Years in the making, days of dreaming and a winning goal after 88 minutes in Leeds United colours. This was Billy Sharp’s calling and no mistake; made in Yorkshire and made for Leeds.
The shirt came off as the ball went in and the fat lad from Sheffield was up and running. Leeds United are up and running. Massimo Cellino once described the club as a jumbo jet he was trying to push but he and Leeds have momentum at last. In strangely apt fashion, the Italian greeted the end of Saturday’s win over Middlesbrough with a casual two-fingered salute.
Leeds United, so often, are all about him but it will never fall to Cellino to tuck the ball away from six yards or defend as Liam Cooper, another of his new signings, did against Boro. It dawned on Cellino last week that he was neglecting the football and falling short in the transfer market, something he promised never to do. Saturday was pay-back for time and money thrown at it.
By the time he joined Leeds on Wednesday, Sharp had become a gift-horse; a striker who scores goals, on offer to a club who without him might not. Cellino told him to hurry up and do so when they met for the first time and Sharp kept his side of the bargain with two minutes of Saturday’s game to play, sprinting in and sweeping up after goalkeeper Tomas Mejias fumbled Michael Tonge’s awkward shot.
For 10 minutes prior to that, Sharp had been beating himself up about a free header sent wide from six yards. In that moment, and the earliest seconds of the match when Mejias plucked a good chance off his toes, there were small signs of rust built up in a bit-part summer with Southampton but his goal was taken with a swagger. He took a yellow card too for a shirtless celebration but was unrepentant afterwards. “Obviously you’re not supposed to do that but I wanted to show how delighted I was,” he said.
Sharp is a nemesis of Boro’s with a remarkable record of scoring against them. He sensed early on that he had the beating of Mejias, a Spaniard whose handling failed him when it mattered.
“I don’t know what it is against Boro,” Sharp said. “For some reason I do seem to score against them. I did it for Southampton, Doncaster and now Leeds – but any goal’s a good goal.
“I just had a feeling that their keeper was going to drop one and I thought he was going to do it in the first half. As a striker you’ve got to gamble. I was beating myself up after my headed chance and I should have probably had a goal in the first half too but I’m chuffed to bits.”
Sharp talked on Thursday about his “soft spot” for Leeds and his perennial aim of playing for the club. In his poaching and his general play there was the confidence of a footballer who will cope with the environment and politics of Elland Road and play as if the Championship is what he knows best; the right sort of talent and the right sort of fibre to live and survive in the bubble.
Cooper’s shift in the centre of defence was admirable too. Signed in midweek, it is hard to know when the decision to start him was taken. Giuseppe Bellusci was primed for a debut after joining on loan from Catania but Leeds learned at midday on Friday that his international clearance would not arrive in time. “That’s why you have options,” said head coach David Hockaday. Finally, Leeds do.
Saturday’s win – United’s first of the Championship season from their first league game at home – changed Hockaday’s body language markedly. Post-match, he looked at ease in his chair and in complete control of the questions around him.
His team were not good enough for him to gloat and a disallowed effort from Albert Adomah midway through the first half was a controversy about which Boro were rightly aggrieved. There are issues still with United’s midfield and viewed in its entirety, the game explained why Leeds are trying to get their claws into Adryan, a young Brazilian midfielder who Cellino took to Cagliari from South America last season.
But there was wit in United’s attitude and a reactionary streak too. Outplayed for 25 minutes, they soon killed Lee Tomlin – Boro’s number 10 – and dragged Aitor Karanka’s team into the type of intense, snapping football that Karanka’s team evidently hate.
Boro’s coach raged about Adomah’s ‘goal’ but was fairly self-critical. “We didn’t keep the ball and we didn’t play in our style,” he said. It suggested a certain blueprint for destroying Boro’s tactics.
“In the first half we created a few problems for ourselves and to come away with a clean sheet was great,” Hockaday said. “Middlesbrough are a very good team and there were times when I was thinking ‘I’ll be happy going in at 0-0.’ But in the second half we upped it. We made it very difficult for Boro, the work ethic was super and to get the goal at the end from a new signing was great. I keep going on about it but we worked so hard and everyone in Leeds should be very proud of the players.”
Hockaday said he had no idea why Adomah’s overhead kick in the 25th minute was disallowed by referee Stuart Attwell. The winger produced an improvised finish after Jason Pearce misjudged the flight of a throw-in and the ball skidded off Cooper’s head but Attwell appeared to rule that Adomah’s raised foot inches from Stephen Warnock’s head was dangerous.
“It was an ugly goal and straight away I was thinking about how we should have defended that throw-in,” Hockaday said. “Fortunately it was cancelled out.”
Leeds did not ride their luck too often after that. The second half was almost chanceless but Sharp had the best of them in the 79th minute when he met Luke Murphy’s free-kick with a header which skipped past a post. Annoyed though he was, it offered some fine tuning for the mistake from Mejias and the tap-in that followed it. As Sharp showed his torso to the Kop, Millwall seven days earlier felt a long time ago. “It really helps to get off the mark,” Sharp said. That goes for him and his new club.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Pearce, Cooper, Warnock, Murphy, Bianchi, Austin (Cook 86), Ajose (Poleon 75), Sharp, Doukara (Tonge 53). Subs (not used): S Taylor, C Taylor, Wootton, Smith.
Middlesbrough: Mejias, Leadbitter, Omeruo, Tomlin (L Williams 85), Abella, Reach (Nsue 75), Ayala, Kike, Adomah, Friend, Whitehead (Clayton 60). Subs (not used): Konstantopoulos, Husband, Fewster, Woodgate.