BILLY SHARP bears the name of someone who sounds as though he should be a comic book hero. A colourful Roy of the Rovers who lives a life mere mortals can only dream of.
But for the Sheffield United captain and Blades fan that dream has become reality in glorious red and white-striped technicolour. Now, after a brace of goals at MK Dons which took him to a career total of 201 and 29 for the campaign, he’s hoping to become the first United player to score 30 or more league goals in a season since striker Keith Edwards, who now observes the Blades for BBC Radio Sheffield, did 33 years ago.
The player famously dubbed ‘a fat lad from Sheffield’ by Sean O’Driscoll, his former boss at Doncaster Rovers, said: “It’s a proud moment for my career. The lads have been great all season, they’ve been creating chance after chance and luckily I’ve been putting them away. Twenty-nine goals, promoted as champions, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
“I’m delighted I got it today [200th strike in a 3-0 win at MK Dons]. I didn’t want it to go to the last game. Now I’d love to get 30 [for the season]. Keith Edwards is the only person to do it since the war. He’s a legend. I was too young when he was playing but I know what he has done for the club.”
Another son of Sheffield, Jamie Vardy, is subject of a Hollywood rags-to-riches script that film-makers hope will turn into a blockbuster. The Sheffield Wednesday reject who played for Stocksbridge Park Steels, then Northern Premier League Halifax and Fleetwood Town in the Conference, spearheaded Leicester City to the unlikeliest of Premier League title’s last season and became an established England international.
Admittedly that’s hard to beat but Sharp, because of his background, would still think twice before swapping roles. Both will tell you living the dream, however fleetingly, involves a great deal of work, dedication, heartbreak, mistakes, anxiety and occasional doubt before arriving there. You also have to enjoy it while you can and Sharp, who admits to not fully appreciating good times in the past, is making amends.
The top-scoring feat of 21 goals last season was all the more remarkable because he was playing in a desperately poor side. This season’s team assembled by manager Chris Wilder is the polar opposite as Sharp experiences the pinnacle of his career.
Before 7,000 already jubilant fans in the away end at MK Dons, United’s last League One trip before heading back to the Championship, he secured his place in history and then added another one for good measure. In the two seasons since returning to Bramall Lane for a second time, he has scored 50 goals and is level with Ched Evans’ 29 league strikes for a single season in 2010-11.
To date, Sharp is the top scorer from all four divisions of English football. Romula Lukaku of Everton, has 24, Chris Woods (Leeds, 25) and John Marquis (Doncaster, 26).
The born-to-be-a-Blade youngster – his dad, a major influence even now, used to hitchhike to away matches – who played for Middlewood Rovers, was snapped up by the club he passionately supports and made a long-awaited debut as an 89th substitute for Paul Thirlwell in a 1-1 Championship draw at home to Watford in November 2004. Could it be any better for an 18-year-old with the world at his feet?
On the contrary, it’s been a long and winding road for Sharp, now 31. Professional highs, lows and life-changing personal tragedy. The death of two-day-old son Luey Jacob, born six weeks prematurely with gastroschisis, a condition that causes the intestine to grow outside the body, has had a profound effect on dad Sharp and his partner Jade. They set up the LJS Foundation which raises money for research into the condition.
“He never really cried but towards the end he started to cry and his lungs had failed so he was leaking fluid, brown fluid,” Sharp told a national newspaper. “We could tell then that he was in pain. We kept saying to him, ‘You have to let go now’.
“You knew he was exhausted by the way he took his last breath. It was like a grown-up’s last breath, like he was fed up. For me it was almost a relief because I knew he was hurting.”
Sharp unashamedly admits that football has provided a vital release for his emotions. He and Jade have since had son Leo, born in December 2012, but the memory of little Luey remains a constant. For that reason, he described the goal he scored for Doncaster against Middlesbrough three days after the passing of his son, as the “most important”.
He wrote on Twitter: “My goal tonight was the most important goal of my career dedicated to my brave boy Luey Jacob Sharp I love u son sleep tight. That’s for you son”.
Unsurprising then his landmark strike last week or more milestone’s to follow will never surpass that deeply emotional moment at the Keepmoat.
Loaned to Rushden and Diamonds to gain experience, then sold to Scunthorpe United for £100,000, 56 goals in 95 matches followed. His second season at Glandford Park saw him crowned the top league scorer (30) in all four divisions. Only the Blades could then stump up £2million for a striker they discovered and developed but couldn’t coax the best out of.
It was surely nailed on now that Sharp would become the prodigal son. A meagre six goals from 36 appearances followed but a hat-trick against QPR in the first home fixture at the Lane the following season sent pulses racing. The now familiar chant ‘We’ve got Billy Sharp’ rang out from the Kop. This was going to be Billy’s season. Sadly, 26 appearances and only another three goals later, it wasn’t.
A loan spell at Championship Doncaster Rovers and Sharp once again did what eluded him with his beloved Blades. Nine goals in 16 starts sealed a £1.1m move to the Keepmoat where until his second coming to the Lane, he experienced another highlight of his career. Goals, 26 of them flowed over a season-and-a-half before Southampton came calling.
But after helping them into the Premier League he made just two top flight appearances before starting a nomadic three years on loan to Nottingham Forest where with 11 goals he was top scorer, Reading and back to Doncaster. A permanent move from Saints to Leeds United followed before then Blades boss Nigel Adkins, who the striker played under at Scunthorpe and Southampton, signed him for the third time, returning Sharp to his spiritual home. Many would say that is all Adkins managed to achieve.
Of all the grounds for United to end six years of travels on the tortuous path through League One, Stadium MK seemed inappropriate.
With all due respect, Vale Park, Gigg Lane, Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Stadium or AFC Wimbledon’s Kingsmeadow are more representative of the frugal facilities Blades fans have had to endure for more than half a decade
So to play the 138th and final away match of their stay in football’s third tier at the home of MK Dons, a modern purpose built 30,500 all-seater ground fit for the Premier League, was somewhat ironic.
It did provide, however, the perfect stage for massed Blades fans to continue their title celebrations. A spectacular sight and party they did. Many more would have been there to swell an 18,180 crowd but for what MK, who average 10,307 this season, regarded as safety issues.
Leon Clarke tried his best to steal the show with his sixth goal in five successive appearances since returning from injury. But the day belonged to captain and beloved son of the Kop Sharp.
On returning to the Lane in the summer of 2015, Sharp said: “The move to United was a no-brainer. I started there as a kid and always wanted to play for the club because I'm a Sheffield boy. I felt it was a good time for me to return. I'm 29 and I am coming to the peak of my career. I feel like I have got better as a player since I was last here. If I can achieve success with my boyhood club there would be nothing better than that."
Job done and hopefully much more to come as Championship football awaits.
FOR THE RECORD
- Keith Edwards scored 143 league goals and another 20 in FA Cup and League Cup competition for United during two spells at the club, between 1975-78 and 1981-86.
- In 1981-82 he scored 35 league goals, spearheading United to the Fourth Division (now League Two) title. He also scored in an FA Cup tie, totalling 36 in league and cup competition.
- In 1983-84 Edwards scored 33 league goals. United took what was then the third and final promotion place in Division Three (now League One). His contribution was vital as it was only goal difference that separated the Blades from fourth-placed Hull City who missed out. Edwards also scored four goals in FA Cup competition and twice in the League Cup, taking his total in league and cup competition to 39.
- In both of those promotion seasons he won the Golden Boot Award for being the respective division’s leading league scorer. He also won the award in 1988-89 with Hull City in the old Division Two (now Championship).
- Edwards scored six hat-tricks for the Blades.