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Road to Wembley '98 - Lee Howells

4 April 2018

This season we are celebrating 20 years since Cheltenham Town lifted the FA Trophy with a series of 'Road to Wembley' features with the players and staff from the Robins of 1997/98. Here we look back at the career of Lee Howells...

Midfielder turned barber Lee 'Archie' Howells proved time after time that he was a cut above the rest during his 12-year spell at Cheltenham Town.

Born in Freemantle, the affable Aussie had started his footballing path on the books of Bristol Rovers before being released by then Bristol Rovers manager, Gerry Francis, at the end of his apprenticeship in the late eighties.

A number of trials came and went before Howells first decided to expand his horizons with a return home.

"I was born in Australia and liked the idea of spending some time in the warm weather," Howells once recalled. "So I wrote to various clubs, explaining who I was and telling a few porkies along the way. Before I knew it, I had loads of replies."

The midfielder eventually ended up at Brisbane United for a three-year stint on the Gold Coast - where he was to first pick up his barber skills working in a salon in the week between playing games - before returning to England in 1991.

When Cheltenham came knocking he jumped at the chance. However, success did not come quickly.

"When I joined, the club had just spent a lot of money on ageing stars like Andy Gray,” he once admitted. “Within a year or so of my arrival, we were in the old Beazer Homes League Premier Division and sinking fast."

Howells was to become part of the rebuilding job at Whaddon Road before success started to flow in the late 1990s when Chairman Paul Baker arrived.

On the pitch, with Howells in the thick of the action in midfield, the Robins were to enjoy the club’s finest hour with the 1998 FA Trophy win over Southport in front of 22,000 delirious fans at Wembley. A season later the Conference title was wrapped up.

"The 12 years went quickly and I enjoyed more good times than bad. The club really moved forward during that time," Howells once recounted to Gloucestershire Live. "The Southern League was a good competition and hard to get out of, but we had a good and talented team."

Howells has also always been quick to also praise the impact of Cheltenham-born manager Steve Cotterill and the way he went about transforming the club.

"Steve inherited good players, but as we moved up the ladder he brought in more quality. It was a combination of things that all came together, but trusting the lads on the field was crucial.

"Steve totally changed the way we played and approached football," Howells once told the Independent. "During my early years, we would be drinking in the lounge with the fans after training. When Steve arrived we were all at home with our wives and kids getting early nights. The club was unrecognisable.

"Most people in the town didn't even know there was a football team. Cricket, racing and rugby had always dominated the sporting calendar in Cheltenham, but attitudes changed."

In fact, it could have been a very different story. Howells did have an opportunity in 1997 to turn professional with Gillingham, who made a pounds £25,000 offer to Cheltenham, but decided to stay put. "The money wasn't that good," he once admitted, "and I'm happy as I am. I liked my job and I liked the football.” 

After injury all but ended his professional career with the Robins in 2002, Howells spent time at Merthyr Tydfil, Clevedon Town and Mangotsfield United, where he also took a first step into management after deciding to hang up his boots.

Howells then joined Bath City as a coach during the 2007 close season before becoming assistant manager in October 2008, helping the club gain promotion in 2010.

He was named head coach four years later after Adie Britton moved up to become Director of Football Development and stayed until 2016.

Howells - who earlier in his footballing career had combined playing with work in a local scrap yard - was later to open a successful chain of barber shops in Bristol where he can still be found today.

"I had to do something because I couldn't play football forever," admitted Howells in 2011 after opening a second shop. "I bought into Bristol are and it's grown from there. People always have a story to tell and it's an interesting job!"

Lee Howells might have been born in Australia but it was Cheltenham that was to become his second home. The dynamic midfielder turned barber who was undoubtedly a cut above in the famous season of 1997/98.

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