In the climactic scene of 90s football and booze flick When Saturday Comes, Jimmy Muir, an amateur footballer who’s overcome his demons and signed up with boyhood club Sheffield United, scores an 89th minute penalty to secure victory for the Blades against Manchester United in an FA Cup semi-final that, for reasons unexplained, was held at Bramall Lane. With the aid of hindsight and the natural cynicism that develops with age, its a trite, hackneyed ending that does the chaos of the beautiful game a disservice with its subservience to Hollywood. At the time, it provided a misty window into the ultimate dream of making it as a professional footballer.
The significance of that fictional victory over England’s latest all-conquering team wasn’t lost on Billy Sharp. Having just celebrated his seventh birthday, Sharp’s awakening to football was, fittingly, realised during a Valentines Day FA Cup Fifth Round tie between his hometown club and Alex Ferguson’s Premier League champions-elect. The Blades went into the game as underdogs, with the fight against relegation from the newly-established top flight taking priority over a run in the cup, and when Ryan Giggs gave the visitors the lead on the half-hour, Ferguson’s side looked to be on easy street. Sheffield United’s comeback, thanks to goals from Jamie Hoyland and Glyn Hodges, sparked jubilation on Bramall Lane, and lit a fire inside of the young Sharp. That initial burst of joy would be punctured by heartbreak in the semi-final, as Mark Bright’s extra-time winner put Sheffield Wednesday, not United, into the final. It provided an early taste of disappointment that would serve Sharp well throughout his career.
“Besides scoring goals, Billy Sharp will be remembered for being a top bloke who cares about the fans and for the moment he was carried on the fans’ shoulders at Northampton as we were promoted to the Championship”
Sam Parry, Dem Blades Fanzine
Almost twenty-six years after falling in love with football and Sheffield United, Billy Sharp has added his own name to those he used to sing about on the Kop. On New Year’s Day, United’s #10 scored the 220th league goal in his career, making him the highest goalscorer of the 21st Century in English football. Having drifted up and down the Football League in a career that has spanned fourteen seasons, its perhaps unsurprising that a striker as talented as Sharp has found the back of the net so often. What is surprising, is that the 32 year old is now hitting some of his best form in a career that has not always gone to plan.
Since worshiping the likes of Brian Deane, Alan Cork and Adrian Littlejohn, all Sharp had wanted to do was play for Sheffield United. Having been scouted by Rotherham United when playing for Middlewood Rovers Juniors, the Blades acted quickly to add one of their own to the youth team at Bramall Lane. During the 2004/05 season, Sharp made his debut as an 89th minute substitute against Watford, but was soon farmed out on loan to gain first team experience. It quickly became clear that the Blades had a special talent on their books, as Rushden & Diamonds benefited from the teenager’s eye for goal in his half-season at Nene Park. The following year, with Sheffield United Premier League-bound under Neil Warnock, and playing time at a premium, League One Scunthorpe United took a punt on the youngster, spending £100,000 to secure his services. It would prove an inspired piece of business, as a remarkable 53 goals across two seasons helped the Irons to the League One title, and a return to the second tier for the first time in over forty years.
“Every time he goes on the pitch, Billy’s disappointed if he doesn’t score. Sometimes he can be hardly in the game but then he will pop up with a goal. I think that’s the sign of a great striker. It’s a knack, a love for being in the right place at the right time.”
Having kept an eye on his progress in Lincolnshire, the Blades re-signed Sharp ahead of the 2007/08 season for £2m, with hopes he could repeat his goalscoring exploits at a higher level. After enduring a difficult first season back at Bramall Lane, the homegrown forward sadly slipped down the pecking order under Kevin Blackwell, and was soon on the move again, shipped out on loan to fellow Championship side Doncaster Rovers, initially on loan. Fifteen goals in thirty-three appearances in his first season at the Keepmoat convinced Sean O’Driscoll to sanction a £1.15m transfer for the striker, and the manager’s faith was repaid with twenty five goals in the next two seasons.
Whilst his short career had already provided moments of sorrow for the 25 year old, the tragic death of newborn son Luey in 2011 put professional regrets into perspective. Sharp has spoken intimately of the heartbreaking circumstances of his son’s death and how, just two days later, he was compelled to play for Doncaster against Middlesbrough. Fittingly, Sharp would score in the match, dedicating the goal to Luey. As is so often the case in the face of tragedy, the football world rallied round Sharp, and in the following game at Ipswich the striker received a standing ovation from the Portman Road crowd after scoring again. In a meeting with Sheffield United soon after, Blades fans arranged a minute’s applause in the 24th minute to pay tribute to one of their own.
With his stock on the pitch ever-increasing, and the desire for a fresh start away from Yorkshire, Sharp jumped at the chance to join promotion-chasing Southampton in 2012, teaming up with Nigel Adkins, a manager that would sign the striker on three occasions. Sharp made himself an instant hero on the south-coast with a goal on his debut against Burnley, before hitting a brace in a 2-2 draw with rivals Portsmouth. Thanks to the goals of Sharp and strike partner Rickie Lambert, Saints would finish the season in second, and the striker would finally get a crack at the top flight.
