FA CUP: Why final with the Gunners would be ideal result

Sheffield United goalkeeper Mark Howard.
Sheffield United goalkeeper Mark Howard.
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THE cheers that greeted the FA Cup semi-final draw in the pubs that surround both Bramall Lane and the KC Stadium told their own story.

Both Sheffield United and Hull City were delighted to have drawn each other, especially as the alternative, it seemed, was taking on either Arsenal or Manchester City instead.

A couple of hours later, of course, Wigan Athletic had ended City’s hopes of Cup success for a second consecutive season with that stunning win at the Etihad Stadium.

Nevertheless, almost five weeks on from the draw being made, there can not be many supporters of either Yorkshire club who are too sorry to be playing each other at Wembley.

One man, however, who is likely to be a central figure on Sunday can not help but wish the Blades were playing Arsenal this weekend.

Mark Howard started his career at Highbury and although the closest the London-born goalkeeper came to a first-team appearance was being an unused substitute in the 2005 Community Shield, he has never lost his affection for the Gunners.

“I heard the draw for the quarters in the car,” said Howard. “I don’t live far from Bramall Lane and I had the radio on. As we were handed Hull, I remember thinking, ‘Who knows what can happen now?’

“It is a good draw for us. All three of the other semi-finalists would have been pleased to get us, we know that. But, after what we have achieved so far, we should have confidence about every game we go into.

“Personally, though, I would have loved to play Arsenal. I started my career there and it would have been amazing to play them. But, you never know, it still might happen.”

A Blades v Arsenal final certainly can not be discounted after the incredible manner in which United have turned their season around since the turn of the year.

The club’s charge up the League One table has been remarkable enough, Nigel Clough’s side having shot from the relegation zone as recently as mid-February to a place where, until very recently, the play-offs were still a possibility.

But it is the Cup that has really proved an eye-opener. United have safely negotiated seven ties and six rounds, beating Aston Villa and Fulham of the Premier League along the way. Hull City, therefore, do not intimidate the Blades so maybe Howard will get his longed-for meeting with the Gunners at Wembley, after all.

“Coming through at a club like Arsenal is amazing,” said the 27-year-old. “I was once told it would be the best education you could ever have as a footballer, the best university in the world.

“That is exactly right. I couldn’t have picked a better place to learn my trade than there. In 10 years, I learned so much. My idol was big Dave Seaman. I try and take a lot of his game into mine. He had this knack of making even the most difficult things look simple.

“Most people don’t remember him making unbelievable saves, apart from maybe the Sheffield United fans when thinking about the 2003 semi-final.

“But that was because he was so good and so aware. He didn’t have to pull off great saves because his footwork and his handling were so good. I think he was massively under-estimated.

“Peter Schmeichel, at the time, was the one who got the praise. And he did make unbelievable saves. But Dave just went about his business nice and quietly, a total professional.”

Howard finally left Arsenal in 2006 to join Cardiff City on a free transfer. But it is only in recent months that he has finally become a club’s recognised goalkeeper, a position he fell into almost by accident.

“I was an outfield player as a kid,” reveals Howard, who grew up as a fan of Tottenham Hotspur. “I even had trials at a few clubs as a defender.

“My Dad was manager of a Sunday League team and we didn’t have a goalkeeper for one game. As one of the tallest in the team, I said ‘I’ll do it’.

“I did it for a laugh but we won the game and my Dad said, ‘You can do this’. After that, I went on goalkeeping courses and it all stemmed from that.

“A pure fluke, really. I still played for my county as a goalkeeper on a Saturday but as a defender or central midfielder for the school on a Thursday.

“I got scouted by Arsenal as a goalkeeper and that was what made my mind up. I do think, though, that playing in the centre of defence for Surrey and Croydon Borough has helped my game.

“I feel quite confident with both feet and on the ball from back passes. That comes from being an outfield player when I was a kid.

“I like to play outfield in training, though I get the impression the lads don’t necessarily agree.”