UPDATE: Sharp added a further 20 minutes to his Premier League game time this season, introduced as a 65th-minute substitute in 1-0 home defeat to Southampton before being dismissed for a lunge on Stuart Armstrong. It was the second red card of Sharp’s career and manager Chris Wilder said he had no argument with referee Lee Mason’s decision. The striker will miss next Saturday’s trip to Everton and possibly the visit to Watford and a home date against Liverpool.
SHEFFIELD UNITED’S return to the Premier League may not have been quite what Billy Sharp expected.
The striker and club captain who top scored in three of the last four seasons, has played just 44 minutes of the season, spending the rest of the time as a frustrated figure on the bench.
None more so than at Chelsea in the last outing, having watched United fightback from 2-0 down to claim a point without being called upon. Pointedly, manager Chris Wilder and No2 Alan Knill were in what looked like a consoling conversation with Sharp as his teammates celebrated on the pitch at Stamford Bridge.
Southampton’s arrival at Bramall Lane will stir an uncomfortable memory for Sharp. Signed in the 2012 January transfer window by Saints manager Nigel Adkins, his former boss at Scunthorpe, the forward delivered, scoring nine goals in 15 appearances to help them clinch promotion to the Premier League.
But after a summer of celebration on the south coast – Southampton had climbed from League One to the Premier League in successive seasons under Adkins – Sharp made just two top flight appearances from off the bench before being loaned to Championship club Nottingham Forest for the remainder of that season.
His standing at the Lane is beyond reproach. Having signed a new 30-month deal in February, he has made public his wish to spend the remainder of his career at the club he loves before turning to coaching. But you can’t help feeling he can count himself unfortunate to find himself on the periphery. To date Sharp has made four career Premier League appearances, all as a substitute, which amount to 62 minutes.
If ever a player has the right to feel he’s not enjoying the rub of the green when it comes to playing on the biggest stage it is the man who last season became English football’s leading goalscorer since the turn of the century, surpassing former Southampton teammate Ricky Lambert.
Blades boss Chris Wilder said this week that the front line is where supporters can expect to see most rotation as the season progresses. From Sharp’s current vantage point he will certainly hope so.
It was fitting that when Wilder turned to the 33-year-old in the 86th minute with United trailing 1-0 at Bournemouth during this season’s curtain-raiser, it was the lifelong Blades fan who took a bow, scoring the club’s first top flight goal in 12 years to claim a point.
Maybe a little surprised not to have started in the first place, he probably wouldn’t have envisaged how his season has progressed since. But with the arrival of £20m record signing Ollie McBurnie, Callum Robinson (approx £7m) and Lys Mousset (£10m) it is not wholly unexpected either. “We have paid a lot of money for a lot of good strikers to keep me on my toes,” said Sharp after his goal at the Vitality Stadium.
Now, against the only other club where he has played at the highest level, he is hoping to grab the chance of his first ever Premier League start which sees the return of ex-Blade Che Adams who made a £15m summer move from Birmingham City to St Mary’s.
The prospect remains unlikely. Robinson and David McGoldrick, Wilder’s preferred starting partnership, returned early from international duty with the Republic of Ireland having suffered slight knocks but have now been declared fit.
McGoldrick enhanced the prospect of retaining his position by rescuing Ireland in Dublin with a late equaliser, his first international goal, against Switzerland in a European Championship qualifier. And Mousset’s brief heroics at Stamford Bridge, forcing the equaliser officially credited as a Kurt Zouma own goal, has whetted the appetite to see more of what he can do.
Sharp, however, is accustomed to falling down the pecking order only to rise to the challenge. A quality that so endears him to Wilder. The answer is to let his goals do the talking. A United academy graduate, this is his third reincarnation at Bramall Lane and by far the best. Ninety goals since signing in the summer of 2015.
Sharp acknowledged last season that in the past he would have sulked if left out but a new maturity since being appointed captain at the Lane has changed his outlook. “The gaffer pulled me to one side and told me I wasn't going to play [at home] against Stoke,” Sharp recalled. I was disappointed but I had to deal with it. I'm older now, and it's a team game
“There was a time when I would definitely have reacted differently. I would have been frustrated and sulked a little bit. But I'm captain of this football club now, so I've got to lead by example.”
As tempting as it is to look for change with younger men who bring something new to the table, Sharp, a model professional with an attitude to match, continues to confound. Given half a chance he is unlikely to disappoint.