Sheffield United: Why birthday boy Billy Sharp shows no signs of slowing down
Billy Sharp, who turns 33 today, has netted 25 goals in 44 games since last celebrating his anniversary.
The statistics, which see him enter Sheffield United's forthcoming game against Aston Villa as the joint leading scorer in the Championship this term and England's most prolific league marksman of the century, confirm not only his importance to Chris Wilder's side but also the fallacy of claims he is too old, too slow and too out of shape to trouble the division's best defences.
Little wonder United, at their manager's behest, recently opened contract talks with the centre-forward.
The upward trajectory of Sharp's performance levels, at a time when they really should be diminishing, is testament to the player's commitment, cognizance and ability to adapt. Three qualities which make him absolutely essential, despite the arrival of two striker's during the transfer window, to United's hopes of promotion.
Three days ago, after Sharp claimed his 20th of the campaign during their victory over Bolton Wanderers, Wilder summarised the player's display by saying: "It's just Billy doing what Billy does."
The words were meant as a compliment. Colleagues and opponents alike now expect him to hit the target. But Wilder's synopsis failed to reflect Sharp's dedication to his profession and work ethic behind the scenes, as United's captain himself explained at the beginning of the season.
"Obviously I'm not getting younger," Sharp admitted, after returning from warm-weather training in Portugal. "But that's not a bad thing, in fact it's probably a plus, because I understand the game a lot better now than I used to.
"There's things I've worked on, where I've tried to improve, because I know it's going to be a benefit. On top of that, being honest, I'm probably taking care of myself a lot better as well because I know that's important."
One area where Sharp's work has improved is outside the penalty area, with his ability to hold up the ball and create openings for others again in evidence against Wanderers. Celebrating the 500th league appearance of his career by scoring the second goal of United's 2-0 win, he had earlier provided the pass which allowed David McGoldrick to break the deadlock following an attritional first-half.
As Wilder acknowledged four months ago, the improvement in Sharp's all-round game and his adoption of a new fitness regime are not coincidental. "Everybody has a chip at him," Wilder said. "They had a chip at him before he helped us get out of League One and before that as well. The way he responds, the way he ignores all that and just gets on with the job, is a measure of the lads's attitude.
"Off the pitch, his conditioning is brilliant. His general all round play is good and his training is taking him into games.
"We all know what Bill does and he's still outing there doing it. So, as far as I'm concerned, that tells you all you need to know about him as a pro' and a person."
"All this stuff about Billy being fat," he continued. "Don't make me laugh. If he's fat then, I tell you what, there's no hope for the rest of us."
Like Sharp, McGoldrick's conditioning and durability has come under scrutiny in the past. And, like Sharp, the former Ipswich Town attacker has proved suggestions he lacks the physical attributes required to regularly lead United's line an absolute nonsense.
Wilder's side travels to the Midlands on Friday third in the table, three points behind second-placed Leeds and leaders Norwich City, having scored 50 goals in their last 30 outings. Sharp and McGoldrick are responsible for 60 per cent of those after establishing a rewarding partnership.
It speaks volumes about Sharp's importance and endurance that, although McGoldrick was rested for United's visit to Norwich City, he again led the line with new signing Gary Madine. There were indications, particularly before the interval, that they can also compliment each other well. Sharp, whose focus on becoming a more complete footballer has not had a detrimental effect upon his returns in front of goal, is effectively employing the knowledge he has acquired during a decade-and-a-half as a professional. Both on the pitch and, as defender George Baldock outlined last year, off it too.
"Bill is one of a group of senior lads in the dressing room who make sure everything runs in there as it should," he said. "When someone new comes in, even though you know they'll be good characters, they tell them what's expected here and what you have to do to represent Sheffield United."
Something Sharp, now in his third and most successful spell with the club he has supported since childhood, has done with distinction 230 times.