was that Howard would do so in Connolly’s position.
Howard admits that hearing Connolly lavish him with praise was a serious confidence-builder for a young player making his way in the game.
“Yeah, obviously, Diarmuid Connolly is such a massive player in Gaelic over the last number of years, it was nice to hear from such an icon of the game, to hear that, not only does he know who you are, but also that he sees something in you.
“It did, it gave me a confidence boost to hear it from him. It helped because I knew going back to training that there were lads seeing something in me - Jim had me on the team and other lads were giving little heads up as well - ‘oh you’re doing very well at this or, you need to work harder at this.’”
Howard still has a vivid memory of his first ever training session with Dublin.
Two of his footballing heroes, Jonny Cooper and Ciaran Kilkenny, sat down either side of him, an experience Howard describes as “surreal”.
He was immediately made to feel comfortable by his new team-mates, but admits the learning curve was steep during his first year on the panel in 2017.
“From the first session I went in, I was just taken aback by the whole thing,” said Howard. “Not that the under-21s wasn’t as professional - but it’s just that because it goes on for so long (the season).
“When I came in, you want to perform every training session, whether it’s just a light session or a game, you just want to learn.
“It was tough at the start to reset your body to try and perform in every single game but after a few sessions, I just fitted in nicely.
“Obviously at training you learn from all the senior members there and obviously the great management team. They help you prepare for everything.
"The lads are so experienced that if you had any question about how to go about a game or deal with nerves, they can tell you all their methods to go about dealing with the pressure.
“I've taken all of that on board. My first League start was against Kildare and I was obviously nervous in Croke Park for my first proper game starting there, but from then on my confidence built and I learned by picking up little tricks from the other lads.
“I just kept developing, getting more confident. And Jim Gavin, he's a real man for if you're playing well then you'll get an opportunity, and, thankfully, I took mine when I went out against Kildare.”
After such a spectacular breakthrough season in 2018, there’s now a degree of expectation weighing on Howard every time he pulls on a Dublin jersey that wasn’t there previously, but that doesn’t seem to bother him in the slightest.
“It doesn’t feel much different,” he said. “I was dying to get back, the time off we had, I was itching to get back just as much as I was for the first year.
“There’s obviously attention, other teams know that I had a good year last year, whether it’s the same this year, who knows yet?
“There’s no extra pressure put on me this year, I just have to keep developing my skills, I’ve a lot to work on and hopefully, I’ll just keep doing it.”
Dublin’s all-rounder still thinks he has a lot of room for improvement. Now there’s a scary thought for every defender who’ll stand in his way in the coming years.
Dublin footballer Brian Howard will be speaking at the upcoming AIB Future Sparks Festival 2019, taking place in the RDS on 14th March. AIB Future Sparks Festival brings together the best in Irish business, sport, entrepreneurship and technology to inspire over 7,500+ second-level students for their futures through a range of inspirational talks and panel discussions.