Nigel Clough has praised Mark Howard’s powers of concentration after describing the former Arsenal and Blackpool goalkeeper as an integral member of Sheffield United’s squad, writes James Shield.
Clough, the League One club’s manager, made the admission despite claims that a lack of firepower could cost his team dear in this season’s race for the Championship.
Although talks with several targets, including Chris O’Grady of Brighton and Nottingham Forest’s Dexter Blackstock, are continuing ahead of tomorrow’s deadline for emergency loan signings as United seek to address their problems in front of goal, Clough told The Star: “It’s also vital to be strong at the back and Mark has a massive part to play in that. He’s not had much to do lately because the lads in front of him have done their job but, when he has been called upon, he’s made some vital saves.
“That, as anyone will tell you, is the hallmark of a good ‘keeper. Not having a huge amount to do but still staying switched on and ready to make that block.”
United are preparing for Friday’s fixture against sixth-placed Notts County knowing that a win could see them close the gap on leaders Bristol City to just three points having played a game less than Steve Cotterill’s side.
Clough’s attack, ranked the 13th best in the division on home soil, could be bolstered by the return of Michael Higdon and Marc McNulty from injury. However only two clubs, Fleetwood Town and Walsall, boast a better defensive record at their own ground.
Howard, who produced a superb double save during last week’s FA Cup first round replay with Crewe Alexandra, is poised to make his 62nd appearance for United when County arrive at Bramall Lane and Clough added: “Moments like that underline why Mark has done so well lately and the huge difference that a goalkeeper can make.
“Everyone is built from the back and we’re fortunate that we’ve got some really strong options here.”
Iain Turner, a former Scotland international, has deputised for Howard since agreeing a short-term contract with United while George Long, capped by England at youth level, was recently recalled from a loan spell at Oxford. Another Redtooth Academy graduate, George Willis, has also been recognised by the Young Lions.
Negotiations aimed at reaching a financial settlement with officials at the Kassam Stadium following the termination of Long’s temporary agreement were ongoing last night.