Wealdstone's Sam Howes talks through a career in semi-professional football, and the highs and lows that come with it.
There can be misconceptions about Non-League and its level – especially when it comes to goalkeepers – but Wealdstone stopper Sam Howes is a prime example of the quality the National League possesses.
The 25-year-old’s foundations were firmly set in the professional game. He joined Crystal Palace at U9 level, was at West Ham United from U11s up until he was 20 years old, then spent a further two years at Watford.
He reached some of the highest feats in youth football, yet the summer of 2014 was an especially memorable “whirlwind”. There was the “massive honour” of winning Young Hammer of the Year, as Howes tells Goalkeeper.com: “You'll be up against young professionals and young scholars, but at the time I was only U16s. To win that award was a massive sense of pride and achievement for myself."
Then there was his U17 Euros victory with England. “Travelling to different countries, playing against certain players who now are top of the top, wearing the Three Lions' shirt was a massive experience for me,” he reminisces.
Those top players he featured against throughout his England youth career include Paris Saint-Germain talisman Kylian Mbappe, Ajax winger Steven Bergwijn and members of Italy’s senior Euros-winning side, while he also featured in West Ham’s squad for the last game at Upton Park, won the U21 Cup, and had the “surreal” experience of making it onto the bench for an FA Cup match at Anfield.
His first taste of football outside of the professional ranks came in the form of a loan spell at Wealdstone, then of the National League South, in 2016. He says: “I was 17 and to walk in there, where everything's been laid out for you, nothing has been laid out - it's just literally the kit and a training top. So, to look at it that way was a proper eye opener.”
It wasn’t until 2019 that Howes was solely attached to a Non-League club, when he departed Watford and joined Woking. After admitting this was another “eye opener”, Howes continues to say: “I did find myself at a bit of a loose end when I wasn't training, but now I've set up my own goalkeeping school in Sussex. It's been running for five years now - it's in a very good position as well. So, in a way it's kind of helped me explore other avenues that I can continue to work with, even when my career finishes.”
That's especially important for Howes, given his current club Wealdstone are not full-time. There are the positives of his students being able to follow his progress, but Howes adds: “There are times where we're travelling back from up north or something on a Tuesday night where I will be doing invoicing, but that's just part and parcel of that part-time aspect. I know a lot of the other boys do exactly the same when they're on the coach on the way back anyway.”
The transition on the pitch wasn’t quite so seamless. “I started in the Conference with Woking; didn't work out there. Then I had to go National League South with Dorking; didn't work out there,” he says. “But in being totally honest, it's probably made me stronger than I was when I first came out of the academy system thinking I'm going to walk in somewhere. Thankfully, I've always had good people around me.”
Howes then joined Horsham in 2021, and says: “Without that, I wouldn't be where I am now.” He continues: “Going to Horsham was a bit of a 'Do I want to, do I not want to?' because it was a level I probably didn't see myself playing at, but the one bit of advice now I can give is that playing is the most important thing, that's the only way you get seen.
"Last season at Horsham, it was something like 64 games, won a cup there and then got to the FA Cup first round, so it was a massive step in the right direction.”
That took him back to Wealdstone, first through a loan at the end of last season. “They basically said the goalkeeper was injured, and asked whether I'd be interested in playing a couple of games,” he says.
“I did well and then they expressed their interest in the summer. A lot of people were thinking 'Oh, was that a trial period?' No, it wasn't at all, it was me going there, showcasing what I'm about and obviously they liked what they saw so took a chance on it this season.”
That permanent move has paid dividends for both Howes and the Stones. The goalkeeper has been a regular at National League level. “When I look back at it, that was what I wanted when I was 21, 22 but you need people to take chances on you,” he says.
Howes also references an increase in the quality of players, pitches and finances since he was last at this level. Describing the National League as “like League Three”, he adds: “The stadiums are always bouncing. We went to Oldham at the start of the season, I was communicating like mad to our defence but I don't even know if they can hear me. You find yourself talking but thinking ‘this is a different experience’. Where you go and play in an U23s game with like 50 scouts, playing then in front of 8,000 people on a Tuesday night against an ex-Premier League club, you kind of go 'This is what it's all about.'”
That only accentuates how much Wealdstone have punched above their weight this season, finishing 13th on 60 points and even threatening the Play-Off places at times. “We've got a very good core group, the squad is very tight knit,” Howes says. “No egos, people have always come in and the morale has never changed. We've always had this sense we can overachieve. The main aim for us this year was to stay in the league and we've done that, which for a club like ours, with the smallest budget and probably the smallest resources as well within the league, is a huge sense of achievement.”
