Rabbi “Rab” Howell was born in a Romany caravan in Wincobank, Sheffield, in 1867, and was the first Romany ever to play for England. He was a highly skilled player despite his small size (5 feet 5 inches or 1.65 metres), playing as a nippy right half back or inside right. He began his career with Sheffield junior club Ecclesfield and also played for Rotherham Swifts before signing along with two other Swifts players, Arthur Watson and Michael Whitham, for newly formed Sheffield United in March 1890. Although he made his Football League debut as a striker, against Lincoln City in September 1892, Howell was soon moved to defence where he played for the remainder of his career. He won promotion with The Blades to the First Division in 1893, and, in 1897-98, a League Championship medal.
“Rab Howell,” observed the player’s Sheffield United team-mate Ernest Needham, “a gypsy by birth, perhaps owes some of his inexhaustible vitality to his lucky parentage. Certain it is that no man is more untiring. In his right-hand position this light-weight player (9st.12lbs or 57.3 kg.) always excels. He rejoices at meeting the best of forward wings, and should the outside man indulge in dribbling he sticks to him like a leech. Many duels have I seen between him and Fred (Spiksley of The Wednesday), and generally Howell has come off best. Unfortunately he is a little too fond of keeping the ball too long, and loses many opportunities.”
Howell scored once for England, on his debut in a 9-0 rout of Ireland at Derby’s Cricket Ground in April 1895. His second and last appearance came in a win against Scotland at Aston Villa four years later when playing for Liverpool.
Howell often fell foul of the club hierarchy who imposed strict codes of conduct on their players, and regularly appeared in front of the Football Committee on charges of ‘misconduct’ although this often resulted in him being offered a pay increase and asked to ‘mend his ways’. More serious allegations were to be levelled at him however, as in his final season at the club he was believed to have attempted to throw a game against rivals for the Championship Sunderland, scoring two own goals. No charges were ever brought but Howell only played one more game for United before being quietly sold to Liverpool. He left Bramall Lane having played for five years, scoring 6 goals in 168 appearances for the club. There is no evidence of match fixing, however. A more likely explanation for his sudden departure is his extra-marital affair: he set up another family in Lancashire after he left for Liverpool. Such a scandal in Victorian times would have been hushed up.
In April 1898 Howell was transferred to Liverpool for a fee of £200, making his debut for the club in a game against Aston Villa. Howell missed only four League games in his debut season as The Reds finished second to League Champions Aston Villa. He also played all 3 games as Liverpool lost their first ever FA Cup semi final in a second replay to his former club and eventual winners, Sheffield United at The Baseball Ground, Derby. He was also a first team regular for most of the last season of the nineteenth century but played just twice more for the first team after that, midway through the 1900-01 League Championship season. In total he played 67 times for Liverpool without scoring. He moved on to Preston North End in June 1901, where his career was ended by a broken leg in September 1903 having scored once in 65 appearances for Preston. Liverpool played in a benefit for Howell against Preston North End on 30th September 1904.