Mark Howard is bored to tears with hard-luck stories, writes James Shield.
Sick of performing footballing post-mortems and wondering what might have been.
This time, however, he is confident things will be different for Sheffield United. Thanks, in no small part, to a renewed sense of purpose behind the scenes.
“I’ve been here three-and-a-half years and we’ve always been close to promotion but never quite got there,” Howard admitted. “But there’s a proper hunger now, among the whole squad and management team, that finding ourselves in that situation has got to stop. We’re all desperate for it. We know now that we really do need to kick-on.”
United, last season’s beaten play-off semi-finalists, began life under Nigel Adkins with another false step when they were beaten 4-0 by Gillingham on the opening day of the new League One campaign. But, as Howard acknowledged at the Redtooth Academy yesterday, sport is all about responding to disappointment. United, having dispatched Morecambe and Chesterfield following that calamity in Kent, enter tonight’s meeting with Peterborough hoping to record a third straight win.
“You get far more knock backs in this game than you do highs,” Howard told The Star. “So it’s all about how you bounce back from the lows. Look at Chelsea. They’ve not had a great start but they are still among the favourites to win the Premier League title.
“With hindsight, Gillingham actually might have been a good thing for us. Sometimes, even though you don’t want them to, things just happen like that. But we’ve been able to put that to bed and move forward. Now we’ve got a little bit of momentum going, we want to carry that on.”
Howard can be absolved of any responsibility for events at Priestfield Stadium after watching the drama unfold from the bench. Recalled for the Capital One Cup tie against Morecambe, he retained his place when Dean Saunders’ side visited Bramall Lane three days ago and duly kept another clean sheet.
Howard attributes United’s new-found defensive solidity to a combination of factors, including Adkins’ appointment during the close season, the meticulous approach of his coaching staff and a determination not to squeeze round pegs into square holes.
“It really does help having people playing in their favourite positions. We’ve got central defenders playing at centre-half and full-backs at full-back. That helps with their personal confidence. The gaffer and his staff have come in and they are working on all aspects of what we do, including our attacking presence and shape at the back. Those details will stand us in good stead.
“We all know what our roles are. We know who is filling in if someone is out of position. Why they’ve got to do it and when.”
Howard, a veteran of three play-off campaigns and five managers since moving to South Yorkshire in January 2012, highlighted Adkins’ willingness to address another enduring problem as a source of confidence behind the scenes.
“This year, we know we’ve got goals. And there are goals throughout the whole squad. Up-front, people like Billy (Sharp) and Conor (Sammon) have come in alongside Marc McNulty and Michael Higdon but we’ve also got them in midfield and even at the back too.
“That gives you a real belief when you are out there on the pitch. Trust me, it makes a massive difference. Pretty much everyone can score out there. Well, probably except me.”
Howard, who was hampered by injury during the closing stages of last season, admits he was “really disappointed” not to feature in Adkins’ first starting eleven. But, after wrestling back the gloves from George Long, appears a shoe-in to feature at London Road tonight.
“Ask any footballer, they’ll all tell you that they want to play,” Howard said. “But sometimes getting a bit of a kick can make you a better, stronger person and we’ve got a team of hungry players.”