Sheffield United: The making of Billy Sharp, by those who shaped him
Sheffield United have searched far and wide for a solution to their woes in front of goal but, despite tens of millions worth of investment, their best bet is still a local lad signed for the price of a second-hand car.
Against the odds, Billy Sharp remains a key player at Bramall Lane.
Given the need for succession planning, the 35-year-old may not be the ideal pick but his selection to lead a strikeforce that ought to be the envy of the Championship is justified.
With every goal Sharp adds to his tally in the professional game – 250, including 113 for his boyhood team – he delivers even more value for money on the £5,000 agreed with Rotherham United to secure him as a 12-year-old.
That deal is arguably the best bit of business ever completed by the Blades.
John Warnock, brother of Neil and the club’s former academy director, signed the prolific young marksman following a recommendation from a scout.
“I invited his dad to have a chat,” recalls John, now 78, “he brought Billy and we said we'd sign him.
"His dad was keen and wanted him to be looked after. We had liked him a lot and got him for a very small fee.”
Even as a child, John remembers Sharp possessing qualities beyond his years.
"One thing that stood out for me when I first saw him playing was that if he was going for the ball with a defender he would make sure the defender was on his shoulder and the ball was on the other side of him.
“That's quite clever intelligence at that age and he knew where the goal was, that was the important thing.”
More on that later.
Sharp rose through the ranks at Shirecliffe as part of a talented cohort, says Ron Reid, who worked as a youth coach for Sheffield United before becoming academy manager.
“They were like our star group,” Ron, now 76 and retired, tells The Star.
"We thought we had got some really good lads in that group; Jonathan Forte and one or two others who should have made better of it than they actually did.
“Quite a few of them played league football but none like Billy and Jonathan.”
Colin Marrison, Evan Horwood, Ian Ross, James Ashmore and Ryan Gyaki were among those in Sharp’s youth team who came and went without making an impression on the first team.
So what separated him from the rest?
John, who also credits Kevin Fogg for his role in the striker’s development, explains: “We always talked about whether you develop leadership qualities in kids. It's one quality that’s very difficult to have.
"He had that quality where he can engage other people and get them to play where he wants.
"He was definitely going to be a leader and he's proved it over the years.
"He was strong, he had good technical ability and shone. He was a first-choice selection in that popular position.”
Ron, who left Sheffield United in 2011, adds: “When I think back he wasn’t captain of the team but he had that leadership.
"He wanted to encourage people to do whatever was required of them at the time.”
There was another key quality, too, one he’s made a career out of.
“He just scored for fun did Billy,” says Ron, “it was incredible.
"Right place, right time. He just had that instinct.”
John adds: "If the ball was there, the chances were Billy was going to hit the target, and that's been proven over the years.”
A 2005 winter’s day in Northamptonshire.
At the time, the latest graduate off the club’s academy production line was on loan at Rushden & Diamonds.
Ron had travelled down to see an 18-year-old Sharp in action – and left knowing he was good enough to make the grade in men’s football.
"You know what it was like in the old Division 3,” he recalls, “he was against some roughnecks who would kick anything that moved.
"He grew up there and could still score goals. I think that gave him the confidence, not that he needed it, but he certainly knew he could do it from there.
"You knew he had the talent to go far. Did I know he would score 250 goals in the league? No I didn’t. But I knew if he got the rub of the green he would score.”
Unsurprisingly, however, it wasn’t always plain sailing at Sheffield United.
And ironically, it was Neil Warnock who sold Sharp to Scunthorpe United in 2005, only for him to return two years later for a much larger fee than the £100,000 received.
“I can’t criticise Neil because his record stands out but I do think he could have been more youth-friendly on occasions,” Ron says.
"There were times when we were in the Championship where I thought he could have played Billy and Jonathan Forte in certain games.
"He [Neil] was doing well so I could understand to a certain extent why he wanted to rely on the tried and tested players. To play younger players would have been a risk.
"Having said that, when we got into the Premier League we actually had one or two games with five academy graduates [in the squad]. Neil would turn around and say ‘This is what I did’.”
The second spell didn’t exactly go to plan, either.
"He had the misfortune to play under Kevin Blackwell who just didn’t get it with Billy,” Ron adds.
“He had him chasing from one box to the other, he’s a box player – he shouldn’t be doing anything outside the penalty area.”
That’s where Sharp has been found for most of his third spell with the club, which has been much more fruitful, yielding 100 goals and counting.
Those leadership qualities have also seen him captain the side since 2016.
"He stood the test of time,” says John. “He demonstrated that he was a good pro right from being the age of 12.”
“I’m proud as punch,” adds Ron.