Football though, continued to prove a fickle mistress for the hungry forward. With £7.5m splashed out on Jay Rodriguez from Burnley, and Lambert continuing his goalscoring form in the top flight, the Yorkshireman’s first team opportunities in the Premier League were limited. The sacking of Adkins and subsequent appointment of Maurico Pochettino as his replacement sounded the death knell to Sharp’s career at St Mary’s. In the following eighteen months, loan moves to Nottingham Forest under former manager Sean O’Driscoll, Reading under Adkins and a brief return to Doncaster provided mixed results for Sharp, before Dave Hockaday signed the striker during his brief and disatrous spell as Leeds United manager. Another frustrating year followed, with just five goals in thirty-three appearances under three different managers representing a disappointing return. A shot at redemption, however, was just around the corner.
“He’s a natural finisher, isn’t he? It doesn’t matter whether he’s in the shape of his life or whether he’s been on the beers, he has a natural inclination for being in the right place at the right time.”
Sam Parry, Dem Blades Fanzine
Billy Sharp’s boyhood club had fallen through the Championship trapdoor while he was firing Southampton to the Premier League, and after three unsuccessful play-off campaigns under Danny Wilson and Nigel Clough, Adkins was brought in to steer the Blades back into the second division. His first port of call was to bring Sharp back to Bramall Lane for a third spell. Approaching thirty and already proven a class above League One level, Sharp could’ve been forgiven for surveying his options before dropping down a division. By his own admission, returning was a no-brainer.
Despite the Blades’ inconsistent league form, Sharp hit the ground running. Twenty-one goals in his first season back in red and white represented his best return since firing Scunthorpe to promotion in 2007. An 11th place finish spelled the end for Adkins at Sheffield United, but the appointment of Chris Wilder as his successor inspired the best years of Sharp’s career. A fellow boyhood-Blade, Wilder had impressed in non-league with both Alfreton Town and Oxford United, before winning promotion from League Two with Northampton Town within eighteen months of taking charge. At United, he instilled a gung-ho attacking mentality into the squad, dedicated to attractive attacking football.
“Billy leads from the front. He does what he does but he drives all of the other lads forward as well. He deserves all of the plaudits that come his way.”
Wilder’s first piece of business was appointing Sharp as club captain. Not only did he see an intelligent, technically gifted and hard-working footballer, but a leader who could drill the importance of representing Sheffield United into his team-mates. A warrior on the pitch that would bleed red-and-white for the cause. The new manager’s faith was repaid in spades, as Sharp plundered thirty of United’s ninety-two goals in a procession to the League One title; the Blades finished the season with 100 points, fourteen ahead of second-placed Bolton Wanderers.
Thoughts of a relegation battle the following season were quickly dispelled, as United raced into the automatic promotion spots by the end of September, with an emphatic win at Hillsbrough in the Steel City derby an early high point. Sharp continued to lead the line effectively, finishing the season with thirteen goals despite his side tailing off into mid-table towards the end of the campaign. Consolidation achieved, the objective ahead of the 18/19 season was a serious challenge for promotion to the Premier League. Even approaching his 33rd birthday, Sharp continues to lead the line.
In fact, if anything, he’s getting better with age. The (whisper it) veteran striker admits that he’s had to sacrifice certain aspects of his lifestyle in order to maintain his physical condition, and under Wilder his game had found new dimensions. Formerly more of a fox-in-the-box type forward, Sharp now provides the focal point for United’s upfield forays. He’s as effective now with his back to goal as he ever has been facing it, using his famed bulk to hold off defenders and bring team-mates into play. Most importantly, he’s never lost that striker’s instinct. You’ll struggle to find a more ruthless striker from twelve yards outside of Europe’s major leagues. Already this season he’s beaten his best tally in a Championship season of fifteen, and with his goal at the DW Stadium he overtook former striker partner Rickie Lambert as the highest goalscorer of the 21st century in English football. Now, he’s ready for a proper crack at the top flight.
“I’d love to have another crack at the Premier League, give myself 10 games because I know I could get the goals. I’d love to do that at Sheffield United because that would be the complete dream for me, to play for Sheffield United in the Premier League”
Glenn Murray’s form for Brighton and Hove Albion over the past eighteen months is proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks. At 35, Murray remains the Seagulls’ most potent goal threat, and there’s real belief that, should the Blades earn promotion this season, Sharp can match the exploits of the man that replaced him at Reading. It’s been a long, tough, and often cruel career in football, but with all the battles now won, Sharp’s war continues apace. Having once dreamed of emulating Sean Bean’s fictional character, Billy Sharp can now bask in the reality of being the hero when Saturday comes.
Not bad for a fat lad from Sheffield, eh?