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On the first day of 2019, Billy Sharp scored the 220th goal of his professional career. It made him the top English goalscorer in the 21st century and helped propel his club to the Premier League. For a player often considered as the very embodiment of a ‘journeyman’ footballer travelling the highways and byways of the lower leagues of English football, it’s both a rare distinction and an outstanding achievement. In fact, of the 240 goals Sharp has notched so far in his career, only one came in the top tier of English football. The Sheffield born striker, now back where he started his career 15 years previously, scored 23 goals to take Sheffield United to the Championship title. At 33, just perhaps, Billy Sharp will get a second chance to show he can find the net at any level.
Sharp’s initial tenure with the Blades was short, and not particularly sweet. Debuting in the 2004-05 season, he made just a couple of appearances without entering the scoring charts, before being loaned out to League Two club, Rushden and Diamonds, in January 2005 until the end of the season. Playing at a lower level was precisely what the young striker needed to kick start his career, and nine goals in 16 appearances was a healthy return for both club and player. Returning to the Blades though, Sharp was still not deemed to be a cut above the other forwards at the club and, without making another appearance for them, he moved to Scunthorpe United for a reported £100,000 fee.
It was with the Lincolnshire club that Sharp made his first significant impression. Shortly after signing him, The Iron also purchased Andy Keogh from Leeds United and together, the two young forwards, struck up a highly profitable understanding. Across the 2005-06 season, they would score 38 League One goals between them with Sharp, the senior partner, netting 23. The following term, that total would jump to 30, making Sharp the top marksman across all four leagues, and taking the club to promotion into the Championship. In total, he would net 56 goals in 95 games for Scunthorpe. The tally inevitably drew interest from other clubs and, back in his native Sheffield, the Blades sought to rectify the error when they had let him leave so cheaply. In July 2007, they would put that right, but the cost of £2 million, to do so, demonstrated how costly the error had been.
The money looked even more expensive as Sharp’s first season back at Bramall Lane slipped away quickly, bringing just four league goals in 29 games. Encouraging noises suggesting that perhaps he needed more time to adjust to the higher level seemed valid when, on the club’s first home game of the 2008-09 season, Sharp netted a hat-trick against QPR. It proved to be a false dawn though, and he would only add a further solitary league goal that season. For the second time in just a few years, the Bramall Lane exit door beckoned, and a season-long loan to fellow Championship club Doncaster Rovers was agreed.
Again, the move away from Sheffield appeared beneficial. Doncaster were sufficiently impressed with his performances that they sought to make the deal permanent. An initial £1 million bid was rejected, but when the club returned with a slightly increased offer, the deal was sealed, and Sharp returned to the Keepmoat Stadium as an official Doncaster Rovers player.
Sharp’s improved form with the club would continue, returning 16 goals in 31 games across all competitions in the 2010-11 season, and bids from other clubs came in, offering Doncaster a healthy profit on their outlay. They declined to cash in, at least for the time being. The following term would see a personal tragedy as his young son died. A couple of days later, he would score against Middlesbrough and lifted his shirt to reveal a heartfelt personal message to his lost child. “THAT’S FOR YOU SON” it read.
Goals continued to flow, and more bids arrived for the club’s star asset. During the January window, a deal was agreed with Leicester city, but Sharp rejected the move. Encouraged, the club offered up a new contract, but to no avail. With the value of a proven goalscorer rising inexorably, a move to Southampton was agreed that same month, and Sharp’s nine goals in 15 games for the Saints, as the season rolled out, was sufficient to see the club promoted to the Premier League.
It seemed that the top division was not a happy hunting ground for Sharp though, and after struggling, he was back in the Championship on loan. First, with Nottingham Forest and then Reading, and a spell back with Doncaster followed across the next two terms. It was clear that St Mary’s was not going to offer Billy Sharp a long-term home, and in August 2014, he signed for Leeds United. He would stay at Elland Road for a single, fairly unproductive season that brought just five goals from 35 games across all competitions. Another move seemed inevitable. It would mean a third term back in Sheffield with the Blades, now in League One.
His first term there was steady enough. Twenty-one goals in 44 league appearances was more than useful, but the arrival of Chris Wilder as manager for the 2016-17 season saw the club, and Sharp’s career, take renewed flight. Another 30-goal season for the club propelled them to promotion, and after 13 goals in 34 league games back in the championship, the next term’s 23 strikes saw the Blades to the title.
It’s quite possible, of course, that having delivered the goods in both League One and the Championship, Sheffield United may deem that, at 33 years of age, the second chance of a bite at scoring goals in the top tier may have come too late for Billy Sharp. It would be a reasonable assumption. That said, however, perhaps this will be the chance for a player who has scored over a century of goals for the club to be given his swansong at the highest level. Who knows, if that happens, and it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in football, it may well be that it’s Billy Sharp’s goals that keep the club in the Premier League.