Another challenge for Wealdstone is competing against clubs that play full-time. “With the fixture congestion we've had, we've probably only had about seven or eight sessions in the last three months,” Howes says. “Speaking not just for myself, but for other boys as well, you've got to make sure you're doing things away from the main sessions.”
He continues: “I'm still close with my goalkeeper coach from Horsham, there's a group of us that always train down here in Sussex every Friday, so we all get those sessions in. It’s obviously a part-time model at Wealdstone, but I still treat myself like a full-time pro, as I was when I was 17, 18.”
That work has put Howes in the position to play for England C. As their goalkeeper coach, Mick Payne, explains: “The England C setup basically consists of any goalkeeper or player that plays from the National League down. We’ve had changes over the years, but we try to make it more or less an U23 age group. The reason we say that is we want to see these players bounce back. There's a lot of players, especially goalkeepers, who have been with professional clubs, get released, and then they have to go again.”
Over 200 players have reached the Premier League and Football League after playing for England C, including Brentford’s Ethan Pinnock, AFC Bournemouth’s Kieffer Moore and former Peterborough United and Burnley winger George Boyd. Former England C goalkeepers include David Stockdale, Scott Loach, current Newcastle United goalkeeper coaches Shwan Jalal and Adam Bartlett, Paul Jones, Nikki Bull, Matt Glennon and Chris Weale.
“From a goalkeeping standpoint, it's become a little bit tougher in being able to select an U23 goalkeeper within the National League system, because as an England C team, we cannot pick goalkeepers or players who are on loan from professional sides,” Payne admits.
“Having an international cap has got to mean something. We're not just going to pick someone for the sake of it because he's that age. It should be an honour and it should be someone who's playing at that level.”
Howes is clearly capable of competing at that level, playing 94 minutes of the 1-0 win over Wales C this March before making way for Worthing’s Harrison Male. He says that was “massive”, adding: “That was a target I set myself at the start of season. Then, to get the call to say you've made the squad was huge. In my head, it kind of betters everything I'd done at youth level with England because it's a senior squad and you're being selected across the whole of the Non-League.”
Explaining the attributes that contributed to that selection, Payne says: “Sam Howes has good pedigree. He was a goalkeeper I had a lot of respect for, a goalkeeper who was prepared to listen, a goalkeeper who was prepared to work on his game and when he did play for England against Wales, I believe he had a superb game.”
He continues: “I know as a fact we had over 70 scouts at the game. It's an international fixture, you get an international England cap, your jersey and everything else that goes with it. So, these lads, the goalkeepers, Sam Howes in particular, it just puts them right out there.
"If any manager or a scout was at that game, Sam did himself a power of good because he had a very tidy game indeed. His handling was spot on, his decision-making was perfect, and he was tested with the conditions and he had to manage the game very well at times when we were under the cosh.”
The Non-League faithful can still be trusted to make a joke out of anything. “There have been some funny songs from fans through the season,” Howes says. “Most recent one was probably, we played Dorking and I think the song was 'If Sam can play for England, so can I' and they sung that constantly for a solid 40 minutes of the second half. You find yourself laughing along with it.”
Alongside Howes, Payne points to the likes of Boreham Wood’s Nathan Ashmore, Dagenham & Redbridge’s Elliot Justham and Solihull Moors’ Ryan Boot as goalkeepers who show that “the goalkeeping standard in the National League and below is of a very high calibre”. He also adds to Howes’ sentiment that game time is key, stating: “Goalkeepers have got to go and play, it's vital that they play. The manager, the coaches need a goalkeeper who's going to play with presence, a goalkeeper who's going to be commanding.”
Even with England C’s record for getting people into the EFL, and Howes’ impressive season, continuing to get minutes remains the main aim for the 25-year-old. “In the early years of my career, I probably would have said I want to play in the Premier League, play for England like every young goalkeeper and every young footballer wants to,” he says. “I think my main goal now is just playing, that's been the main aim since dropping into Non-League and it's now starting to show what I'm about as well.
“It's like I say to my students now, if you're not enjoying it, then it becomes pretty pointless. So that's the only aspiration I've got; to make sure I keep playing and just see where we are 15 years down the line and be able to look back and go 'You know what? It was a very good career.'”