By Chris Dunlavy
CAR, apartment, a hefty contract and an adventure in far-flung Eastern Europe – it all seemed too good to be true when Brian Howard signed for Bulgarian outfit CSKA Sofia this summer. Unfortunately, it was.
“They promised me everything,” says the 30-year-old midfielder, now back in England with Birmingham City.
“They told me what a big club it was, how the ambition was to win the league and play in Europe. I was so sold on it I flew out to sign the very next day. Then everything fell apart.
“First you don’t get your wages on time. Then you don’t get paid at all. I was meant to have a car in my contract, my apartment paid for.
“But I never received the money so I had to pay the rent myself. I never got the car, so I was having to pay for taxis everywhere. And my wife was supposed to be moving over but it was so chaotic that I told her to stay put. It didn’t take me long to realise I’d made a big mistake.”
Howard – who left relegated Bristol City in the summer – was persuaded to join CSKA by the Bulgarian side’s English chairman Laurence Davis, a London-based businessman who helped save the club from extinction by making it a public company.
“Sofia itself was great,” says Howard, who has played 383 games for the likes of Barnsley, Sheffield United, Reading and Portsmouth.
“It’s progressed very rapidly so there were loads of nice places to live, loads of nice restaurants. And it was pretty cheap, which was handy when you weren’t getting paid!
“Further out, it was a different world. Some away games, you’d travel six or seven hours on a bus. And you’d end up in a village that wasn’t far off medieval. You’d have all these guys going round with horses and carts, loaded up with stuff.
“But almost every little village or town had CSKA fans. So you’d be training on these little pitches and sometimes there’d be 1,000 fans, just watching a training session on a Friday night.
“They’d be singing all the way through, flares going off, flags and banners all over the place. It was amazing to see and made you realise what a big club it was within Bulgaria.”
But sadly for Howard, and CSKA’s sizeable foreign contingent, they were never made to feel particularly welcome.
“I went over with Mamade Sidibe, the former Stoke player,” says Howard. “Then we had four or five French lads, two Brazilians, two Portuguese. Martin Petrov had come back over from England.
“I’ve been captain at a lot of my clubs. And when people arrive, you try to do what you can to make them feel happy and welcome. But that never happened to us. We’d be in one corner, the Bulgarians in the other.
“And when the money problems started, it just got worse. The Bulgarian players were used to it. They felt that you should just accept the money whenever it turns up. And all the foreign players were like ‘No, that’s not how it should be’. We’d kick up a fuss, they wouldn’t, and it created a rift.
“It wasn’t too bad for me, but Mamade got a lot of stick, both on and off the pitch. And yeah, some of it was racism. It just wasn’t a nice place to play football.”
Sick of living off his own cash, Howard eventually told CSKA to pay his wages or let him go.
“I gave it a go for two months,” he said. “But when they were still taking the p*** after three, I said ‘That’s it – sort this out or I’m going back to England’.
“They offered me three months wages, which I later realised is just the way they do business. They sign people up to big contracts, don’t pay you for three months, then when players are desperate they say ‘Ok, we’ll pay you half and you can leave’. Then the next player comes in, they pay him for three months and they get away with it over and over again.
“I’m due to get that over the next three months but I doubt it’ll arrive. I’ll probably need to go to FIFA. I could claim the lot, but the problem is that can take two years. And while that’s going on, they could still hold my registration so I wouldn’t be able to play.
“I couldn’t risk that, but Mamade’s at an age where, after all the injuries he’s had, he’ll probably have to retire now. He’ll take them for every penny.”
Now Howard is back in England and looking forward to the frankness of Birmingham and boss Lee Clark.
“Over the last few years, I’ve made some bad moves,” admits Howard. “Portsmouth and Bristol were rushed deals. CSKA, I’ll hold my hands up and say I went for the wrong reasons. It was about the money, not the football.
“But hopefully that’s woken me up at an age where I’ve still got time to get back to my best.
“When I met Lee, I didn’t even talk about money. I said ‘I just want to play’. He said ‘That’s all I want to hear’, and 20 minutes later it was done. I hope it’ll be a perfect fit for both of us.”