“I thank you and I’ll never be too far away from this stadium; I look forward to always seeing you.”
That was the message from Tim Howard as he announced his retirement from football, just last September. Spending a total of four seasons with the Colorado Rapids, Howard racked up 185 league appearances; adding to his earlier total with the New York MetroStars with whom he played for in the early 00’s.
Howard spent almost a decade in English football. First with Manchester United, and then Everton, where kept over 100 clean sheets in 329 appearances; cementing himself as a cult hero at the club.
Since his retirement the American has been busy in off the field activities; recently becoming a co-owner of second-tier US Soccer club, Memphis 901 FC. Howard was named sporting director last month and remarkably signed a one-year contract with the club, at the ripe old age of 41.
“Since my retirement, my obsession for football has grown,” Howard expressed in a statement prior to his unveiling. “The desire to win continues to drive me. I love to play and love to compete, this gives me the opportunity to do both.”
Howard has had a residency in Memphis for a number of years, juggling his time between the city and his home-state of New Jersey. The lack of footballing identity, combined with his passion for the city was what spearheaded the creation of the team. Speaking about his role at the club further, Howard explained: “This is a day I dreamed would happen, but I didn’t know it would happen in Memphis.”
One thing that stands out from Howard’s [quite literal] hands-on involvement with the club, is his pledge of giving something back to the sport that he “owes so much”.
Back in January, following the news of his co-ownership of Memphis, he outlined just how big football has been and still is in his life.
“I never wanted to retire and go too far away from the game. Everything I know and have in my life that is good, is because of football. I was so important that I gave back.”
This appreciation Howard has for football and the opportunities it has given him, undoubtedly is something that he has carried with him to Memphis. Following graduation from high-school, Howard was picked up by the North Jersey Imperials; the result of a solitary $25 coaching session. The man that sanctioned that? Tim Mulqueen, the current Memphis 901 head coach.
It’s these very personal touches from Howard that have made the Memphis project such a special one for the 41-year old.
Prior to the investment of Howard and his colleagues, Memphis ended their inaugural USL Championship season five places off the play-offs. One of the key components of the project was an emphasis on technical quality. The off-season provided the club with an opportunity to pick up players of that ilk, one of which being ex-Everton midfielder and free-agent, Jose Baxter.
Born in Bootle, Baxter became the club’s youngest ever player after making his debut on the opening day of the 2008-09 season, aged 16 years and 191 days. Baxter, an academy graduate, was destined for a career at the top, but it was his off-field problems that made the headlines. Arrested on suspicion of possession of drugs and counterfeit money – just months after his breakthrough – stalled what had so far, been a highly promising career.
Following this, Baxter experienced a period of stability. Two seasons at Oldham before a move to Sheffield United. Making over 124 appearances for the club, along with starring role in their run to the 2014 FA Cup semi-final’s, Baxter began to show remnants of the potential first seen at Everton. Unfortunately, however, his time at the South Yorkshire club came to an abrupt end. Two suspensions in nine months for use of ecstasy and cocaine, Baxter was subsequently released by the club in 2016.
With his footballing career in tatters it was now the turn of his former club Everton to get him back on track. Following a string of calls and text messages, chairman Bill Kenwright offered Baxter a 12-month contract to help rebuild his career. In a candid interview with the BBC’s Football Focus programme, Baxter explained how Kenwright had “saved his life” and accredited him as the sole reason for getting him back into football.
Baxter made full use of the lifeline handed to him, with moves back to Oldham and most recently Plymouth Argyle.
Having found himself without a club againearlier this season, Baxter adopted the unorthodox technique of finding himself a new one via LinkedIn.
Within weeks an agent got in touch and informed him of the new USL expansion side Memphis 901 FC expressing an interest in his services. Baxter then almost immediately was contacted by ex-teammate Howard, who conveyed his enthusiasm at free-agent Baxter possibly joining his project.
In an interview with the Athletic, Baxter explained: “When Tim [Howard] found out, he got in touch straight away. He didn’t realize I was looking for a new club but said he’d love to have me here.”
Baxter also eluded to the footballing environment of the US, with it being a place that allows him to both rebuild his career and prove to prospective MLS teams how good he really is.
Everton have long been heralded a family club, one that protects the values of everyone in its community. Its obvious that spirit has translated to even across the Atlantic, Howard speaking so unequivocally in his interviews about both Memphis, along with Baxter’s signing.
[Featured image courtesy of Soc Takes Twitter account; via Memphis 901 FC.]