WITH eight clean sheets and just one goal conceded in Sheffield United’s last nine games, Mark Howard admits to being in uncharted territory.
However, as the Blades prepare to host Carlisle United in League One tonight, the goalkeeper believes the Yorkshire club’s new-found solidity is built to last.
“I haven’t been on a run like this before,” said the 27-year-old.
“I have seen some goalkeepers do something similar, such as the Celtic ’keeper (Fraser Forster) who kept 12 clean sheets recently.
“But this hasn’t happened to me before. There have been some games when I have not had a lot to do. But you still play your part.
“We do go out feeling confident now. We set our stall out to be quite defensive and we also have some good leaders in the team.
“They win headers and tackles, and that sets the tone. We do go out wanting to be safe at the back and not give the opposition chances.
“If we are not giving chances away then it limits the opportunities to win for the opposition. A lot of that is down to the team spirit we have here.
“The manager (Nigel Clough) has played a massive part in that. We are back together and a tightly-knit group.
“We are very close as a dressing room. There is a great camaraderie and no one gets away with anything now.
“There is a sense of pride there. Even in training, everyone wants to win. The competition for places has helped in that.
“We all have high standards and if someone is not pulling their weight, they will be told.
“That goes for every player in every training session or game. We want the best for each other.”
This closeness is certainly bringing the results, as can be seen with the nine-game winning run that has brought a charge up the League One table and a place in the FA Cup semi-finals.
Yesterday, the Football Association announced that the Blades’ derby with Hull City at Wembley will take place on Sunday, April 13 at 4pm.
The clamour for tickets among supporters is certain to be huge, but before that United have eight league games to negotiate, starting with tonight’s visit of the Cumbrian side.
Howard said: “The Carlisle game is massive; every game is important because of the position we are in. We have given ourselves a chance in the league with the run we have been on.
“There is an opportunity to reach the play-offs for us now and I see no reason why we can’t push for that goal.
“It is going to be difficult, everyone knows that. But if we can keep winning then why not?”
After such a euphoric occasion as Sunday’s quarter-final triumph at home to Charlton Athletic, there is invariably a danger in football of the next game being flat.
Howard, however, is adamant that won’t be the case. He said: “We have proved already that we can back up a big Cup win.
“After Forest (in the fifth round), we won five on the bounce in the league.
“I feel we have used the Cup to our advantage this season. Beating sides like Villa and Fulham has given us confidence when we have returned to the league.
“If we can set up so well against teams from the Premier League, it stands to reason that we can do the same in League One.”
United’s six-game winning run in the league has powered Nigel Clough’s men up the table and led to excited chatter among supporters about a possible late tilt at the play-offs.
Howard, whose return to the side in place of George Long at Fulham on February 4 sparked the current run of wins, added: “If the play-offs are mathematically achievable, then that has to be our target.
“It will be an amazing comeback to do it but we are in a good position. The season has been turned round, there can be no doubt about that.
“Two months ago, no one would have said we might even think about the top six.
“I don’t think there has been one result that has led any of to think, ‘That’s it, the season has turned’.
“The improvement has been gradual and now things seem to have clicked.
“As footballers, you have that pride and if the play-offs are still achievable then that is our target.
“The same goes for the FA Cup. The semi-finals were an impossible goal at the start of this run, but look at us now.
“The last nine games have been unreal and what we have achieved as a team and a squad is frightening. But now we are doing well in the league, we have to push on.
“This is why I came here, to do well. I had options elsewhere. The prospect of pushing Sheffield United back into the Championship was a challenge I wanted.”
Last six games: Sheffield United WWWWWW, Carlisle United LWWLDL.
Last time: Sheffield United 0 Carlisle United 0; April 1, 2013; League One.
Referee: C Boyeson (East Yorkshire).