Sheffield United legend Billy Sharp's proud dad moment as he hails success of latest LJS Cup event
He is the captain of his boyhood club Sheffield United, a man whose goals in the red and white stripes he dreamed of wearing as a youngster have earned him a place in Bramall Lane folklore forever more.
But on Sunday, as he watched his eight-year-old son Leo in action in the No.10 shirt of Brunsmeer Athletic, Billy Sharp was just like any other father.
“It can be a little strange,” he smiled. “He scored an own goal in the first game but they won it, so it wasn’t so bad.
“I just want him to have a smile on his face. Young kids enjoying football, it’s amazing to see.”
Sharp spoke to The Star between dad duties at the LJS Cup event that he helps co-ordinate with his own boyhood club, Middlewood Rovers. Hosted at their home ground in Handsworth, the event, for teams between Under-8 and Under-11 level, has blossomed year on year and attracts teams from all around the Sheffield and District league, with some also travelling from outside South Yorkshire to compete.
Named after Sharp’s son Luey Jacob, who tragically died at just two days old back in 2012 from a condition called gastroschisis, it made a triumphant return to full capacity over the weekend after being dramatically reduced to just one age group last year because of Covid-19.
“It’s strange watching my own son play in the tournament,” Sharp added. “I just want him back playing with his friends and enjoying football again.
“All the hard work comes from Middlewood, really. Organising and getting the teams to enter, setting the pitches up and sorting everything else out.
“I come down early doors to help out, but without them it wouldn’t go ahead. Hopefully next year they’ll have the new clubhouse, so the facilities will be first-class as well.
“The tournament is getting stronger and stronger each year. More and more teams want to enter, but there’s only so much space. Apart from last year, because of Covid, it’s been at full capacity each year and me and my family really enjoy putting it on for the kids.”
Luey, who was born when Sharp was at Doncaster Rovers, would have been 10 years old this year and in a brave and emotional interview with The Star back in 2018, Sharp’s wife Jade admits she had some “very dark days” after he tragically passed away.
“It’ll be a special time for the 10th LJS Cup,” said the United skipper. “Which I’m sure will happen.”
There can be no doubt. Around 400 kids played in the LJS Cup last weekend and a reserve list of teams came in handy when a couple pulled out at short notice on the eve of the tournament.
“It’s been brilliant,” said Chris Dennison, the chairman of Middlewood Rovers.
“Busy and hectic, as it should be, but the feedback has been fantastic. You just want to see the kids smiling and enjoying it. That’s what it’s all about. Win, lose or draw. As long as they’re smiling, that’s all that matters.
“The mood was fantastic. It always is. The kids are learning and the referees are, too. The referees’ association use this as a mentoring weekend, so it’s good for their progression as well.
“We have to thank everyone in the club, really. Various jobs get issued around and we start planning properly from January onwards. But we’re already booking things for next year now!
“There’s no rest for us. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Some clubs who came from further afield were surprised at the standard of junior football in the Sheffield and District League, which can only bode well for the future of the game in this area and the boys and girls who dream of taking the next steps in a football career.
Others play more for the enjoyment. In front of the watching former United goalkeeper Simon Moore, who had travelled to Sheffield to support his big pal Sharp’s tournament after leaving Bramall Lane this summer, one young goalkeeper excelled while there were a few tears shed from another youngster after his side lost a game.
“Do you want some cake?” the boy’s mother asked him. The tears stopped almost instantly. Cake, it seems, can solve anything.
Eventually, 20 teams were whittled down to two by Sunday afternoon and Brunsmeer’s U9s, winners last year, qualified for the final again courtesy of a stunning Leo Sharp free-kick which arrowed into the top corner from long range.
But the final didn’t go the same way, with Young Owls running out winners. Wisewood beat Brunsmeer in the U8 final, but Brunsmeer did lift the U10 trophy after overcoming Wickersley Youth in the final. In the U11 final, Treeton Terriers beat the hosts Middlewood Rovers.
Spending his last free weekend before returning to pre-season training supporting the event, Sharp may have had cramp in the hand and mouth on Sunday evening with the amount of autograph and photograph requests he happily obliged.
One young fan even brought his drumsticks down for the United skipper to sign, and each team in the final had their own team photo with Sharp to treasure for years to come.
Win or lose, most are smiling; noticeably apart from one. Standing next to Sharp, having taken his runners-up medal from around his neck, the eight-year-old had his arms folded and looked thoroughly annoyed at not winning the final.
In the red and black stripes of Brunsmeer Athletic, in the No.10 shirt, it was Leo Sharp. Elite genes, elite-level free-kick, elite mentality. But at that moment, the pain of a cup final defeat still raw, he was just like any other player.