Sheffield United's talisman Billy Sharp proves his Premier League worth

It wasn’t the first time in his embryonic but already exhilarating career that Dean Henderson has wrestled the spotlight away from a team mate.

Sunday, 8th March 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Sunday, 8th March 2020, 5:00 pm

Given the Sheffield United and, if Chris Wilder’s hunch is correct, soon-to-be England goalkeeper’s wonderful sense of occasion, it won’t be the last either.

But as the 22-year-old continues his seemingly inexorable march towards becoming the Three Lions’ undisputed number one, another arguably even more heartening story is developing at Bramall Lane. It revolves around a boy who grew-up supporting the club he would go on to represent and, after enduring a frustrating start to the Premier League campaign, is now spearheading their remarkable push for European football. That boy’s name, of course, is Billy Sharp.

At the beginning of the campaign, despite doing so much to fire United into the top-flight in the first place, the centre-forward listened to himself being described as too old, too slow and too predictable to trouble the country’s leading defenders. It was a narrative Sharp, whose first-half finish settled Saturday’s contest against Norwich City, had heard plenty of times before. The Championship, he was told following United’s climb into the second tier three-and-a-bit seasons ago, would probably prove a stretch too far.

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But Sharp, who netted 38 times in only 79 outings during their brief stay there, is in the business of confounding the experts. Like United, regarded as certainties for relegation not so long ago, he keeps on learning, keeps on making subtle adjustments and, as a result, keeps on getting better.

“Billy is getting older of course,” Wilder said, after watching him convert from John Lundstram’s expertly crafted assist. “So he’s got to live his life a little bit differently now, and he is.

“There may be times when he wishes he could switch back but, off the pitch, he does what he needs to do.

“He’s looking lively, his hold up play is terrific and he gets to balls down the sides first as well.

Sheffield United's Billy Sharp celebrates scoring his side's goal during the Premier League match against Norwich City at Bramall Lane, Sheffield: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire.

“He links up really well.”

What Sharp does best, however, is find space inside the box. No player has claimed more goals in England’s leading four divisions this century and his header, after dispatching a similar effort during United’s FA win at Reading four days earlier, showcased the positional sense, honed over a decade-and-a-half as professional, which makes him such an asset.

“It was a brilliant cross and a brilliant header,” Wilder said. “It had to be because he (Norwich’s Tim Krul) is an excellent ‘keeper.”

Crucially, Sharp’s game has evolved as he accumulates more experience. Regarded as simply a predator during his first two spells with United before returning in 2015, the former Scunthorpe, Doncaster Rovers and Leeds marksman is now a much more cuter player than the one who first progressed through the Shirecliffe youth programme. It suggests, when he found himself consigned to the bench at the start of United’s latest PL adventure, Sharp used his time wisely; watching, learning and studying what was required to excel at the highest level before using the information he gleaned to ensure, when Wilder did choose to name him in his first choice eleven, the manager’s faith would not prove misplaced.

“You have to do more nowadays,” Wilder said, agreeing with the notion that Sharp has widened his skill set. “It can’t be the case that you do nothing when nothing is happening but then just come alive in the box.

“The work he does out of possession is good but he’s joining it all up too. He has to stretch it, he has to play as a ‘nine’ and he has to play as a ‘10’ at times. Then he has to get himself in the box and finish where, obviously, his record speaks for itself.”

Sharp scores goals and Henderson stops them. Thirty minutes or so after his colleague had pounced for the third time in four outings, he produced a memorable block to deny Mario Vrancic an equaliser; preventing the ball from crossing the line at the foot of the near post before substitute David McGoldrick, aware Josip Drmic was looming, hacked clear.

It was the latest in a catalogue of superb saves the youngster, on loan from Manchester United, has produced since arriving in South Yorkshire. With the crowd’s man-of-the-match nominations being collected at that very moment, the outcome of that survey became a fait accompli. But Sharp’s contribution to result, which increased Norwich’s relegation woes, should not be forgotten.

“He’s been excellent, such an influence, on and off the pitch,” Wilder said, ensuring that it wasn’t.

Sheffield United: Henderson, Basham, Egan, O’Connell, Stevens (Osborn 60), Baldock, Norwood, Fleck, Lundstram, Sharp (McGoldrick 71), McBurnie (Berge 90). Not used: Verrips, Jagielka, Mousset, Retsos.

Norwich City: Krul, Aarons, Godfrey, Hanley, Lewis, Cantwell (Drmic 46), Buendia, Pukki, McLean, Duda (Idah 87), Tettey (Vrancic 66). Not used: Zimmermann, Rupp, Stiepermann, McGovern.

Referee: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire).

Attendance: 31,379.