They haven’t come this far to play second fiddle, writes James Shield.
Invested so much in the Capital One Cup to be content with a supporting role.
The odds might be stacked against Sheffield United at White Hart Lane this evening. But, as Mark Howard explained, Nigel Clough and his players made the long journey south with Wembley on their minds.
“We’re not going down there just to enjoy ourselves or have a nice time. To be satisfied with people patting us on the back and telling us ‘never mind, but didn’t you do well.’
“We’re going there to try and win. We are determined to go through.”
Tonight’s contest, the first leg of a semi-final between clubs over 40 places apart on the footballing pyramid, has the power to shape professional careers. For Howard, the visitors’ goalkeeper, it is also of huge personal significance because he grew-up supporting Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
“I used to go when I was younger before football really kicked-in,” he told The Star earlier this week. “Nick Barmby and Darren Anderton were my favourite players.
“Everything goes on about the Gazza era but, for some reason, that’s not what really got me interested. It was those two.”
“I’ve talked about this with the lads and, no, I won’t be bothered about looking around before kick-off,” Howard continued. “Yes, in one sense, this is a dream draw for me but I won’t be swapping shirts though because I’m a professional, not a fan, and Sheffield United are the only thing that matters to me now.
“Michael Doyle mentioned recently, how before he leaves he wants to get us up. I’m the same and there’s nothing I want more, however long I’m here, to bring success to this great club.”
Boyhood loyalties will not be allowed to get in the way.
“When you’re a footballer, you look at things differently,” Howard said. “You’re fully committed to the team you’re with because that’s your livelihood and career. Everything else takes a back seat.
“When I was in Scotland I played with people who were die-hard Rangers or Celtic. But you wouldn’t have thought so when they came up against them. Who you grew-up following doesn’t come into it because it can’t.”
Howard’s decision to agree schoolboy terms with Spurs’ bitter rivals Arsenal serves to emphasise the point.
“To be honest, when I got taken on there, I was more focused about trying to make it as a footballer and, when we got free tickets to Arsenal, I used to take them.
“It was strange how I got picked-up because I was always an outfield player for my district and county. Then, one day, we had a cup final and I had to play the first-half in goal because I was tall. I went back to my normal position for the second-half but there was an Arsenal scout at the game and he invited me there as a ‘keeper.”
Howard remained on the books for a decade before arriving at League One United via clubs including Cardiff City, St Mirren, Falkirk and Aberdeen .But the lessons he learned on the windswept pitches of London Colney continue to serve him well.
“Alex Welsh, the Arsenal coach, was the biggest influence on my career. He used to tell me that I was at the best university in football and to treat what I was doing like a degree.
“Alex used to give us homework. He’d give us set-piece situations and ask us to draw where we’d position ourselves and how many we’d put in the wall. Looking back, that was so valuable because he made me think about my position
That cerebral approach could serve Croydon born Howard well during a fixture which, despite pitting United against opponents ranked sixth in the Premier League table, could resemble a game of chess.
“It’s over two legs which is different to what we’ve been up against in the past. They’ll look to put it to bed early and our target is to make sure, at the very least, we’re still in the game coming back to our place because then it is going to be like a cup final. A one-off tie.”