Sheffield United: Billy Sharp reveals the secrets behind his record-breaking success
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Goalscoring is the Sheffield United captain’s business and, despite turning 36 following Friday’s game against Birmingham City, something he continues to do well. Ridiculously well in fact, after becoming the most prolific ever marksman in Championship history following his strike at Peterborough last weekend.
The finish which saw him break David Nugent’s record of 121 was, in a sense, classic Sharp. Just outside the six yard box, surrounded by defenders, a swivel of the hips saw him create enough space to turn and thread a low shot through the crowd. And yet, appearances can be deceptive. The more time you spend in Sharp’s company, the more he talks about his journey through football and of course the art of scoring goals, the more you begin to realise his game doesn’t revolve purely around instinct. Self-awareness and a willingness to adapt are important factors too.
“Joking aside, I’ve made some sacrifices and they’re probably ones I should have made 10 years ago to be fair,” he continues. “But you know what it’s like. When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. It’s only when you begin to get older that you realise you’re not.”
Sharp is now seven years into his third and most profitable spell with the club he has supported since childhood. After graduating from Bramall Lane’s youth programme, making his senior debut for United during a match against Wolverhampton Wanderers, he returned following two ridiculously successful seasons with Scunthorpe before being sold again - this time to Doncaster Rovers. A move to Southampton followed before heading back to South Yorkshire again after a brief spell with Leeds. Although Sharp’s stint at St Mary’s didn’t go as he would have wanted, spending most of his time there being farmed out to teams including Reading and Nottingham Forest, it was on the south coast where he experienced a lightbulb moment. One, Sharp believes, responsible for transforming him into the player who travels to St Andrews searching for his 257th professional goal in only 634 appearances.
“To be honest, I never used to think training was that important. Well, not until the end of the week when the finishing drills would start. But I remember going down there, to Southampton, and after the first training session ringing my dad and telling him ‘I’m way behind these lads fitness wise.’ It took me a good few weeks to get up to speed and that’s when it dawned on me. That’s why now, when I used to be doing something else, you’ll find me stretching or stuff like that. You take out what you put in. All the recovery stuff, I’m big into that now.”
Inevitably, Sharp is viewed as a role model for United’s band of young attacking talent. Although he enjoys passing on advice to Rhian Brewster - “one hell of a finish” - and the “amazing” Iliman Ndiaye, Sharp admits to learning plenty from them too. With the teenage Daniel Jebbison now back in the fold following a loan spell with Burton Albion, it reveals plenty about Sharp’s character - and also the reasons for his longevity - that he isn’t too proud to pick the brains of people with only an ounce of his experience.
“I’m learning so much off them too,” Sharp insists, gesticulating with his hands to emphasise the point. “Not to do with music or dress sense, even though they batter me for mine. But those lads, they’ve just got no fear. When I was their age, trust me, I had plenty of fear. That’s such a big thing for footballers now though. I know I won’t be around forever and, if I’m ever not in the team, I’ll be doing everything I can to help out the lads who are.”
“Iliman, I can’t do half of the things he’s capable of but I can learn from him,” he adds, breaking back into a smile. “Rhian, he’s got one hell of a finish and that’s why it was such a shame to see him go off injured against Peterborough. For me, he’s been more dangerous than all of us over the past few weeks. These lads keep me on my toes. I’m hungry to stay in the team and I love the challenge they bring.”
Sharp also studies many of the sport’s household names, forensically analysing their performances for ideas and tricks to add to his own game.
“Sergio Aguero, he was always someone I’d watch really closely. His movement, just the way he went around the pitch, it was something else. Lovely to watch. How can you not pick up things from that?
“He was brilliant. Obviously he could finish. But he had so much more to him as well. He brought so much to that Manchester City team he played in on top of his main job.”
Paul Heckingbottom, who has won five of his eight matches since taking charge of United in November, said the same thing about Sharp following his landmark effort at the Weston Homes Stadium. Both he and Sharp, whose contract expires at the end of the season, are quietly petitioning the board of directors to trigger a clause, which would automatically extend it for a further 12 months, before the summer. Regardless what division United, who are confident of forcing themselves into the play-off positions, are competing in next term.
“I feel good,” Sharp says. “I’ll know when it’s time. I’ll probably look in the mirror and just know.
“But that’s not something that’s even entering my mind yet, because I’m enjoying the challenge of trying to stay in this team. I’m still hungry. I still enjoy scoring goals and I still believe I can get plenty more of them.”