Old habits die hard. Old rivalries run deep. For Tim Howard, the former Manchester United and Everton goalkeeper, this season’s Premier League title race has proven to be something of a Sophie’s choice.
Manchester City or Liverpool. Local rival or arch enemy. The team once described by Sir Alex Ferguson as a “noisy neighbor” or the club that Ferguson made it his life’s goal to usurp.
“My greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their f***ing perch,” Ferguson once famously declared.
Howard is unequivocal. “I hope Liverpool never win a title while I’m still breathing,” he told CNN after his Colorado Rapids side was beaten by Atlanta United, speaking with a twinkle in his eye.
“We have two teams in the form that they’re both in. It’ll come down to the wire. If no one has a slip up, then City wins.”
Indeed, with two games to go, City hold a one-point lead over Liverpool, and with games at home to Leicester and away at Brighton almost certain to decide the trophy’s destination. Liverpool must play away at Newcastle and then is at home to Wolves on the final day of the season.
This year has represented a curious quandary for a man whose heart bleeds both Merseyside blue and Manchester red. Even a decade ago, it would have seemed an implausible notion – an outlandish nightmare, light-years away from reality.
In 2009, Howard’s Everton finished fifth, while Manchester United pipped Liverpool to the title in an ill-tempered race that was framed by a war of words between Ferguson and then Reds manager Rafa Benitez.
Manchester City, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen. Under the management of Mark Hughes, City finished 10th. Brazilian star Robinho was the only bona fide big-money star, with City’s Abu Dhabi-based owners only taking control of the club on the final day of the 2008 summer transfer window.
It was a squad that featured names as varied as Valeri Bojinov, Michael Ball and Felipe Caicedo – the forgotten beginnings of an unrecognizable transformation.
Fast-forward to a weekend that saw United held to a painstaking 1-1 draw with Chelsea, and it is the city’s red half now in danger of sliding into relative obscurity.
In Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, however, United’s fortunes have begun to gradually improve – or, they had done – until a wretched recent run since the Norwegian was appointed on a permanent basis.
Howard, who played alongside Solskjaer for four years before both men left the club at the end of the 2006/07 season, is in no doubt as to his former colleague’s credentials.
“So football’s funny,” Howard said. “Pundits and fans are funny. He’s the right man for the job. Hopefully they will spend some money and they’ll get his players in and it’s no problem.
“It’s funny, right? Football: He comes in and wins every game for three months and he’s the second coming of Jesus Christ and everyone loves him and then they tear him down and are ready to throw him off the ledge.”
What Howard is describing is the manic world of football management, complete with its ever-increasing short-termism – a business where results are everything.
Looking forward, he is confident that Solskjaer will return his former club to its past glories.
“I think for any of those teams in that pack of six or eight teams, I think the idea is to finish in the top four,” he explained.
“And if you catch good form and lightning in a bottle, and you’re in a title race then it’s all to play for. But right now, I think the idea is for them to get back in the Champions League for sure.”
In January, the 39-year-old Howard, who played 121 games for the US men’s national team, announced that he would retire at end of the 2019 MLS season.
“There will be plenty of time for sentiment later,” Howard wrote on Twitter. “For now, I am going to enjoy every minute. And as I’ve always done, compete hard and help lead the Rapids with the sole purpose of winning.”