Sheffield Utd v Doncaster: Time for Blades to close door again - Howard

KEEP OUT: Goalkeeper Mark Howard says the Sheffield United defence had better get back to basics soon
KEEP OUT: Goalkeeper Mark Howard says the Sheffield United defence had better get back to basics soon
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Mark Howard admits all goalkeepers loathe picking the ball out of their own net.

Hardly a startling confession, but having conceded eight goals in his last three games, Sheffield United’s No 1 is surprisingly candid.

The 29-year-old former Arsenal youngster is as surprised as anyone inside Bramall Lane at the Blades’ porous defence recently.

After George Long conceded four in the opening day loss at Gillingham, Howard has taken over between the posts and brought a commanding presence to the Blades defence.

In five games after Gillingham, Howard only conceded one goal – Souleymane Coulibaly’s effort in the 3-1 win at Peterborough – and that opening day loss was seen as just a blip.

But the last three games, in which they conceded three in each of two home defeats to Bury and Colchester United plus another two in the draw at Bradford City, have seen the Blades punished for their mistakes.

Howard knows his team-mates must eradicate those errors if they are to come out on top today in the South Yorkshire derby with Doncaster Rovers.

“I never want to pick the ball out of the net, if I am honest, and I don’t think you will find any goalkeeper who will tell you different,” said Howard.

“It’s not normally one mistake which leads to a goal, it’s three or four.

“We have had that in the last few games, and we can all see where we have to improve.

“The way we defended Bradford’s set-pieces – and that’s their biggest threat – was a massive positive to come out of that game.

“Doncaster are going to be similar, they are a big threat from set-pieces, and it’s going to be a similar game. Obviously, we are at home and it’s up to us to break them down more. The teams that have come to Bramall Lane so far have sat back and looked to counter-attack.

“Saturday will be different, Doncaster will defend but also look to get goals from set-pieces, not so much on the counter-attack.”

James Meredith and Devante Cole fired Bradford into a 2-0 lead last Sunday, before Meredith’s own goal and fine finish from Billy Sharp earned United a point.

“The games are getting harder,” said Howard. “Coming off the back of a couple of bad results, it was good to finish off the Bradford game the way we did.

“Before the game we wanted to get three points, but the way the game panned out it was good to get a point.

“We are just disappointed with the amount of goals that we have conceded, and the manner in which we have.

“We all know that we can defend better as a team, as a unit, and, hopefully, we have come out the other side after that Bradford result.”

Howard accepts that no matter how well he has played in recent weeks, conceding eight goals in three games means questions will always be asked of a goalkeeper’s performance.

Asked how happy he was with his own displays, Howard replied: “I was disappointed with the Bradford goals. But, personally, it’s difficult to judge. We have let in eight goals in three games now and it always reflects badly on a goalkeeper.

“It happens at stages in your career, and you can’t really affect it that much.

“Personally, I don’t worry about stuff like that, I just play every game to the best that I can and concentrate on that. It’s never nice conceding goals, and I don’t enjoy it.

“Our sole objective at the back is to keep the ball out. You can affect the rest of the game, but your sole aim at the start of each match is to keep a clean sheet.

“All throughout the game, I am just thinking to myself, ‘do my job’.”

New Blades chief Nigel Adkins has improved pre-match preparation on opponents, and Howard believes that has already started to pay off.

“We have worked much harder this year,” he said. “The gaffer and his staff have made a conscious effort that we get to know the opposition, and we play to our strengths.

“That makes a difference, against players like James Hanson, so you know where he likes to make his runs on a match-day, where he likes to head the ball from corners. It’s really tiny little details like that that do make a difference.

“The game’s changed totally, and it’s stupid not to use it, to see what the opposition are doing.”

Today’s derby will see Adkins reacquaint himself with some familiar faces. He had Rovers’ caretaker-manager Rob Jones as a player at Scunthorpe United, and has also managed other Doncaster players like Oscar Gobern, Richard Chaplow and Dany N’Guessan.

Rovers defender Andy Butler was on United’s books last season before switching to Doncaster.

Adkins and coach Andy Crosby visited the Keepmoat to see Rovers draw with Oldham and expects a tough game. “Every game’s competitive in this division. Myself and Andy Crosby went to watch Doncaster last Saturday.

“Rob Jones used to play for me, Andy Butler used to play at United, Oscar Gobern, Richard Chaplow, Dany N’Gessan are players that I have had previously.

“We have watched them and know they have threats. We know Andy Butler will be a threat at set-plays. We will do our homework, try to nullify their threats, but there are things we will look to expose.”