QUITE how Billy Sharp has managed to travel under the radar since joining Sheffield United for the third time in his career remains a mystery.
Now, at 32, the striker has lost some of his pace. But his maturity as an individual, including not least coming to terms with a deeply personal family tragedy, and accumulated know-how on the pitch, and Sharp is arguably playing the best football of his career.
A hat-trick at Bramall Lane brought his total tally of goals for the season to 11 – 10 in the Championship – and left him six shy of becoming English league football’s 21st century top scorer. Having already surpassed Wayne Rooney’s 208, at Sharp’s current rate at the Lane of almost a goal every two appearances, he can reasonably expect to have topped the 219 scored by Rickie Lambert, now retired, to claim the crown by the end of December. This for a man who has commanded a paltry £3million in transfer fees spanning five permanent moves.
Yet the lifelong Blades fan has attracted little interest since rejoining United from Leeds under former manager Nigel Adkins in the summer of 2016. There had been reported noises from US club Colorado Rapids alerted after he spearheaded the Blades League One title-winning campaign with 30 goals. Sunderland, just relegated to the third tier, made overtures in the summer. Interest which the player firmly dismissed.
Sharp continues to prove, however, he has far more to offer at Championship level and possibly above as Glenn Murray, now 35, who rose to the Premier League in his second spell with Brighton, is demonstrating. Which is why it is so surprising, even though it appears Sharp has no intention of leaving the Lane anytime soon, promotion favourites with cash to spare haven’t come calling for what is as good a guaranteed goalscorer you could wish for.
“They had a chip at him in League One and before that,” said Chris Wilder recently about ‘critics’ of the striker whom prior to this weeks trip to Nottingham Forest has scored 55 goals for the Blades boss appointed in May 2016.
Just who ‘they’ are was not explained but one fact is clear; the manager himself, not the vast majority of Unitedites, appeared to lose a little faith during the course of last season. On every occasion Sharp, a model professional, has answered by letting his football do the talking.
“Leon Clarke is our No1 striker now,”Dropped to the bench and playing no part in the midweek draw at home to Stoke City four days earlier, Sharp added: “The gaffer spoke to me and told me I'd be playing against Wigan, so I had to keep my head and help the team.”
In the previous match at Derby County his movement around the box was second to none. His teammates, however, consistently failed to deliver an accurate ball into him which left Sharp a frustrated figure. He was eventually substituted in the 2-1 defeat. All the more reason to feel hurt at effectively being singled out as the fall guy when the Potters visited the Lane.
Ten years ago against QPR at Bramall Lane, a 22-year-old Sharp scored his previous hat-trick for United. Then the world appeared to be at his feet in his second spell having been developed then sold to Scunthorpe for £100,000 and bought back for £1.5million. He netted 56 goals over two seasons at Glanford Park. It didn’t go as expected after his treble strike at the Lane as he finished 2008-09 with just six goals and was loaned to Doncaster. A move made permanent 12 months later for £1.1million after regaining his prolific scoring form.
Against all odds in what was otherwise a shambolic season, Sharp, returned to the Lane once again and top-scored with 21 goals for Adkins, who also signed him for the Iron and Southampton. He has now bagged 76 from 148 appearances, a record that places him among Europe’s best.
Sharp bettered that for Wilder as United said goodbye to League One after a six-year stay. That pattern was interrupted last season. Why? Well opportunities where fewer after falling out of favour with Wilder who no longer regarded him as a regular starter. “Leon Clarke is our No1 striker now,” said the manager a year ago.
Given Clarke’s golden season and taken in isolation it is difficult to argue otherwise. But when it comes to consistency there is no contest. Sharp wins by a country mile. Despite the handicap of his new-found status, which many Blades fans struggled to understand, Sharp still managed to finish second with 14 behind Clarke (19).
From previously being an ever-present and minor fitness issues aside, he only made 28 Championship starts, coming on as a sub six times. Sharp, still not fully recovered from injury, was on the bench and didn’t play in the famous 4-2 Steel City Derby win at Hillsborough.
But it was the return fixture at the Lane which caused raised eyebrows. Already overlooked, if there was ever a match and a moment that was made for the striker it was against 10-man Sheffield Wednesday at 0-0 with 24 minutes of normal time remaining as the Blades searched to break them down in front of the Kop.
Instead Wilder opted for James Wilson to replace Clayton Donaldson up front and partner Clarke. The loanee striker had arrived from Manchester United just two days earlier and had barely time to acclimatise to his new surroundings. The gamble didn’t pay off, the goalless scoreline remained as did Sharp sitting frustratingly on the bench.
Wilson, now on loan at Scottish Premier League club Aberdeen, was literally an unknown quantity. Had he scored that night it would be remembered as a managerial masterstroke.
As it was Wilson was something of a flop during his four-month stay. Injury prone, the 22-year-old started only four matches – eight appearances in all – and scored once. His departure passed almost unnoticed. Wilder has made many great decisions at the Lane but Wilson wasn’t one of them.
There will always be the odd critic, especially where strikers are concerned, who will have a pop during a lean spell. For Sharp those have been few and far between at the Lane. The record shows, no matter what he says now, that if anyone was starting to have doubts it was the manager.
Sharp’s professionalism matches his goalscoring record and the United captain has led by example, taking disappointment on the chin and continuing to do what he does best when the opportunity comes his way. Now he is once again United’s main man up front and continues to be a huge dressing-room influence.
Some might say Sharp’s brief fall down the pecking order was a device to motivate him. Carrot and stick. Except this particular player needs no such blunt instrument in order to do his best for the club he loves. As one who generally takes the knocks and stays supremely fit, rarely does he need a rest either.
“Off the pitch his conditioning is brilliant,” said Wilder recently. “His general all round play is good and his training is taking him into games. We all know what Bill does and he's still out there doing it. So as far as I'm concerned that tells you all you need to know."
On that we can all agree.