BY TOM BLOW
Some say in football, winning trophies is everything. But it’s not. The greatest achievement for any footballer is to become a club legend. To be idolised by a generation of ordinary, working-class folk is surely a greater than winning any old pot or pan. After all, it’s the moments on the pitch we remember – not what’s awarded off it.
Growing up a Sheffield United fan, my father would tell me about great players. Keith Edwards, Tony Currie, Alan Woodward, Brian Deane… I can go on and on. As a kid watching from the stands, you dream about one day joining this elite club. And it’s the same for everyone, irrespective of which club you support and which heroes you wish to emulate.
Although it’s an impossible dream for most, some do make it happen. Think Steven Gerrard at Liverpool or Francesco Totti at Roma. Some will achieve it on their second attempt – like Peter Crouch did when he rejoined Tottenham Hotspur in 2009. However, there is perhaps only one player who has done it on their third try. His name? Billy Sharp.
Sharp’s professional career began in 2004 after he came through the ranks at his boyhood team, Sheffield United. But Neil Warnock – who managed the club between 1999 and 2007 – didn’t fancy the 18-year-old, opting instead to select fellow forwards Andy Gray, Danny Cadamarteri, Steve Kabba, Danny Webber and Paul Shaw.
To get game time, Sharp joined League Two side Rushden & Diamonds on loan. It proved to be a great decision as he scored nine league goals in just 16 games to make a name for himself. But Warnock still wasn’t interested. “He [Warnock] said I was the best finisher at the club,” Sharp told the Daily Mail in January 2019. “Two days later I was sold to Scunthorpe for £100,000.” With just two appearances to his name, Sharp had been let go.
Not disheartened by his Bramall Lane rejection, the goal scorer prospered. Over the next two years, he scored 56 goals in all competitions to fire Scunthorpe United to the Championship. Sharp was now the hottest young striker in the Football League, and clubs were queuing up for his services. And one such was his former team.
Determined not to let their rivals get a sniff, Sheffield United splashed out £2 million for his services. “They could have just kept me!” retrospectively claimed Sharp in his Daily Mail interview. Yet the money didn’t matter. With the recently relegated side desperate for him to fire them back to the Premier League, it was a second chance at becoming a legend in front of his own people.
But under new manager Bryan Robson, Sharp struggled. Although there were some highlights – including a hattrick against Queens Park Rangers – he failed to emulate his League One form in the Championship. As ex-England striker James Beattie hammered in 22 league goals in the 2007/08 season alone for the Blades, Sharp managed just eight league goals in two years.
Yet in fairness to him, he didn’t have it easy during this period. After Robson was sacked early in 2008, his successor Kevin Blackwell employed a direct, long-ball system that didn’t benefit the 5’9 striker. When he wasn’t trying to win headers against giant defenders, he was pushed out wide as the coach exploited him for his energy and work ethic. It was completely the wrong system for a man of his talents.
After the Blades lost to Burnley in the 2009 Championship play-off final, Sharp was flogged to South Yorkshire rivals Doncaster Rovers; initially on loan before completing a £1 million transfer the following season. For the second time, he left United without making his mark. However, just as it did when he left for Scunthorpe, the rebuff made him a better player.
In his first season with his new club, Sharp scored 15 league goals in 33 games to help Donny finish in 12th – their highest league finish for over 50 years. He followed that with another 15 the next year to help secure their second-tier status for another season. His career was firmly on the up.
But while Sharp was banging in the goals, Sheffield United were relegated to the third tier for the first time in over two decades. After Sharp joined Premier League-bound Southampton in January 2012, it seemed as if their paths would never meet again. As the forward netted 9 in 15 for his new side to help secure their promotion, the Blades failed to win the League One play-off final. The two were becoming increasingly polarised.
But despite his goals, Sharp was discarded by Southampton. He joined Nottingham Forest on loan for the 2012/13 season after making just two Premier League appearances in August. “At Southampton I thought I could make a name for myself in the Premier League,” said Sharp earlier this year. “But we signed a player for £7m, Emmanuel Mayuka, he barely played – and it was me having to go out the door!” His top-flight dream had been shattered.
Over the next three years, he endured an unsettled time on the pitch. Although he scored 10 times in the league for Forest, three different managers in the space of a season disrupted his progress. He had another two loan spells the following year – this time at Reading and at former club Doncaster – and suffered an agonising relegation with the latter. He then joined Leeds on a permanent deal – but managed just five league goals as they finished 15th.
