Jonny Howson was recently touted as a future England international, a bold claim to make of any Championship player.Leeds United's vice-captain is too modest to encourage that opinion but he would not deny that the tail-end of 2010 has found him in the form of his careerAndy O'Brien, United's on-loan centre-back, stated Howson's international credentials last month, soon after England's friendly against France at Wembley.
The English squad was experimental by Fabio Capello's standards and O'Brien argued that Howson should have been in it. "He's playing as well as any midfielder in England," he said.
His comments were open to debate but not quite ridiculous. Any regular observer of Howson would conclude that he is playing as well as he ever has with Leeds, four-and-a-half seasons after his senior debut.
If international honours are a genuine ambition – and Jay Bothroyd proved that the England squad is not solely the domain of Premier League footballers – then he has rarely pushed his claim with more vigour or consistency.
The 22-year-old excelled again at Turf Moor on Saturday, scoring the goal which settled an epic contest with Burnley five minutes from time.
His strike was sublime but the sum of his performance was greater than that finish alone, an irrepressible display among several which unexpectedly cracked a 2-0 lead held by Burnley at half-time.
Howson's form has been an apparent result of his attacking remit in the formation adopted by manager Simon Grayson at the end of October, but his contribution in the second half on Saturday came from a position in the centre of midfield, the role he has occupied most regularly as a professional.
He was an example of the sense of adventure responsible for United's remarkable fightback, completed by his seventh goal of the season.
"I'm certainly enjoying my football as much as I ever have," Howson said. "I think that's showing in my performances but the way the team's performing comes into it as well.
"The role I'm playing is suiting me and I played just off the front man when I made my debut. That's my favourite position but it's down to the manager to decide where he wants to play me and what's going to benefit the team.
"He changed the system in the second half (at Burnley) and I went back into the centre of midfield. It worked for us and the main thing is what's best for the team. I'll do whichever suits."
Howson was never capped at under-21 level, despite Stuart Pearce taking an interest in him last season, but O'Brien's short spell on loan at Elland Road from Bolton Wanderers has convinced him that United are less heavily represented in international fixtures than they deserve to be.
The defender also pushed the claim of Scottish winger Robert Snodgrass, another prominent figure in Leeds' victory at Turf Moor but one who is still waiting for his international debut.
Howson said: "A player like Andy's been around the Premier League all his career and for him to make comments like that is very nice. But I think it's similar to looking at our league position. You can't get carried away with that and I'll just keep working hard for myself and the team."
Howson, like his manager, was reluctant to dwell too long on a Championship table which showed Leeds in fourth place on Saturday night.
Grayson's consistent message – that the number of remaining games leave too much scope for a reversal of form – is being echoed by his stand-in captain, to the point where neither man was prepared to see United's victory at Turf Moor as indisputable evidence of a chance of promotion.
Grayson has asked Howson to lead his team for much of this season and will do so over Christmas and the New Year period while club captain Richard Naylor recovers from knee surgery.
With Naylor out of contract at the end of the season and still to open negotiations with Leeds, Howson might yet assume the armband on a full-time basis, providing United with another captain who grew up as one of their supporters.
Billy Bremner is United's most renowned skipper, an icon without compare at Elland Road, but it is Lucas Radebe who Howson thinks of most readily when he talks about model captains.
He enjoyed the company of the South African earlier in the season while Radebe was promoting a biography of his life and career and saw Radebe's personality and demeanour as an example to him of the qualities needed to lead the club.
"It's a massive lift to be captain," Howson said. "That's not just about confidence. It's a great feeling to be leading the lads out but it helps me massively for the other players to be playing as they are. To come off the field knowing you've captained the team to a win is very special.
"I grew up watching this team and I know some of the great captains they've had. The likes of Lucas Radebe stand out. I've been fortunate to meet him and, the kind of man he is, you can understand why he's been captain of this club. You can only learn from people like that.
"I wouldn't say I've modelled my captaincy on him because I try to play my own game. But you take little bits of advice and inspiration from top captains – not just from Leeds United but from captains throughout the Premier League."
Howson warned on Saturday that the subject of promotion was no more than a distraction for a team who are unbeaten in eight games, but United's prospects will be clearly displayed by this weekend's fixture, at home to leaders QPR.
The London club were beaten badly at Loftus Road by Watford last Friday but the defeat was their first of the season, 20 games after it started. They are five points worse off than Newcastle United were at this stage of last term, a campaign in which Newcastle won the title with a total of 102.
Howson said: "They got beaten heavily at home but they were flying high before that. They're a good side with very good players. That's what we'll concentrate on.
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