Loyalty is increasingly difficult to come by in the modern game, so when we see a player who has the passion and motivation, in abundance, while representing their childhood team, it makes it all the more special. But how often do we hear of a player featuring for his hometown club across three different spells? It is, indeed, very rare to see, and that’s what makes the career of Sheffield United’s Billy Sharp absolutely fascinating.
The 30-year-old is now back at Bramall Lane for the third time, following a five year spell away from the Yorkshire outfit. Having begun his professional career with the Blades, he returned to the club in 2007 following an impressive spell with Scunthorpe. After leaving the Sheffield club once more, he went on to feature for Doncaster Rovers, Southampton and Leeds, as well as having loan spells at Nottingham Forest and Derby, before making a full circle, returning for the final time in the 2015/16 summer transfer window.
Sharp had played under then-Sheffield boss Nigel Adkins at three of his previous clubs – Scunthorpe, Southampton and Reading – and following the 50-year-old head coach’s appointment as Bramall Lane boss, it came as little surprise to see them re-united once more. Upon his arrival, Adkins made signing Sharp – for a fourth time in his career – his absolute priority, and it wouldn’t take long for him to land his man.
Just three weeks later, Adkins’ first wish as Sheffield boss came to the fore: dropped from pre-season friendly against German outfit Eintracht Frankfurt, and on the fringes of the Leeds United first-team, Adkins caught wind that Sharp could be available for transfer. With just a year left to run on his current contract, and having failed to nail down a regular starting place in the Elland Road outfit’s starting line-up, the stars were aligned for a romantic homecoming.
Talks were productive and the deal moved swiftly. Indeed, upon hearing of a potential move back to his childhood club, the then-29-year-old had no hesitation in returning home from Leeds’ summer training camp, in order to complete a £500,000 switch to his former club. In an exclusive interview, he told The Boot Room:
“It was the obvious choice. I was away in Austria on pre-season with Leeds at the time and I got pulled out of a friendly to say that I was going into talks with Sheffield United, so I was very happy. I got on the plane as quickly as possible as I couldn’t wait to re-join.”
Born into a family of Sheffield United supporters, there is no doubting where the striker’s allegiances lie. As a young boy, Sharp was regularly taken to Bramall lane by his father, which saw him build a life-time affinity for the club he would grow up to lead and represent. He told The Boot Room:
“It is special because I’ve supported Sheffield United since being a boy. I used to come here with my dad and the rest of my family, supporting the team and it’s a dream come true to play for them once, let alone three times. It has been a dream come true for me.”
Sharp capped his return to Bramall Lane with 21 goals in 44 league appearances last season, and was one of few positive performers in throughout what will have been considered a disappointing campaign. The Yorkshire outfit finished in 11th place, a result that saw Nigel Adkins lose his job after just a single term in charge.
Like most forwards gunning for success, the 30-year-old sets himself a goal target ahead of each season, which he surpassed thanks to his efforts in the previous campaign. Having averaged a goal every two games this term, scoring four times in eight League One appearances, he looks set to achieve his objective a second year running. He said:
“If I can stay fit all season, no matter the league I’m playing in, I’ll always try and get to 20 goals. Last season was brilliant, as I managed to do just that. Two or three seasons before, I wasn’t able to. It was important I did that last term, and I’ll try and back it up this time round.”
Sharp’s crowing moment on his return to the club, and the one he holds most dearly, was a successful strike in Sheffield’s 2-0 home victory against Blackpool at the beginning of last season. His first goal for Blades after five seasons apart, this was the perfect means of signalling his homecoming, while guaranteeing a third consecutive win for the Yorkshire outfit.
After an impressive return season, Sharp found himself made club captain in the summer just gone. Informed of his appointment just before fellow Blades supporter Chris Wilder was unveiled as Nigel Adkins’ successor. Somewhat unsurprisingly, he is now relishing being the man who leads out United every weekend, something he admits to having dreamed about as a youngster, on each of those Saturday afternoon’s spent watching his heroes in the Kop end:
“Again, another dream to captain the club just in a single game, but to be the club captain is something I will never forget, and hopefully my kids grow up and can follow in my footsteps.”