At 29-years-old, many feared his career was petering out. But in the summer of 2015, he received an offer. Adkins, who signed him for Southampton and Reading, had just become the manager of League One Sheffield United. Knowing his goals could finally fire the Blades out of the third tier, he asked Sharp to return to his childhood club once again.
After being discarded twice in the past, and considering he’d be dropping down a division, signing for the Blades was a huge risk. But this time, he wouldn’t be a promising youngster – he would be their star player. Proving too good of an opportunity, he jumped at the chance. “It’s amazing, another dream for me” said Sharp upon resigning. “Delighted to be back and hopefully this time I can live up to my potential.”
And it was a dream start for Sharp. He scored twice in his first five games as United stormed into the automatic promotion places. “I’m relieved and delighted to get off the mark,” Sharp told BBC Radio Sheffield after scoring his first goal in his third spell. “I’m a Sheffield United fan playing for the club who I support and it is a dream. The lads have given me stick because I’ve kissed the badge but that’s what it means to me. My dad used to bring me to watch Sheffield United and I used to go mad and celebrate, and it’s no different as a player.”
But after a 3-1 home defeat to Bury, the season went disastrously. They suffered damning defeats to Shrewsbury Town, Crewe Alexandra and Colchester United on their way to an 11th place finish – their lowest league position since 1983. Although Sharp himself had a prolific season adding 21 league goals to his CV, he was not considered a hero. The 2015/16 season was United’s worst for a generation – no one in Adkins’ team was celebrated.
Unsurprisingly, Adkins was fired at the end of the season. His replacement was Chris Wilder, who had just guided Northampton Town to the League Two title. Having played for United in two separate spells – and being a Sheffield lad himself – he knew exactly what the club meant to the people of the city. Because of this, he needed a captain who would share this understanding – and Sharp proved the perfect candidate.
“I’m delighted to be captain of this football club,” said Sharp shortly after his appointment. “Just to play for Sheffield United was a dream, and to score a goal at the Kop end was a dream. And now to be captain of the football club is a huge honour. I don’t think it’ll sink in until I lead the boys out at Bramall Lane. It’s going to be a proud moment. I’m hungry for it and I’m determined to do well as captain.”
Under the leadership of Wilder and Sharp, the Blades enjoyed their first promotion for more than a decade. With the help of new signings Jack O’Connell, John Fleck and Mark Duffy, they recorded a club-record total of 100 points as they stormed to the title. But it was Sharp who was their inspirational talisman. He scored 30 league goals to be named League One Player of the Year. It was undoubtedly one of the best seasons of his career.
After years of striving, he had finally tasted success with his boyhood club – and there was nothing sweeter. “Last season was embarrassing,” emoted Sharp just hours after the promotion-clinching victory at Northampton Town. “I felt ashamed. This year I’m so proud to be a blade. Every single one of the lads deserves credit. The gaffer’s produced something that I don’t think anyone else will ever do.”
By this point, very few would argue against the claim that he had become a club legend via his title-winning heroics. Yet he still had a point to prove. After joining the Blades in 2015, many critics said that he could no longer cut it in the Championship. However, he has since emphatically disproved that notion. After managing 13 league goals in an injury-hit 2017/18, he has scored 23 league goals this term (so far) as Sheffield United sit on the brink of promotion.
He has also become the leading goal scorer in English league football in the 21st century – exceeding 220 goals – and had been named in the PFA Championship Team of the Year. Not only has he confirmed his Championship pedigree, but he is on the verge of a second opportunity in the Premier League. “To appear for my home town club in the top league after I thought the chance was gone, it wouldn’t get better than that,” said Sharp in November 2017.
And while promotion isn’t confirmed yet, as a Blade I couldn’t wish for anything more than to see Sharp lead the team out against Arsenal, Manchester United or Liverpool come mid-August. Watching him become the legend we all wanted to be as a kid has been long and, at times, hard – but it was well worth the wait.
Although there’s no telling what the future holds for the striker, one thing is for sure. When I’m old, grey and probably bald, I can’t wait to tell my kids about the brilliance of Billy Sharp. Through adversity, he has not only become the greatest Sheffield United player of his generation, but he has also become the greatest Football League striker of the 21st century.
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