Billy Sharp is talking goals, and lots of them given no English player has scored more in League football in the 21st century. ‘I got one in training today,’ he says, ‘I enjoyed that as much as I always do when it hits the net.’
But there is one goal that means the most among the 220 that put him in the record books this month.
Sharp, now in his third spell at boyhood club Sheffield United and having smiled his way through memories of a 14-year scoring odyssey, is asked to take us back to October 2011 when he played for Doncaster Rovers.
Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp has scored more goals than anyone in League football
Sharp’s most poignant goal came shortly after the death of his baby son, Luey
He is jogging on the outskirts of Leeds. The previous day, at the nearby Martin House Hospice, his baby son Luey had died. He was two days old.
‘I remember some guy, a Rovers fan, he wound his window down and said – although I’ll leave some of it out – “Sharp, so are you leaving then?”.
There was speculation at the time. He obviously didn’t know what had happened,’ says Sharp, the incident clearly a point of focus amid a blur of emotions.
‘We had a game the next day. I was out jogging because I’d rang Dean Saunders (Doncaster manager) and told him I wanted to play. I needed to get out of the room I was in at the time. I was angry as well.
‘I remember on the jog thinking, “Am I doing the right thing? Should I be leaving my wife?”. But I just wanted to do something for my son, I wanted one goal for him.’
On reflection, Sharp considers playing so soon ‘was selfish… but I had to score that goal’
After just 14 minutes, he had it. The enduring image of that night versus Middlesbrough is Sharp revealing a message on his vest: ‘That’s for you son’.
‘Leaving my wife to grieve on her own for the day… it was a bit selfish’ he says. ‘But I had to score that goal.’
Sharp’s wife, Jade, revealed last year how she later contemplated suicide.
‘Personal tragedies cause people to suffer mental-health problems,’ says Sharp, talking to us from the comfort of Bramall Lane.
‘I’ve got football to thank, it gave me a release. It’s a special sport that gives you hard times, yes, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.’
The couple now have two sons, Leo and Milo. Sharp calls them his ‘beautiful boys’. But he pauses.
‘Every day you wish Luey was still here,’ he says. ‘Looking at my two boys, they don’t replace him, but they make me think what it would be like to have my three boys now.
‘They love coming to the football. It would have been great to have the three of them watching.’
Goal No 1. The Swansway Chester Stadium. Saturday February 5, 2005.
‘It was my 19th birthday,’ recalls Sharp, then on loan at League Two Rushden Diamonds.
Chester were 3-0 up when he poached a late consolation.
‘It wasn’t the best of goals,’ he says, ‘but it got me off the mark and my name on the vidiprinter. One of my friends sent me the picture – you never get tired of seeing that.’
Sharp returned to Sheffield United, where Neil Warnock was manager.
‘He said I was the best finisher at the club. Two days later I was sold to Scunthorpe for £100,000!’ says Sharp, now 32.
Sharp’s first league goal was almost 14 years ago for Rushden Diamonds against Chester
Sharp is now spearheading Sheffield United’s promotion charge towards the Premier League
‘I had two great seasons there scoring loads of goals and Sheff United signed me back for a hell of a lot of money (£2million) – they could have just kept me!’
Sharp is now reliving his days at Doncaster, Southampton, Nottingham Forest, Reading and Leeds. The recurring theme, as he puts it, is ‘idiot’ owners.
‘I remember walking in at Elland Road, seeing Massimo Cellino and he said (mimicking Italian accent), “Billy, I thought you were bigger than this!”. I thought, “Here we go”.
‘At Southampton I thought I could make a name for myself in the Premier League. But we signed a player for £7m, Emmanuel Mayuka, he barely played – and it was me having to go out the door!’
Sharp has played just 18 minutes of Premier League football in his career and still rues a save by Manchester City’s Joe Hart that denied him a top-flight goal.
The Blades, however, are currently third in the Championship. Sharp’s eyes widen.
‘I would love to get one in the Premier League,’ says the club captain. ‘And I do believe I can score goals there. I just hope I get that chance with Sheffield United.’
One recurring theme throughout Sharp’s career is, as he puts it, ‘idiot’ owners
Striker Sharp has already scored 16 league goals in an impressive campaign for the Blades
Sharp uses friend and former Saints team-mate Rickie Lambert as inspiration, the man whose 21st-century record he overtook when scoring at Wigan on New Year’s Day.
Lambert was 30 when he got his first Premier League goal and a year later he debuted – and scored – for England.
‘I went to watch Rickie that night against Scotland and spoke to him straight after,’ says Sharp.
‘He might not have looked like an athlete but he has inspired me in my career. He was another one who people said didn’t look fit, but he was.’
Another one? Google ‘Billy Sharp T-shirts’ and among the collection is one that reads: ‘Fat lad from Sheffield’.
‘That came from Sean O’Driscoll (Doncaster boss),’ he explains. ‘He had a go at me after a defeat and I had a bit of an argument with him. He told me to be quiet and put me in my place.
‘He then had a bit of a joke and said, “You’re just a fat lad from Sheffield”. So the next game, against Sheffield United, the kitman put a T-shirt out for me…’
Sharp scored and revealed his manager’s jibe to the world. ‘He got his own back,’ O’Driscoll later said.
Sharp is 32 but is physically leaner than ever while still retaining his hunger to find the net
The striker sits here today, however, leaner than ever. No player in the country has more than his 16 league goals this season. So what is his scoring secret?
‘It comes naturally,’ he says. ‘Scoring goals is just something I’ve always had. People say I’m not really quick, but I’d far rather have the instinct. Pace doesn’t score you goals, being in the right place at the right time does.
‘I gave some advice to a young player recently – the main thing is to stay between the sticks, that way you get more chances to score.’
Every chance Sharp converts is noted by his dad, Steve.
‘I was in Euro Disney last week with the family and my dad called, “You need to get in touch with Sky, they’ve got you down as 80 Sheffield United goals. You’ve got 95!”,’ says Sharp.
‘He knows everything. If I’ve said anything wrong speaking to you then he’ll be telling me off. It’s all from memory but he’s got these scrapbooks as well, every little article goes in.’
But Sharp’s story is far from over. ’It’s a bit weird,’ he says. ‘I’ve come to 220 goals and it’s nice to be recognised, but I’m as hungry as ever, I’ve loads more goals left in me.’