Why Sheffield United are fighting a losing battle as they try to dampen speculation about Billy Sharp's future
Before he sits down in front of the media to preview Sheffield United’s latest Premier League game, Chris Wilder always takes a moment to discuss the likely line of questioning with one of his advisors behind the scenes.
It is there, in the corridor which leads to the club’s new interview suite at the Steelphalt Academy, where they try and plot a course through one of the most important events of the week: The pre-match press conference which, despite sometimes probably feeling like a necessary evil, allows managers to set the tone and shape the news agenda for the next 48 hours or so at least.
It is also there, ever since the transfer window swung back open just over a fortnight ago, where Wilder tries to fathom new ways of talking about Billy Sharp. Or, to put it another way, curb the torrent of stories and speculation linking him with a move to pastures new.
Because, as Wilder was reminded ahead of Saturday’s visit to Arsenal, the subject refuses to go away.
“I’ve had a chat with Billy,” he said for the umpeenth time this month. “In fact I had another one with him this week.
“My stance hasn’t changed. It’s Billy’s choice. Unless something happens from an injury point of view, I’m happy with my forwards. We’ve got five good ones. Two up top, one trying to get into the team and two on the bench.”
More times than he would like, Sharp has found himself in the latter category with Lys Mousset, Oli McBurnie and David McGoldrick emerging as Wilder’s ‘go to’ strikers since United’s promotion from the Championship.
After scoring 38 goals in the past two seasons, that has inevitably encouraged a number of Championship sides to explore the possibility of acquiring Sharp’s services. Celtic, according to reports north of the border, are also interested.
All of those enquiries, Wilder recently admitted, have been meticulously documented and passed on to the player himself. The fact Sharp remains in situ, despite being given the power to decide his own future, speaks volumes he believes.
“If Billy had given an indication, then that would have happened with the amount of calls we’ve had,” he said. “Listen, you can never say never.
“I’ve not had calls off anybody. Billy has not come to see me.
“Listen, people can get to Billy through the back door. I know that’s how football works. But I’ve been up front with him and he’s been up front with me.”
Wilder clearly expects Sharp to remain with United until the end of the season when, if he is still on the periphery of their starting eleven, the likelihood is the 33-year-old departs
But the nature of the media in 2020, the insatiable appetite of rolling news channels and internet sites for fresh content, means his briefing ahead of next week’s game against Manchester City will turn into another Groundhog Day. Unless Sharp speaks out publicly or, despite Wilder’s hunch, he instructs United to accept one of the offers they have received.
An analysis of the sources behind many of the stories casting doubt on his interpretation of the situation reveals why.
Earlier this week, as United’s preparations for the trip to London began in earnest, a former professional was being interviewed about Sharp on a national radio station when he extolled the benefits of a move to Parkhead. The player in question, Darren Bent, has never represented the Scottish champions. Nor, as far as we know, is he in direct communication with folk orchestrating their recruitment policy.
But his comment, which was perfectly reasonable, proved the catalyst for another flurry of reports suggesting Sharp is destined for Celtic. Or Leeds, or Nottingham Forest or perhaps even Torquay if Bent’s words are picked-up by a website in Devon. Should someone decide to write an article on why Sharp would be perfect for Sunderland, expect him to be linked with them.
Little wonder, when it comes to in-comings and out-goings, Wilder chooses his words carefully.
“I’ve gone with different approaches,” he said. “I’ve left it. I’ve given a little bit about waiting for those horrible pictures with managers, a scarf and new signings.
“I study what other managers say about things like this and (Watford’s) Nigel Pearson said he’ll only talk about business done when the business has been done. I’ll go with that.”