Mark Howard has issued a timely reminder about the effect success in knockout competition can have upon form in the league after citing last month’s Capital One Cup victory at Leyton Orient as a turning point in Sheffield United’s season, writes James Shield.
Nigel Clough’s side’s were seventh in the table when they triumphed 1-0 at the Matchroom Stadium five weeks ago after suffering an indifferent start to the new campaign.
Seven games, five wins and three clean sheets later, United visit MK Dons tonight determined to reach the fifth round stage for the first time since 2003 after climbing to fifth following Saturday’s victory over Crewe Alexandra.
Howard, the United goalkeeper, said: “We found out a lot about ourselves as a team (at Orient). Not only as a group but also as individuals.
“There were times when we had to dig in and scrap. But we showed we could do that and probably answered a few questions in the process as well.
“When you get a victory like that, when you have to work for what you get, in a way it’s much more satisfying than when it’s handed to you on a plate. You know you’ve earned it and that does wonders for your confidence too.
“We all had to pull together down there. We looked after each other and that’s why we came through.
“I think that was a really important moment. You could sense it in the camp.”
Although United’s reward for beating Orient was a meeting with their divisional rivals from Buckinghamshire - “Ideally, you want to be at home or get one of the big names,” Clough said before the fourth round draw was made. “Everyone in our position will say the same” - Howard insisted they will not sacrifice their place in the tournament lightly.
Especially, he explained, after witnessing how last term’s march into the FA Cup semi-finals helped United pull away from the relegation zone and finish just one place below the play-offs.
“We all saw earlier this year how you can combine the cups and the league,” Howard continued. “I don’t think it was any great surprise that when we got some good results in one we started getting them in the other.
“Winning, like anything else, is a habit. And it’s one we want to be in.
“When you are at a club like this, you are expected to do well no matter what the occasion. That’s what Sheffield United should be all about.”
United, who saw Stefan Scougall score his first goal of the season at Gresty Road, could name Michael Higdon in their starting eleven for the trip to stadium:mk after he scored the only goal of the game at Orient. Terry Kennedy is set to feature after being withdrawn from yesterday’s Professional Development League fixture against Huddersfield Town at the Redtooth Academy.
“The manager here drums it into us to take every game seriously,” Howard said. “There’s no prioritising.
“It’s impossible to ever guarantee a result but what we can is that we’ll always give everything we’ve got.”
With Jamal Campbell-Ryce and Craig Alcock among those to sustain injuries at Gresty Road, United are likely to wait until the last possible moment before finalising their selection. Chris Basham, who has been earmarked to provide cover for the ineligible Paddy McCarthy, is suspended after collecting his fifth caution of the campaign against Crewe meaning Kennedy is expected to partner Jay McEveley at the heart of a rearguard which has kept three consecutive clean sheets.
Ryan Flynn, who is nursing an Achilles problem, has been granted permission to miss the trip south. MK Dons are definitely without Danny Green and Lee Hodson.
“The good thing for us is that, no matter who comes in, we know they’re going to do a good job,” Howard said. “We know their attitude is going to be spot on because the atmosphere behind the scenes is really good.
“If you can get that right then it’s half the battle. It makes a huge difference to how you play and I think it’s one of the reasons why we’ve scored so many late goals this season.
“We’re not just team mates, we’re also mates and that means we’re ready to go that extra yard for each other.”