Sheffield United: John hopes the best for Howard

John Hope will be at Bramall Lane tomorrow as part of the club's 125th anniversary celebrations
John Hope will be at Bramall Lane tomorrow as part of the club's 125th anniversary celebrations
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It remained intact for so long, John Hope forgot it was still in his possession, writes James Shield.

But, having seen Mark Howard wrestle Sheffield United’s record for consecutive clean sheets from his grasp, the former goalkeeper was quick to offer congratulations.

“It’s a brilliant achievement for the lad and one I’m sure he’s very proud of,” Hope told The Star last night. “If I bump into Mark then I’d like to shake him by the hand and tell him very well done because it’s not an easy thing to do.”

Hope, who kept seven-in-a-row during the 1970/71 season, could get his wish tomorrow when United begin their 125th anniversary celebrations with a fixture against League One leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers. The 64-year-old, described by team mate Tony Currie as “the bravest goalie I’ve ever seen,” is among the guests of honour invited to help commemorate the event.

“I’m so looking forward to coming back,” Hope said. “Because Sheffield United means the world to me, it really does. Absolutely everything.

“In football terms, I still regard that as my home. I made so many friends there and good friends at that. Not just acquaintances.

“It’s a special club with so much history and so much to be proud of. But what really makes it so great is the people.

“There were some wonderful folk when I was there. Both on the pitch, the coaching staff and also behind the scenes.

“I’m sure it’s the same now because Sheffield United is a special place and one that will always be in my heart.”

Hope made 72 appearances for United after arriving from Newcastle in January 1971 and was a member of the squad which later that term gained promotion from Division Two.

Over 40 seasons later, the principles required to achieve defensive solidity are unchanged.

Nigel Clough insisted earlier this week that camaraderie and character helped Howard record his eighth straight shut-out during Monday’s draw at Preston North End.

Echoing those sentiments, Hope said: “There are a number of things you have to do to go so long without conceding a goal. One of those is not to worry about actually keeping a clean sheet but just focus on trying to win the game because that’s obviously the most important thing and if you play well, then everything else should take care of itself.

“But the other things, and this is vital, is to have a great spirit among the group. That’s what we had and, by the sounds of things, I’m sure it is the same now.

“Back in my day, we all used to go out together as a group every single week and if there was a prank to be played then every single one of us was in on it. Nobody was left on the sidelines.

“I remember once when we had our regular night out at the pub and my wife, God bless her, rang to ask what time I’d be back for my tea. I replied I wouldn’t be long but then, half-an-hour later, she turned-up with it on a plate.

“We were all great pals and enjoyed sharing our company.

“We took that type of feeling out onto the pitch with us. We’d do anything for each other out there.”

“John Harris was the manager and he was brilliant,” Hope continued. “He was always very smart and you’d never hear him swear.

“He was always telling me to get my hair cut and I’m not so sure what he made of the pink suits and everything else we used to wear. It might sound strange now but that was the height of fashion back then.

“John, however, demanded everything from his players and he didn’t like you getting injured. I can remember once getting a knock in training and he rolled-up the sleeves on his jacket and went in goal himself.

“John knew the importance of a good attitude though. Good values and things like that.”

Clough has demonstrated similar traits since taking charge in October. Certainly, United are now a very different team to the one beaten 2-0 at Molineux four weeks before his appointment as David Weir’s permanent successor.

Then, United were bottom of the table and averaging 0.44 points per game. Now, they will resume their rivalry with Kenny Jackett’s ranked 10th, having won 10 of their last 11 outings and, during that period, boasting a figure of 2.75.

Hope, though, will be particularly impressed by the fact that United’s rearguard has not been breached in nearly 14 hours of competitive action. Something Clough attributes to the fact his squad have quickly developed a ruthless streak.

“Before the match at Preston, we had the mascots in the dressing room and we asked them how they thought we’d get on,” Clough said. “When Mark heard them reply ‘3-2’ he swung his head around sharpish as if to say: ‘You don’t think I’m going to concede do you?’

“It was a funny moment but one which spoke volumes.”

Hope, who signed for Hartlepool after leaving United in 1974, forged a close friendship with Currie, the former England international, during his spell in South Yorkshire.

“Goalkeepers get called all sorts of things,” Currie said. “Crazy, different, individuals.

“But if you asked me to describe John I’d say brave. He was a top line player who, like everyone else made a couple of mistakes, but because of his position they were highlighted more than the rest of us.

“John, though, had the heart of a lion. He was one of the bravest I’ve ever seen.”

“I can’t wait to see some of the old lads again,” Hope said. “There was a real bond between us and, even though I’m from the North-East, they all made me feel so welcome.

“By the sounds of things, that’s the same type of atmosphere they’ve got there now which, for anyone who loves United and wants to see them do well, is great to hear.”