Sheffield United v Southampton: Ability of Blades to upset puts Saints in firing line

AS Mark Howard watched the Arsenal and Hull City players walk out side-by-side at Wembley ahead of last May’s FA Cup final, he couldn’t help but wonder ‘what if?’

Sheffield United goalkeeper Mark Howard. Picture: Martyn Harrison.

What if Sheffield United had been able to hold on to their precious half-time lead in the semi-final against the Tigers for a tad longer than the four minutes it took Matty Fryatt to equalise after the restart?

What if Premier League Hull had not been in such a clinical mood that all five of their efforts on goal found the net?

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And what if the Blades had been able to pull off one last upset in what had been a remarkable run and beat Steve Bruce’s men to become the first third tier team to reach an FA Cup final in more than a century?

All those questions and more were swirling round the head of United goalkeeper Howard as he looked down on the players from the corporate seats at Wembley, a few minutes after collecting the Ronnie Radford award on behalf of the Blades for last season’s biggest giant-killing.

Tonight, Howard and his team-mates have a chance to book a place in the last four of a major competition for the second consecutive season as Southampton travel to Bramall Lane in the Capital One Cup. And the 28-year-old admits the memories of that Wembley defeat are likely to serve as inspiration for the Blades.

“Hull definitely still rankles with me,” he said. “The day and the experience was something I will never forget.

“We could have beaten Hull. They had five chances and scored five goals. I can’t remember making a good save or there being that many blocks. Instead all I remember is that, as a Premier league team, Hull took their chances. That was the difference on the day. We had a few more chances but couldn’t take them.

“That said, we gave them a good game. I think Hull would say the same.

“I went to the final on the corporate ticket to collect an award on behalf of the club, the Ronnie Radford Award. It brought things home a bit more. It was a weird feeling sitting there, knowing we had only been 45 minutes away from making the final.

“That is scary for a League One team. We were almost at a Wembley final. Not a semi-final, a final.

“As for this season, promotion will be the one we are pushing for more.

“But, equally, we are the only League One team still in this competition and that is something to be proud about.”

United will not go into tonight’s quarter-final lacking in confidence after a year that has seen the League One club claim three top-flight scalps along with two more from the Championship.

Howard was presented with the Ronnie Radford Award – named after the former Hereford United midfielder who famously scored a 30-yard screamer in their 1972 replay against Newcastle United – for the first of those upsets, January’s third-round win at Aston Villa.

Fulham were then beaten in the fourth round, while this season saw West Ham United, so impressive in the league, beaten on penalties at Upton Park by Clough’s men in the Capital One Cup.

Asked what was behind United’s ability to upset the odds, Howard said: “I wouldn’t say there has been a secret, just our hard work and determination as a squad to win.

“In those cup games, we worked so hard as a defensive unit and that meant we rarely gave the opposition too many chances.

“The only game probably where we didn’t do that was West Ham. In the first half, they ran the game. But after half-time we got ourselves right back into it and had a great go back at them.

“That shocked them and going into extra time I only thought one team was going to win which we did on penalties.

“Our fans have been brilliant, especially in the home games in the cup last year.

“When we get 24,000-25,000 here, it does play a big part. The away games are great, too. Leyton Orient and MK Dons, our fans took over and helped us get through. I think another factor in our favour is that there has never been an inferiority complex about us. Not at all. We are here for a reason, and that reason is because we have done well.

“We like being the underdogs in the cup. In the league, it is the other way round with teams coming here hoping for a draw. It is up to us to impose ourselves (on the opposition) in the league.

“The cups are different. Two teams want to win the games and this is going to be an exciting game to play in.

“I don’t think we are feeling the nerves as much as we did last season. We have beaten quite a few teams from higher divisions but Southampton will be one of the best we have played.”