Sheffield United: 'I'm Proud to be made in Sheffield,' says skipper Billy Sharp
It was earlier this month when Billy Sharp first began to realise he is an ordinary bloke achieving extraordinary things.
"I walked into a shop and the guy behind the counter asked me what I was doing in there," he smiles. "My first thought was 'Why wouldn't I be? I'm just a normal fella out buying something for my son.' But he seemed genuinely surprised to see me there."
Sharp, Sheffield United's captain, leader and legend in the making, is reclining on the sofa surrounded by family as he discusses how much his life has changed. Twenty-years ago, he was just another scruffy kid from Pitsmoor. Two decades on and nearly 550 appearances later, folk who once would not have given him a second look are now shocked to meet him in the flesh.
Now in his third spell with United, as he approaches his 90th goal for the club, the centre-forward's name has become as synonymous with Bramall Lane as Greasy Chip Butties, gallons of Magnet and generous pinches of snuff. But Sharp, a lifelong supporter of the team he now plays for, is proud to be a son of its home city too.
"I'm proud to be from here, I'm proud to be a Unitedite but I'm proud of the whole place, proud of Sheffield, as well" he explains after tracing his journey from Byron Wood Primary School and Ecclesfield Secondary to the glamour of professional football. "I had a stint away but when I returned, well, let's just say it felt good to be back. Really good in fact."
Sharp has played for eight clubs since progressing through United's youth system, including Doncaster Rovers, Southampton and this weekend's opponents Leeds. But barring a brief flirtation with Pontefract and that therapeutic spell at St Mary's - "I had a few personal issues at the time and probably needed new surroundings" - he has remained based in Sheffield
So what is it about, other than the day job, that keeps bringing him back? The answer, Sharp explains, is its character and its people. Even those, he admits, of a blue and white persuasion. One of whom he follows on social media and another whose cafe he regularly frequents.
"I was reading something Pete McKee put on Twitter recently where he was talking about being sat in a restaurant in London and noticing all the cutlery was made here," Sharp says. "Steel is obviously a huge part of our history here and I think that hard-working, down-to-earth background has shaped our personalities. There's an honesty about Sheffield and I think that's one of the things that makes it so attractive. Lots of my old team mates have moved here and never left. They've stayed. There's a friendliness about Sheffield and its identity is unique."
"That's one of the reasons why I love spending so much time here," Sharp continues. "I love a good breakfast and so you'll find me at Made by Jonty in Kelham Island a lot or The Grind Cafe nearby. The guy there is a Wednesdayite I think. The Summer House is really good as well. Sunday Lunch is another favourite and The Tickled Trout in Barlow, that's run by a mate of mine, does really good ones. I like a curry too and the people at Rajdhani always look after me really well."
After waxing lyrical about his culinary tastes, Sharp reveals some of his other favourite things to do.
"Chatsworth House and Millhouses Park are great places to go with the family and they're nearby too," he continues. "Also, I really enjoy a game of golf so I try to get one in as often as I can at Abbeydale, Hallamshire or Dore and Totley."
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Being a high-profile footballer with his hometown club means Sharp sees the best and worst of folk. Particularly given United's rivalry with Sheffield Wednesday who, it emerges, tried to sign him twice.
"It can be difficult but I wouldn't swap it for anything else," Sharp admits. "I'm normal but sometimes people don't think that. If I'm out with the missus or the kids, sometimes we don't get much privacy and they ask me to pretend I'm someone else. But there will come a time when nobody is that interested in me and it's a price worth paying because if it wasn't for the fans, the game wouldn't be what it is.
"Actually, Wednesday have come in for me a couple of times. Once when Brian Laws, who I played for at Scunthorpe, was there and again under Dave Jones. But I didn't think it was right. I didn't think I'd be able to win. Yes, I dislike Wednesday because I'm a Blade. But I've got respect for them."
Sharp holds Leeds the same regard too although his time at Elland Road, which came to an end when United acquired him for a third time, proved a frustrating experience.
"I always had this feeling I would go there," he says. "I'm not sure why but I remember telling my dad I thought it would happen at some point. If it wasn't for United coming in for me, I might still be there because I've got a soft spot for that city as well."
Sharp's affinity with Sheffield's neighbour is rooted in personal tragedy when his son, Luey, died aged two days old.
"There's a hospice up there called Martin House and they were absolutely brilliant for us at the time," he remembers. "They're like Bluebell Wood here in Sheffield. They also do wonderful, really important, work."
"Sheffield and Leeds are completely different places," Sharp adds. "They've got different vibes if you like.
"Leeds has probably got more nightlife and shopping. Sheffield could easily handle more. It could certainly support it. Then again, if the big chains all moved in, a lot of the independent businesses we've got here might struggle. We've got some great onesÂ and, for me, thatÂ gives Sheffield it's identity. When you're in Sheffield, you know you're in Sheffield. In other big cities, you could be anywhere in the world. Here's there's a different feel.'
With United now fifth in the Championship table, two points behind Marcelo Bielsa's second-placed side, Sharp believes he is now entering the most important and potentially profitable stage of his career so far. But when the time does come to hang up his boots - "I've got plenty left in me.Â I'm not even thinking about it" - a career as Sheffield's cheerleader-in-chief possibly beckons.
"Sheffield, for me, doesn't get the credit it deserves. Where I live, I'm 10 minutes from the city centre and 10 minutes from the countryside. You don't get that anywhere else. People here know what we've got going for us and I'll always shout about it."