Sheffield United: Billy Sharp says The Blades want to crack the Premier League for Sheffield as well as themselves

The story of how Sheffield United, a club captained, managed and co-owned by supporters defied the odds to achieve Premier League status, has captured the imagination of footballing traditionalists who feared the game was in danger of losing touch with its roots.

By James Shield
Tuesday, 25th June 2019, 3:57 pm
Updated Wednesday, 26th June 2019, 1:17 pm
Billy Sharp is proud of Sheffield as a whole: Gerard Binks
Billy Sharp is proud of Sheffield as a whole: Gerard Binks

Chris Wilder's transfer strategy, which eschews household names in favour of previously undiscovered talent, is also likely to impress those hopeless romantics who believe sport should be about more than simply pounds, shillings and pence.

So, although the extravagance surrounding Monday's announcement of a new record breaking sponsorship probably upset some, those yearning for the days when teams remained rooted in their own communities will have been comforted by the comments of Wilder's skipper Billy Sharp.

Minutes after it was confirmed Union Standard Group, an Australian based financial firm with plenty of clout in the Far East, had paid a substantial sum to emblazon their logo across the front of United's jerseys next term, Sharp found himself being quizzed by journalists on a variety of subjects. The 33-year-old, whose goals powered Wilder's side to promotion last season, had been summoned to Bramall Lane to help celebrate the agreement. But inevitably, after a few polite questions about the USG partnership, talk turned to United's prospects in the Premier League. It was then, acknowledging his primary motivation was establishing them at the highest level, that Sharp also admitted he felt a wider responsibility.

"We want to do ourselves proud but we also want to do the city proud," Sharp said. "We don't just want to make the numbers up. We want everyone, everybody here, to feel proud of us."

Sharp, now in his third spell with United after progressing through their youth system a decade-and-a-half ago, has been one of The Blades' biggest cheerleaders since returning to South Yorkshire in 2015. But the striker, who was handed the armband by Wilder 12 months later, is determined to shout about his hometown too. Indeed midway through last term, as United consolidated their position towards the top of the Championship table, he used an interview with The Star to showcase Sheffield's qualities.

Intriguingly, although Sharp recognised the commercial opportunities that top-flight status brings, he explained his main reason for attending this week's gala event was to learn more about USG and then report back to the dressing room. Not press the flesh and mingle with civic dignitaries.

"I do feel extra responsibility now," he said. "It's part and parcel of being captain and I like it. I've got to know the sponsor a little bit and it's my job to tell the lads who they are. They've spent an awful lot of money to sponsor the club. Companies spend this kind of money because football is the biggest sport in the world and this is probably the biggest league."

Sheffield United's Billy Sharp (centre) leads Sheffield United's promotion celebrations: Nick Potts/PA Wire.

"Credit to the club for getting the biggest sponsorship they've ever had," Sharp continued. "They (USG) are going to get a great deal out of it as well, with their shirts being shown all over the world.

"Everyone wants a piece of Sheffield United now, because we're back in the Premier League. We're the only team in Yorkshire there, which is good for us. The club is trying to push on now."

To do that, Sharp accepts there will inevitably be casualties as new players arrive. Wilder, who is chasing Queens Park Rangers' Luke Freeman, Neal Maupay of Brentford and Swansea City's Oli McBurnie, hopes to make a breakthrough in the market shortly after drawing-up his wanted list. Manchester United goalkeeper Dean Henderson, who joined on a season long loan last term, is another target.

But by emphasising the importance of character, on and off the pitch, Sharp's words confirm both he and Wilder are determined to ensure United retain their identity. Fresh faces, in the dressing room and the boardroom, will be expected to embrace the culture the two have helped create. Or risk, if they attempt to make radical changes, being viewed with suspicion. There is a balance, between the sometimes competing interests of big business and those with more local agendas, to be struck. Particularly as United prepare to enter probably the most lucrative competition in the world.

Billy Sharo (far left), Chris Wilder (second right) and co-owner Kevin McCabe (far right) are all lifelong Sheffield United fans: Scott Merrylees

"We've got something good going here and we've not lost for a while," Sharp said. "So we'll be looking to carry that momentum on.

"After a few weeks off, once we're back into pre-season, that when what we've achieved is probably going to really dawn on us. We know there's going to be work to be put in fitness-wise to meet the demands of the Premier League. We know we've got to look to improve individually and collectively, drive it forward. There will be players who get left behind and players who kick on. But the mentality of the group, that spirit, will stay the same."

United return to competitive action on August 10, when they visit AFC Bournemouth. The match pits Wilder's squad against another team which rose quickly through the divisions, with his counterpart Eddie Howe also possessing a gift for spotting unfulfilled potential. Intelligent recruitment, coupled with excellent coaching, enabled United to out-perform their big-spending rivals and finish second last term.

"I think Bournemouth is a good game for us, they play a lot of nice football," Sharp said. "Maybe they're not the most physical. It'll be tough, it's a good atmosphere. That will be a good game to see where we're at and then go from there."

Billy Sharp with his team mate Chris Basham: Simon Bellis/Sportimage