If you ask Middlesbrough supporters who has been their player of the season this campaign, many would give you the same answer.
At most clubs, fans would probably reply with their top goalscorer or an influential midfielder who is regularly in the thick of the action.
Yet Boro’s standout performer Jonny Howson hasn’t been either of those this term. For the most part, he’s been used in an unfamiliar position on the right side of defence.
The 32-year-old has regularly provided a solid option at full-back, and even impressed as a right-sided centre-back when the Teessiders were short of options.
He may have lost a yard of pace since then, yet the player’ professionalism and football intelligence has shone through in a struggling side this season.
That’s why Sunday’s news that Howson has signed a one-year extension at the club was hugely wecomed on Teesside.
Howson hasn’t always been such a popular figure during his Boro career, though, and was heavily criticised following his £5million move from Norwich in the summer of 2017.
Expectations were high at that point following the arrival of Garry Monk, so Howson’s inclusion ahead of popular duo Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton, the midfield pairing who helped Boro win Championship promotion in 2016, opened him up to stick.
“I’m not on social media, so that was a blessing. Of course I was aware of it,” Howson told the Football League Paper in 2018 when asked about the criticism he received from fans.
“It’s probably the first time in my career I’ve been singled out like that, and it is hard.”
He added: “The only thing that upset me - and this isn’t something I’ve really spoken about before - was the way it affected my family. I’m paid to take stick but they aren’t. My parents were up there in the stands. So were my wife and children. They’re having to hear people shouting things about me. OK, it wasn’t over the top, but it wasn’t nice.”
Howson’s performances did improve under Monk, and the midfielder scored his first goal for the club in a 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday a day before the manager’s sacking.
Yet Howson’s importance grew further following Tony Pulis’ appointment at the Riverside.
In his second season at Boro, Howson played in all 46 Championship fixtures, starting 44 of them, as the midfielder’s all-round attributes came to the fore.
Towards the second half of that season, Howson was also deployed on the right of midfield, with John Obi Mikel, Mo Besic, George Saville, Lewis Wing, Paddy McNair and Clayton all available in the middle of the park.
Still, Howson’s contributions weren’t underestimated.
“Jonny’s been outstanding, he’s just a great pro,” said an admiring Pulis in January 2019, just over a year after his appointment at the Riverside.
“You can play him in the middle of midfield, he does brilliant, if you play him out wide, he does smashing. He gives everything.”
Howson’s versatility has proved a strength to keep him in Boro’s starting XI, yet perhaps it’s also hindered him as he’s been asked to move from his best position.
Boro’s sluggish recruitment process last summer meant Howson was one of the club’s only options at right-back when the season began.
Anfernee Dijksteel arrived from Charlton but, despite a few signs of promise, never really settled before suffering a lengthy knee injury in November.
Djed Spence’s emergence in December gave the squad a more natural option on the right side of defence, yet former head coach Jonathan Woodgate seemed reluctant to play the teenager on the right of a back four, instead using him as a wing-back.
Howson, on the other hand, has been trusted to play almost any position this campaign and, despite the odd difficult afternoon against a pacey Championship winger, he could never be accused of letting anyone down.
On the face of it, Howson may not come across as the most vocal or demonstrative character but he’s always been described as someone who leads by example.
“He’s versatile but he’s more than that,” said Woodgate earlier this season. “He’s a leader in the dressing room. He leads by example and players like that are vital to any squad.”
Woodgate, who was replaced as Boro boss by Neil Warnock last week, seemed confident Howson would sign a new deal before the season was suspended, yet contract talks were put on hold during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the end it’s fitting that Howson finally put pen to paper after an admirable display in central midfield during Warnock’s first game in charge.