BILLY SHARP is honest on the pitch but unlike some pros in the game he’s just as transparent off it.
This week the Sheffield United fan and captain detailed from a player’s point of view what Chris Wilder has brought to Bramall Lane since being appointed manager in May. By doing so the striker, who has a new-found managerial ambition of his own, inadvertently revealed further evidence of the shocking state of the club under former boss Nigel Adkins.
“I think we are playing with more confidence and belief,” said the 30-year-old who began his career at United as an apprentice and has since signed for them twice. He says he accepted a 50 per cent pay cut to secure his latest move to the Lane. “I think we lacked belief massively last year and for me we lacked character especially when things weren’t going our way.
“I think the gaffer, it’s one of his biggest strengths. In a way he has made us believe. He has added character and grit to our team. He makes it quite clear how he wants us to play and if you don’t do that he makes sure you know about it.”
Sharp, of course, is reconfirming conclusions that many fans had arrived at so early into Adkins’ perplexing reign. Most tellingly Sharp, who was also brave enough to air uncompromising views back in June, added: “Training is really good, the quality and tempo of it. It means something in training now as well.”
So there you have it. Adkins’ ship failed from the moment the anchor was raised. It set sail without the players onboard. Ironic isn’t it that the man who bored Unitedites to death with relentless talk of ‘positivity’ and ‘endeavour’, is wholly guilty of failing to instil belief and build character. His training methods are also called into serious question when a player whom he signed four times observes that under Wilder the daily grind at Shirecliffe ‘means something now’.
It begs the question what was Adkins doing during his 11-and-a-half months in charge which saw United register their lowest league position in football’s pyramid for 33 years?
LET HIM DOWN
Sharp, however, in an interview with Alan Biggs on Sheffield Live! this week was magnanimous enough to admit that although Adkins had a poor relationship with Unitedites he wasn’t the only one to blame.
“I think us as players probably have to hold our hands up more than him because we were the ones on the pitch and in a lot of the games we let him down. Obviously the relationship between him and the fans didn’t go great but I know for a lot of fans that’s who they wanted.”
“I texted him when he got told to leave the club. I have known him a long time and I have played under him I think it’s four clubs [Scunthorpe, Southampton, Reading on loan, and United]. I actually saw him a week after [his sacking] at a testimonial for Kelvin Davies in Southampton and it was a bit awkward at first. I didn’t really know what to say.”
Last season’s blot on the landscape is a distant memory thanks to the pace of change brought about by Wilder’s revolution at the Lane. Whatever the outcome of the present League One campaign it’s inconceivable there will be a repeat of the shambolic events of 2015-16 which created an enormous disconnect between loyal fans and the club they love.
That said, statistically at least, United are in a remarkably similar place to where they were last season after 11 league matches following a 2-1 defeat at Port Vale. By coincidence they are also the latest visitors to the Lane now managed by ex-Blade Bruno Ribeiro and assisted by former Kop favourite Michael Brown.
Wilder was at pains to point out this week that an undefeated run of seven league matches – 17 points from a possible 21, automatic promotion form – shouldn’t be allowed to mask problems that still exist. The manner of a 2-1 home defeat, albeit in the ludicrous Checkatrade Trophy, at home to Walsall before the international break was a wake-up call.
Creating chances is not the problem. Converting them into goals, despite an impressive run, is. The Blades have found the back of the net 14 times in the league prior to Vale's visit, little over one goal per match. Another issue is the continuing inability to manage matches from midfield.
Paul Coutts, originally transfer-listed by Wilder, has been a revelation in the central area and Chris Basham, restored alongside him to the position where he is most effective, provides a driving force. But a vacancy still exists, as it has done for many years, for a midfield general allowing United to dictate rather than react.
On paper United’s strikeforce appears formidable but the struggle to reflect performance in the number of goals scored remains an obstacle. Sharp, United’s top marksman last season with 21, tops the chart again with five (two from penalties) and Wilder believes his team will need around 75 to make the play-offs.
Despite setting himself a personal target of 22 goals to top last season’s haul Sharp sounded relaxed about his teammates continuing problem, saying earlier in the week: “We are chipping away at it. We would like more goals but the most important thing is the results. We’re happy with them at the minute so if we can get more goals then that’s a bonus.”
Reflecting on the Blades rediscovered determination to never give up, a quality which used to be in United's DNA, he added: “We’ve done brilliantly against Scunthorpe. Down to 10 men, went behind 2-1 and to get a point against top of the league that was a superb point. I don’t think we would have got anything from that last year.