For the experienced centre-forward, this new clubs role has come with its own set of challenges, all of which he has successfully overcome. Forcing him to take on more responsibly within the club, it is fair to say he has led by example, both on and off the pitch. Talking of his relatively new role, he said:
“Off the pitch I have to be a little more organised, it’s like babysitting some of the lads at times [he joked]. On the pitch I have to keep my head more and you can’t switch off. As a captain you have to be on it 100% of the time, so this is something that I’ve had to manage.”
His influence on the pitch is mirrored by his efforts away from the game. Indeed, Sharp holds a strong desire to make a difference outside of football, and he does just, giving back to the community through his charity work and volunteering. He has always strived to assist in this light, although he admits there is an added importance when it comes to the city in which he learned the ropes as a young boy:
“I have always volunteered to try and give something back, but I think it’s a more important with it being my hometown club and the city I brought up in. I try and be a role model as much as I can, and enjoy all the stuff I get involved in.”
Having recently established the Billy Sharp Football Camp, aimed at providing UEFA Licence coaching for youngsters, Sharp revealed that his long-term plan is to move into coaching and potentially management following the conclusion of his playing career:
“It was always going to be my plan when I finished, but I was advised to do it while I was still playing and people still remembered me. I had a little taste of it [coaching] in the last school holidays and it went really well. At the minute I’m concentrating on my football, but I will come round to earning my coaching badges.”
Now 30 years of age, Sharp’s professional career has spanned 12 years, during which time he has played for no less than eight Football League clubs. From the Premier League to League One, he has racked up over 400 senior appearances, giving him a comprehensive experience of the upper echelons of the English football pyramid. While discussing the divisions in which he has featured in most frequently, he highlighted the major differences between the Championship and League One:
“I just think there are more mistakes made in League One. The more pressure you but on teams, the more prone they are to error. In the Championship now the teams are set up to be a lot more organised and everything is a lot tighter.”
His return to Sheffield United saw him drop a level, from the second to the third tier, which involved facing a host of new opponents, many of whom are considerably less elaborate than their Championship counterparts. Nonetheless, there were a few sides who stood out for Sharp on his return to League One, most notably Swindon Town, for those style of play he highly commended:
“In terms of style of play, I felt Swindon were very good, even though we got a decent result down at their place. The way they play, passing it around is very nice, good looking football. They obviously didn’t do as well [last season] as they would have liked to have done.”
Under the tutelage of relatively inexperienced manager, Luke Williams, Swindon have adopted a unique style of play for the level at which they play. With possession the name of the game, the Robins regularly find their hard efforts undone by the typical errors Sharp alluded to previously. Despite a play-off final finish the season previous, the Wiltshire outfit could only amount to a 15th place finish last term, irrespective of the goal scoring heroics of Nicky Ajose – who hit the net 24 times.
Burton were another outfit who caught the attention of the Sheffield United captain, who was impressed by the Brewers resoluteness and high-octane performances. The 2014/15 League Two champions began the season with Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at the helm, and despite his departure mid-way through the campaign, were able to continue their form under former Sheffield boss Nigel Clough, finishing runners-up and, in doing so, achieving back-to-back promotions.
“Obviously impressed with Burton. Everyone wrote them off, but they managed to maintain a level of team spirit and the way they played was high energy. They managed to get their rewards through their eventual promotion.”
With eyes now on the current campaign, Sharp is firmly aware of the task Sheffield United face in achieving a high finish. With strength of last season’s relegated Championship sides, alongside the strength and quality of several outfits that remain in the division from previous years, each of the 46 league fixtures bestowed in the Blades’ path have equal importance.
“I think Charlton and Bolton [are contenders] for obvious reasons, both are big clubs coming down from the Championship. I think they’ll both be up there. Millwall is always tough to go to, they always seem to be in the mix. Also, Bradford have started well, and I think they’ll continue their form.”
Despite a stuttering start to the season, Sharp still holds high hopes of a promotion challenge with the Blades this season. Chris Wilder’s side currently occupy sixth place in League One, four points behind leaders Scunthorpe. Following the path to the Championship will be tough task for the 30-year-old and co, but he is confident that a continuation of the squad’s recent level of performance will see them achieve their goal:
“At the start of last season, I really believed that we were going to go up. We’ve had a lot of changes in the club this season, but the way we have kicked on the last few games, if we can build momentum, hope and belief, we can show that we are up to the challenge.”