One year later and Howard refocuses his all-American dream

Manchester United's goalkeeper starts the season with a fresh perspective. <i>Steve Tongue</i> reports
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From a distance it was impossible to tell whether Tim Howard blushed as he unconvincingly fumbled a curling centre from Celtic's Aidan McGeady and looked up to see the huge electric scoreboard flashing "Great save!" There is nobody in the four British squads who have been touring the United States these past 10 days more used to the eccentricities of American soccer than the Manchester United goalkeeper.

From a distance it was impossible to tell whether Tim Howard blushed as he unconvincingly fumbled a curling centre from Celtic's Aidan McGeady and looked up to see the huge electric scoreboard flashing "Great save!" There is nobody in the four British squads who have been touring the United States these past 10 days more used to the eccentricities of American soccer than the Manchester United goalkeeper.

He may have a young compatriot for company this time in the imposing young shape of Jonathan Spector, a teenaged defender who has started both United's games so far, but there is no doubt who will be the centre of attention for today's match against Milan, back on his old New York/New Jersey Metrostars stamping ground at the Giants Stadium.

The past 12 months, since his debut for United on the same ground against Juventus, have been something of a dream: "I was too involved in it to really sit back and understand it. After the season when I went home I was able to get a better perspective and it was good to look back, but there was also pressure to perform again, come back and do the same thing.

"I got clauses in my contract that I got a bonus if I was goalkeeper of the year and if we won the FA Cup, and I looked at those and laughed at the beginning of the season, thinking I won't hit those in my whole career, let alone both of them in the same year."

Is there a bonus for qualification for the Champions' League, he was asked. "No, that's a given that we need to be making that. I think that's expected." The all-American boy is learning fast about the realities of football in England and, especially, Manchester.

Third place in the Premiership and winning the FA Cup goes down as an average sort of year, redeemed from absolute under-achievement by beating Millwall at Cardiff after a more significant victory over Arsenal in the semi-final. When Sir Alex Ferguson chose to rest Howard and give Roy Carroll a run shortly before the final, it looked briefly as though the prospect of a first American Cup winner might be disappearing. But the manager knew what he was doing and the two players had an inkling.

"You get fatigued mentally and physically, but you never go to the manager and ask him to send you down," Howard said, lapsing into American sports venacular. "He's a good manager - that's why he's the best, 'cos he makes those decisions and when he sent me down then I came back better than I felt in a long time. So I think it was a good decision on his part and I trust him. It's a team effort but I knew I'd done some good things in the FA Cup and helped get us to the final, as did Roy, so I think we were both deserving of a final spot."

Lo and behold they got it when Ferguson, clearly going soft in his old age, sent on the Ulsterman for the American with a few minutes to go and the Cup safely won.

"I should maybe have rested him in December," Ferguson admitted this week, "rather than waiting until he started showing sings of fatigue. He'd come from the American League and played right through non-stop until February. This year he's had a rest and will be back much fresher, and with that experience of playing in England he'll be a fantastic player next year."

Some critics had expressed a few doubts from time to time, but overall it was a remarkable first season, one of the highlights of which was a stunning save against Manchester City at Old Trafford. And the second term?

"I think there are reasons to be more optimistic than a year ago," Howard said. "We faltered last year but the big guns didn't hurt us, we hurt ourselves against some of the other teams. We need to get that right and if we do we'll be alright. I think it'll be the same teams as usual up there this season, but we're going to use our determination and hard work and our tradition.

"You can spend money on players and bring in the best players from around the world, but it's about the heart of the team, the engine and I think we have that. We bring in players as well, but players who work."

Ouch! Take that, Messrs Kenyon and Abramovich.

He is setting no targets, though stealing ahead of Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller to become the United States' No. 1 must be on the list. Ferguson had discussions with the US coach Bruce Arena on Wednesday and will not have been pleased to learn how busy the country's World Cup programme is this season, starting with a qualifying match in Jamaica only three days after United's opening Premiership match at Chelsea.

Howard, sensibly, is leaving the two of them to come to some sort of arrangement. He will just carry on doing what he has been doing, taking time out occasionally to smell the coffee and reflect on how far he has come, in every sense: "The tradition here at United is unbelievable and when I look back at my career, I think I'll laugh because it's just incredible that I'm even a part of it."

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