Sheffield United: Billy Sharp addresses one of football's most complex questions ahead of his team's Carabao Cup clash against Southampton
“You can work on your finishing and you have to study the game,” Billy Sharp says, as he ponders one of football’s most enduring questions. “But, to a certain extent, I also think you’re born with it so, being honest, I’m not entirely sure.”
The fact Sheffield United’s captain doesn’t know if it’s possible to learn the art of goalscoring, or if it’s something you instinctively do, reveals why footballers and football folk have spent heaven knows how long debating this matter without ever reaching agreement. But the more Sharp talks about how his game has evolved during nearly two decades at the coal face, the longer he discusses why he enters tomorrow’s game against his former club Southampton as one of the Championship’s most feared centre-forwards despite approaching his 36th birthday, the greater one suspects neither nature nor nurture is solely responsible. In order to explain why some players can finish and others can’t, you have to consider both.
“You can work on your finishing, definitely,” Sharp admits, after spending an hour or so at United’s training complex doing exactly that. “It’s something I’ve always done, ever since I first realised that I enjoyed sticking the ball in the back of the net.
“I study the game a lot. I enjoy watching matches on television and watching what some of the best in the business do - analysing the moves they make and where they like to position themselves, all those little tricks. But I also study my own game too - try and come up with little adjustments with the analysts. When I was younger, I had the knack of being able to score goals and I enjoyed it. Still, you’ve also got to know that’s not enough. You’ve got to be aware of what you’re good at and, as you get older, the things you can’t do as well as you used to but also the things you can do better because of experience.”
Sharp, now in his third and most successful spell with United following two largely frustrating stints, is now a very different performer to the fresh faced marksman who graduated from their youth system 17 seasons ago. Back then he was regarded as a one trick pony, albeit a thoroughbred who executed it well. But the passage of time has seen him add other weapons to his armoury. Sharp enters the fixture searching for his fourth goal of the campaign and, following unselfish displays against Peterborough, Preston North End and Hull City, his fifth assist. As manager Slavisa Jokanovic noted earlier this month, that makes him even more dangerous.
“He wants us to play football,” Sharp says, crediting the Serb with creating the right environment for his creativity to flourish. “He believes we are good enough to do whatever we want to do, he tells us that. He’s big on the lads having the freedom to try things. He’s got our back. If we make a mistake, he always takes it on his head.”
Sharp’s effort during United’s first Yorkshire derby under Jokanovic, who started work in July, was the 250th of a career which has also seen him represent the likes of Leeds, Doncaster Rovers, Nottingham Forest and Southampton, who visit Bramall Lane this evening in the Carabao Cup. He also famously netted 56 times in only 94 starts for Scunthorpe - a streak which earned him a move back to United after they had bizarrely sold him for a pittance 23 months earlier.
Even more strange, given Sharp’s record in north Lincolnshire, was the tendency of Jokaovic’s predecessors Bryan Robson and Kevin Blackwell to deploy him on the wing. It was not until Chris Wilder took charge of United, who had re-signed him again in the summer of 2015, that the club Sharp has supported since childhood were able to see the best of him. In January 2019, as Wilder was leading them to the second of two promotions, Sharp’s strike during a victory over Wigan Athletic saw him become the most prolific professional in England since the turn of the century.
“I’ve never really bothered about what people think,” Sharp laughs, confirming the theory that all of the best attackers possess headstrong personalities. “I’ve hear all the stuff about me being fat and slow. It doesn’t matter because the scales say I’m not fat and when we do sprints, I’m always in the top five. So that’s not bad for someone who is out of shape and can’t run.”
“The thing is,” he continues, “I know what my strengths are and I try to play to them. And with experience you also get better. Kevin Blackwell used to tell me if I didn’t dart about I’d get substituted. So I ended up just charging about like an idiot.
“Now I know it’s between the posts and four to eight yards out where most of the goals are scored. If you can get there, and get half a yard off for your finish, it’s difficult to stop.”
After taking only two points from their opening five outings under Jokanovic, United are beginning to rediscover their self-belief after being relegated from the Premier League last term. Peterborough were eviscerated 6-2, with Iliman Ndiaye and the on-loan Morgan Gibbs-White excelling alongside Sharp and Ben Osborn. Conceding a last gasp equaliser to Preston was, Jokanovic confessed, a “big disappointment.” But a lapse in concentration, rather than system failure, was responsible for that set-back. City were beaten 3-1, with Sharp grabbing the opener.
Southampton, who he helped gain promotion from the Championship nearly a decade ago, arrive in solid rather than spectacular form. After beating Newport County in the previous round, they have drawn Premier League fixtures against Newcastle, West Ham and Manchester City.
“The way we want to play, the way I like, it’s about rhythm,” acknowledges Sharp. “If picked, I’ll be looking to get on the scoresheet. If not, I can still bring something.”