Mark Howard last night laid bare the ruthless streak responsible for salvaging Sheffield United’s season, writes James Shield.
The former Arsenal and Blackpool goalkeeper, who hopes to record his seventh consecutive clean sheet when Carlisle visit Bramall Lane tonight, described Nigel Clough’s appointment in October as the catalyst for a remarkable sequence of results which has transformed the club from relegation candidates into FA Cup semi-finalists.
“The team spirit that the manager has put together is massive,” Howard said. “We are back together and a tightly-knit group.
“We are very close as a dressing room. There is a great camaraderie and no-one gets away with anything now.
“There is a sense of pride there. Even in training, everyone wants to win.
“The competition for places has helped in that. We all have high standards and if someone is not pulling their weight then they will be told.
“That goes for every player in every training session or game. We want the best for each other.”
Those exacting standards mean United, who just five weeks ago were flirting with relegation, enter the meeting with Graham Kavanagh’s side positioned comfortably in mid-table and preparing for next month’s Wembley showdown against Hull City.
Having won all of their previous nine games, Howard yesterday insisted United could still launch a late bid for the play-offs if they avenge September’s 1-0 reverse at Brunton Park.
Clough, who was appointed nearly five weeks after Matty Robson’s second-half header condemned United to a sixth loss in nine outings, won two of his opening four matches at the helm but has averaged three points per game since last month’s 3-0 defeat by Crewe Alexandra.
“I haven’t been on a run like this before,” Howard said. “You see some goalkeepers do something similar and the Celtic ‘keeper (Fraser Forster) kept 12 clean sheets recently in a row which was a great achievement.
“There have been some games when I have not had a lot to do. But you still play your part.
“We do go out feeling confident now. We set our stall out to be quite defensive and have some good leaders in the team.
“They win headers and tackles. That sets the tone.
“We do go out wanting to be safe at the back and not give the opposition chances. If we are not giving chances away then it limits the opportunities to win for the opposition.”
“I don’t think there has been one moment when the season has been transformed,” Howard added. “Obviously, since the gaffer came in we have done a lot better.
“But there has not been one game where I have thought: ‘That’s it’. The improvement has been gradual and now things seem to have clicked.”
Clough, whose squad have beaten the likes of Aston Villa, Fulham and Nottingham Forest en route to April 13th’s game against City, has warned that Carlisle will seize upon any sign of complacency this evening.
“We have proved already that we can back up a big Cup win,” Howard said. “After Forest, we won five on the bounce in the league.”