Now at the age of 33, Mark Howard’s enjoyed a fine time in professional football. From spells at Arsenal and Sheffield United to Love Street memories with St Mirren, he’s been and done a fair bit.
He’s in the free agent market now though after his most recent spell with Blackpool. Moves have come close to happening since his seaside departure, but nothing has come to fruition quite yet. A player with his experience though will pick something up just fine, the global pandemic making moves to clubs for free agents slightly more complicated than before.
Howard is well aware of that but he’s happy to bide his time and wait for the right move for him to pop up.
“It’s a worrying time but I’ve had to turn down a few offers either through location or finances, contracts, I’m just happy to be patient in this time,” Howard told NTOF. “There’s still an uncertainty but it’s a risk I’m willing to take at that moment until the season fully gets underway.
“I’m open to any offers and ideas. I’ve spoken to so many different teams around the world, it’s such a strange time at the moment. You need to take everything into account and I’m 33 now, I feel I’ve still got a good 5-6 years left in the game. I feel fit and I’ve worked had through the off-period, I’m open to ideas.
“Hopefully the market does get going soon because I think people are waiting for clarity. When fans will be back in, whether there is a salary cap, I think that’s what’s taking teams longer to make decisions. There’s so many players out there but you’ve got to be patient and be fit and ready when the opportunity comes.”
Like pretty much every goalkeeper, it wasn’t the position Howard wanted to play. But he found himself there by default at youth level, turns out he was fairly good at it. A move to Arsenal was one by his skills between the sticks, so the youthful stopper was clearly doing something right.
There were big characters at Arsenal when Howard was present. You had Manuel Almunia for one and the legendary Jens Lehmann was also at the club alongside Howard for a short period. It was a football education that he’ll always be grateful for.
“It was amazing, I always got told to use it as going to the best university,” Howard said. “Arsenal came knocking and I stayed for ten years. I loved every minute of it, probably should have tried to stay a bit longer! I sort of forced myself out the door as much as they let me go, as I was desperate to play proper football.
“When I was in the academy Alex Welsh was a big influence. When I went to play full-time it was Mike Salmon, Jerry Payton was a goalkeeper coach. We had Manuel Almunia and Jens Lehmann, two great models to learn from.
“In training Almunia was the best goalkeeper I have ever seen and still to this day. He had everything, unbelievable. But when he crossed that line, he wasn’t the same person. It was so strange but in training you’d go ‘wow.’ Jens was the opposite; he just wanted to work hard and didn’t care about making good saves. He was so disciplined in working hard. His mental strength made him an unbelievable goalkeeper.”
St Mirren memories + backing Alnwick
His desire to play games was apparent and after some spells in Falkirk and Wales, Howard ended up in Paisley with St Mirren. Aside from a spell with the Bairns, Howard had never really cemented regular playing time up until that point.
53 appearances over a few seasons in Paisley though helped put the stopper on a platform, moving to Aberdeen at the end of his spell with the Buddies. He recalled some of his best moments at Love Street and his gratitude to the Saints for giving him precious minutes. He’s keeping an eye on new Paisley keeper Jak Alnwick too.
“I played in the last season at Love Street and it was an amazing stadium for what it was,” Howard said. “It was so old fashioned but it showed what our team was about under Gus MacPherson. We made it hard for the opposition.
“We had some really good tear-ups, that’s what I always remember it for. The tough games, ones that fans don’t like watching and you think ‘I enjoyed that just for the battle.’ At the time we never got relegated and it was just a good to place to be. When they moved to the new stadium you could really see they were trying to push in the right direction.
“Stephen McGinn was an unbelievable talent as a kid. He was one of those players who’s always had lots of ability. John Potter, his leadership role took over that dressing room with camaraderie and banter.
“I still speak to a few players there like Ryan Flynn and it’s still a great club. My other goalkeeper at Blackpool with me last year Jak Alnwick has just signed there. I spoke to him when he signed and I said to him I couldn’t speak highly enough of my experience there. I loved it.
“I think Jak can play at that level and I think he’ll prove that for St Mirren. He was unfortunate over Christmas that he picked up an injury but that’s the nature of being a footballer. He probably does want to go back up there and prove himself.
“I still keep an eye on the league. The teams in the bottom seven can’t carry the squads that when they do get injuries, they can’t replace them. I’d say that’s the biggest gap to the top five.”
‘Religious’ Sheffield United experience
It was Sheffield United where Howard really made his mark in the EFL. Taking over the number one spot at Bramall Lane, he spent four years with the Blades as he made close to 100 appearances. It’s the biggest run of games at one club in his career.
They’ve risen through the ranks but it hasn’t been so easy over the last decade. Sheffield United have been as low as League One, but now find themselves in the Premier League. One thing has never changed, the size of the club, as Howards explains.
“I signed under the premise I knew I was going to be number two for the rest of my first season,” said Howard. “We got to the play-off final and the manager at the time, Danny Wilson, was totally honest with me. He said you’re not going to play, you’re going to be number two, but next year you are going to play. And I did, I have so much respect for him for speaking to me like that. It made my time a lot more enjoyable at the start.
“It was unfortunate because we won the first 12 games of the season and then I ruptured my thigh. It was heartbreaking. I found myself out of the team, trying to get back fit. The following season I didn’t play and had to wait my time until Nigel Clough came in. He got me a lot of Sheffield United appearances.
“Greasy Chip Butty, unbelievable. It’s a religious experience and it’s unbelievable the support you can get. It’s proper intimidating and gets the home team going. We had two unbelievable cup runs in two years. On the way to the FA Cup semi-final we played Charlton in the quarter-final. I don’t think they had experienced anything like it. I think our fans played a massive part that day. It was unbelievable.
“Their home form at Bramall Lane has been a massive factor. You’ll notice in the Premier League that their form was unbelievable until after the lockdown that once they didn’t have that atmosphere, they couldn’t play counter-attacking football fans get behind. That probably played a part in them just missing out on Europe.
“We had a good set of lads and one of the most talented groups I’d played with. We were so close to being so good that if one of the managers had been given another season, we’d have done so much better.
Having played in the UK throughout his entire career now, it could be time for Howard to look overseas for his next challenge. There are more and more players from the EFL and SPFL moving abroad. Howard is open to being the next: “My whole career I’ve had offers to go abroad.
“I’m speaking to clubs abroad now. It’s easiest at the start of your career or right at the end. To go halfway is a difficult decision to make. It wasn’t for me at that period of my career and moving to Scotland was a move abroad for me.
“I think now I’m very tempted to go abroad as it’s more interesting. I’ve had offers to go to Australia and New Zealand in the past and I think my kids are young enough to do that now.”