BILLY SHARP is recognised as a team player, a prolific goalscorer and a driving force in the dressing room. So who would have thought before the season kicked off that Sheffield United skipper’s only part in either Steel City derby would be solely in the role of motivator?
The 31-year-old was sat on the bench for both. At Hillsborough in September it was understandable. He was still recovering from injury but put on standby as David Brooks partnered Leon Clarke up front in a makeshift arrangement.
Last week’s non-involvement in the goalless showdown at Bramall Lane is harder to fathom. Clayton Donaldson was manager Chris Wilder’s preferred choice alongside 15-goal top scorer Clarke. But as United ran into increasing difficulties trying to break down a stubborn Sheffield Wednesday and turning possession into threats on goal, Wilder opted for loan signing James Wilson, not Sharp, to refresh the frontline.
The Staffordshire-born 22-year-old who arrived two days earlier from Manchester United was flung into the biggest occasion of the season at the Lane after 66 minutes. It was an enormous leap of faith by Wilder and on reflection maybe an error of judgment. Wilson had little effect which is hardly surprising.
His Blades debut in front of a sell-out crowd of 31,120 was his first competitive appearance for 15 months. His last outing was one of five for Derby County where he was on loan last season until injury forced a quick return to Old Trafford. That match was a 2-2 EFL Trophy draw with the Under-21s at Doncaster. Wilson scored his only goal for the Rams who lost the tie on penalties.
During the same period Sharp played 58 times for United, scoring 33 goals. So why did Wilder choose Wilson ahead of the lifelong Blade chomping at the bit to get at Wednesday. A man who fully understands the fixture and, unlike Wilson, is accustomed to his teammates and surroundings?
Admittedly, the Blades captain has not been at his best since scoring twice in what has now become a landmark 3-1 victory at Burton Albion on November 17. United topped the Championship table, midfield lynchpin Paul Coutts broke a leg and only one league win has followed during a period when bottom-of-the-table Sunderland have accrued more points.
In eight outings since Sharp, whose last Championship appearance was on December 30 in the home defeat to Bolton, hasn’t added to his tally of eight goals. But the man who top scored with 30 last season and 23 in 2015-16, is still United’s second leading marksman in this campaign.
Statistics show that apart from Donaldson (80%), Sharp is not bettered for shots on target (73%) nor is he surpassed on assists. Clarke, also joint Championship top scorer with Derby’s Matej Vydra, has a shots on target percentage of 51% but he’s been aided by having most goal attempts.
Donaldson, four goals in 17 appearances, made a big impression when scoring twice to rescue a point after United were trailing 2-0 at Aston Villa prior to Christmas before Sharp replaced him for the last 16 minutes.
Wilder encourages competition for places and with the addition of Wilson he has done that. Ched Evans played in his first match since an ankle operation and scored as an over age player in United’s Under 23 defeat, 3-2, at Bolton on Monday night. The 65th-minute substitute's return to full fitness is surely imminent following an ankle operation.
For two seasons since returning to Bramall Lane, Sharp was the first name on the team sheet. After stepping up to football’s second tier that appears not to be so anymore as United strive to rediscover form and keep their promotion bid on track.
It seems inconceivable that however much Sharp represents Wilder’s team ethic, at 31 he could easily accept becoming a backseat driver.