REPORTS of Billy Sharp’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. On Saturday he was granted his first Championship start of 2018 and became only the third player to score 200 goals in English league football this century, joining England internationals Rickie Lambert (219) and Wayne Rooney (208).
Now as Sheffield United bid to step up their promotion push, top scorer Leon Clarke is coming under the microscope which may force a managerial rethink.
Overlooked and forced onto the sidelines, striker Sharp has emerged from a difficult few weeks all the stronger and with his reputation enhanced. At 32 and in his third season since returning to Bramall Lane, he remains the Blades most reliable striker.
Stats that fly in the face of those Unitedites who have been only too ready to write him off. Not that only that, he is the most influential player in the dressing room. If Chris Wilder, manager and Blade since childhood, is Mr Sheffield United off the field, Sharp answers to the same title on it.
On Saturday he retuned to the starting line-up against former club Leeds United for the first time in the Championship since December 30 and demonstrated all the attributes that made him central to what Wilder has achieved during 19 months in charge.
“I have had spells like this before when I’ve not been in the team," said the jubliant skipper. "You just have to get on with it, especially now I’m captain, because I have to keep the boys going. The goals were for them, they are the ones who have been grafting but not getting the results.”
Firing United ahead in under two minutes with a superbly executed strike, then cooly slotting home a penalty to secure a 2-1 win and his 201st league goal (69 for the Blades) spanning eight different clubs which lifted his side to within three points of the play-offs. In between, his almost bullying presence continually troubled Leeds’ defence. It demonstrates just how good United legend Harry Johnson was. He remains the club’s top league goalscorer on the same number and all in the top flight.
Sharp, United’s leading marksman for two successive seasons, 30 and 21 respectively, has moved into double figures again with 10 Championship goals – 11 in total – just four behind Clarke. That takes his tally to 62 in 121 appearances, or a goal every two matches.
Having been overlooked recently the Blades skipper is forcing his boss to think again just when it was beginning to appear Sharp’s days at the club he has also supported from being a boy, may be numbered after Wilder pushed him down the pecking order.
Colorado Rapids, where former Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard is No1, are reported to be monitoring the situation with a view to offering Sharp the chance to play in Major League Soccer, America’s premier division. An offer, if it comes, which maybe a couple of years too early.
Since the turn of the year the Blades captain has stood behind Clayton Donaldson and loan signing from Manchester United, James Wilson, for a league starting place alongside this season’s 15-goal top scorer Leon Clarke.
The ultimate blow came when Sharp was left on the bench in favour of Wilson during the last 24 minutes of the disappointing goalless draw against 10-man Sheffield Wednesday as United searched desperately for a winner.
Eyebrows were raised and Wilder later admitted he’d made a mistake. If anyone was tailor-made for that moment it was Sharp. His physical style, in depth knowledge of his teammates and an inherent desire felt by every United fan to bury Wednesday.
Instead Wilder, who has earned the right to make an error or two, demonstrated that even his judgment can be swayed in the wrong direction. Wilson was granted a debut in front of 31,000 baying fans and amongst players with whom he had hardly had time to become aquatinted having signed only two days earlier. It would have gone down as a managerial masterstroke if the 22-year-old had of scored. In reality it played out as the odds suggested. Not surprising then that Wilson’s presence had little effect.
All of which would have been of no consolation for Sharp, a huge influence on and off the pitch and very much a team player. A perfect example of what his manager demands.
“When you’re out of the team it’s not the easiest situation to be in especially when you are captain,” said Wilder after forcing Yorkshire rivals Leeds down to tenth in the table. “He’s held his head high and worked extremely hard. He’s been a great captain in the changing room and up at the training ground.
“I told him coming off the bus last Saturday (after a 3-0 defeat at leaders Wolves) that he’s going to be playing (against Leeds), the timing was right for that. He’s been outstanding this week in training and capped a great week of for him with two goals and obviously a man-of-the-match performance. He’s been a team player and a team captain so today he deserves every credit that goes his way.”
Now Wilder has a decision to make when the Championship programme resumes against QPR under the lights at the Lane next week. Does he stick or twist? If the latter has Clarke, 33 last Saturday, done enough to maintain his ever-present status? This Friday’s FA Cup fifth round tie at Leicester could afford him the chance to experiment.
Clarke has gradually faded since a transformative period which made Blades fans rub their eyes in disbelief at his athleticism and a seemingly unstoppable nine-goal spree in November. It made the striker the hottest property in the Championship as he topped the scoring chart.
In 12 starts since and seemingly being the first name on the teamsheet he has only added a further two, last finding the net in a 1-1 draw at Derby on New Year’s Day. Donaldson has scored once in his last nine appearances, as has Wilson in four outings since arriving from Old Trafford.
To be fair, Clarke and Donaldson are at their best running onto the ball. Service to both strikers in that respect has been minimal of late. Wilson, meanwhile, has demonstrated he is much better than his initial return suggests.
All of which leaves Wilder in a quandary. A growing opinion carries weight that Clarke may benefit from a rest. But even that, with all good intention, could be counterproductive.
Clarke is a complex character and a loner who has benefited from Wilder’s recognition that making him feel inclusive. Something the player has rarely experienced in his chequered travels to 17 clubs and it has brought the best out of him. The former Wednesday striker admits he has enjoyed the most successful part of his career at Bramall Lane which “feels like home”.
It’s the reason why, in Sharp’s absence, he wears the captain’s armband when there are more obvious candidates. A smart pIece of psychology on the manager’s part.
Wilder has repeatedly said this season that he wants players to make his life more difficult and force tricky selection problems. Sharp and Clarke for very different reasons are not disappointing him.