The guy in the hot-seat had publicly suggested, perhaps not unreasonably some thought at the time, that he should be allowed to decide who replaced him. “You must be joking,” the bigwig told me when this idea was raised. “He’s the last person who’s going to be involved in that. Not because we don’t get on. Rather, it’s not his money that’s going to be paying for what happens next. So no, you can forget about that right now.”
I thought of that discussion earlier this week when Billy Sharp, speaking to journalists ahead of yesterday’s visit to Blackpool, revealed he was heading for contract talks immediately after the media briefing.
The subject was definitely going to be raised at some point. Particularly following the 36-year-old’s interview with The Star at the beginning of last month when it emerged he wanted to know if a clause, tying him to Bramall Lane for at least another season, was going to be triggered before his contract expires in June. But it was telling that Sharp volunteered this information before anyone present had a chance to ask.
“I just want to know what their thoughts are,” he stated, clearly referring to the board. “I have told the manager I want to be here. The manager has told me he wants me here. So I don’t know what the issue is?”
Inevitably, this has prompted fears that Sharp, still one of the Championship’s most feared strikers despite supposedly approaching the end of his career, could be set to leave the club he captains and has supported since childhood over the summer.
For the record, I don’t think this is going to happen. I’ve been wrong plenty of times in the past and will be wrong again plenty of times in the future. But I’m sure, barring something dramatic happening behind the scenes, that the striker, who enters Saturday’s game against Barnsley searching for his 127th in United colours will still be wearing their jersey next term. And quite right too. Because the people tasked with running the whole shebang would be stupid to let him go. Even though a little tension, probably related to wages and timescales, has clearly seeped into the negotiation process.
Sharp is desperate to see out his playing days with United. Paul Heckinbottom, who has performed wonders to keep his team in play-off contention despite a crippling injury crisis, is equally determined to see him stay. But as I was once reminded, players and coaching staff, no matter how popular, effective or talented they are, are employees rather than employers. They don’t decide, despite our sometimes quaint ideas about how football works, who stays, who goes and when. Directors, actually make that owners, do.
Like I said, I can’t see HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’d bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, chairman Yusuf Giansiracusa or Abdullah Alghamdi, the influential CEO of the United World network, allowing Sharp to walk out of the door for nothing. As well as being a public relations disaster given the striker’s popularity among supporters, particularly when United are clearly approaching a pivotal summer, it wouldn’t make financial sense either.
Yes, Sharp doesn’t represent the future on the pitch. But even though record signing Rhian Brewster is clearly viewed as his medium term replacement, when he recovers from injury, the cost of recruiting a striker with comparable finishing skills to Sharp would be far higher than ensuring he remains in situ.
Professional sport is a cold, ruthless business. And that, ultimately, is the calculation United will surely make. Plus the fact that Sharp’s knowledge, which he should be allowed to pass on to the next generation of centre-forwards upon retirement, is invaluable too.
Hopefully, a pathway towards a coaching position will be inserted, or at least offered, in any revised proposal made to his representative.
People close to United, albeit not those who feature on their Companies House register, are privately briefing there is no rush to reach an agreement because of the option they retain on Sharp’s services. One which, they are keen to stress, is loaded in their favour.
But I’d humbly suggest, with so many other influential members of Heckingbottom’s side also set to become free agents, it would be a good idea to get something concluded soon.
Despite their pretty handy position in the table, the mood at United is bound to be a little bleak right now with so many key performers out injured; fifty percent of his outfield options by the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian’s chief estimation. And only one or two of those are expected to return to action anytime soon, with Brewster, David McGoldrick and Jayden Bogle already ruled out until the new campaign. There are also doubts about whether Chris Basham and George Baldock will feature again before May’s final game of the regular season, after Heckingbottom confessed to peddling disinformation about the exact diagnoses some of his stars have received after being examined by specialists.
An official announcement that Sharp is staying would prevent the issue from becoming a distraction as United chase promotion. And just as importantly, it would help raise morale on the terraces and in the boot room during these challenging and uncertain times.