“At Fleetwood we were disappointed with a point. I could have had a couple of goals. Doney (Matt Done) could have had a couple of goals. Eeth (Ethan Landell-Banks) made the mistake and we got punished for it. But we were buzzing for him that he was the one who managed to get us the point at the end because it kept the team spirit. But with the chances that we had we were a little disappointied. It is good that we can grind out results when sometimes things aren’t going our way.”
Sharp is candid about his appointment as captain, Wilder’s first decision immediately after being appointed. The striker even admits he is trying to put his days as a ‘hot-head’ behind him and somewhat surprisingly revealed that Basham is someone he turns to for advice on the pitch.
“I have to stay level-headed this year because I can be a hot-head and I can be a nuisance in the changing room,” he said. “Sometimes it’s best to gather your thoughts, let other people do the talking and then pick things out of it. The main thing is I’ve tried to encourage the boys and to make them believe and get onboard so that they help me.
“I’m a novice at being a captain so I want to get better. Jake Wright, he’s been a captain so I can ask him for advice. Chris Basham, I look up to him as a captain. I know when ever he is on the pitch he’s backing me up.”
Sharp, who has the option of a further year at Bramall Lane when his two-year contract expires at the end of the season and hopes to extend his stay much further, gave a fascinating insight into the moment he briefly – very briefly – dallied with the idea of joining Sheffield Wednesday who he has been linked with on more than one occasion.
“The closest time was at Scunthorpe when I signed for Sheffield United for £2million (his first return to the Lane after having left for Scunthorpe),” he said. “There was Wolves, Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday. I couldn’t just say no. Obviously it was an ex-manger, Brian Laws [then Wednesday boss formerly at Scunthorpe], so he was pestering and pestering me and I said to him look, I will come to see you.
“I went to Norwich, went to Wolves, went to Wednesday [during a flood], it was two-foot under water,” he said with a wry grin. “I sat down with my dad and I chose Wolverhampton Wanderers. I rang Mick McCarthy [then Wolves boss] and said I want to come and meet you tomorrow. He said ‘yeah, brilliant’ and about an hour after Bryan Robson [then Blades boss] rang and I was like ‘right’. I had to ring Mick McCarthy back and he swore at me on the phone a few times, said OK, I understand. The other clubs were out of my mind straight away and there was only one decision – Sheffield United.”
It is almost inconceivable that Sharp, a Blade to the core, would have chosen Wednesday and to emphasise his love for the Blades he said: “Just to play for the club I’ve supported in the city where I live is a dream.”
Even after moving from Southampton to Elland Road, a chaotic club but nevertheless in the Championship, a return to the Lane remained an aspiration. “I knew Leeds was getting me closer. Leeds is a massive club and for some reason I always wanted to play for them, which United fans let me off for because obviously it is better than playing for Sheffield Wednesday. When I got to Leeds I always had something in the back of my mind that maybe one day I could get back to Sheffield United.”
Reflecting on the moment in the summer of 2015 on a foreign tour with Leeds when he was sure of United’s interest, he said: “My heart took over my head again. I dropped my wages massively from Southampton to Leeds and I dropped my wages from Leeds to Sheffield United a lot.
“Footballers do earn an awful lot of money. I’m at a stage now when I’m not earning as much as I have done over the last 10 years but I’m enjoying my football and that’s all that matters to me.
“I had a year left at Leeds. I could have stayed there and been on double the money I’m on now. I could have tried to fight for my place – then Elland Road manager Uwe Rosler had told him he wasn’t first choice – but it was Sheffield United. Like a say, I was focussed on Leeds and suddenly my head turned and I couldn’t wait to get out.”
Sharp’s interest in eventually moving into coaching has been encouraged by his experience of running his own junior soccer camps. “I didn’t think coaching was for me but then I’ve got my soccer camps,” he said. “I’ve had my first one and then I’ve got one coming up. I really enjoy working with the kids and the smile on their faces. They sort of look up to me which makes you proud and makes you think you’re giving something back.”
“I will do my badges but it’s hard when you’re a footballer. You say you’re going to do this and that but you have to concentrate on the pitch and then try and fit other things off it when you can.”
When the time does arrive to hang his boots up, Sharp has already pencilled in a Saturday activity, despite living his dream, he has to wait patiently for “Take my two boys to Bramall Lane at 3 o’clock and a pint and a pie," he said.
There may be a problem with that but Sharp is working on it. Eldest son Leo (four in December and named after Barcelona’s Lionel Messi) was born in Sheffield but favours his dad’s old club. ‘Leo still likes Leeds but he’ll support who he wants," said Sharp. "If he still supports Leeds it’s better than Wednesday.”