Meant to be? Billy Sharp thinks so. His allegiance as a supporter is to Sheffield United but part of him always fancied Leeds. And Leeds United have long fancied him.
His transfer to Elland Road on Wednesday was set up and completed in a couple of days but the courtship between Sharp and Leeds ran for many years. Each transfer window brought talk of a move, going back to 2009. This week, however, was the first time he got close enough to sign his name.
“There’s been speculation about Leeds before and I’ve been excited about it a few times,” he said. “But it never really happened. It never got to the stage where I had the chance to decide.
“Everyone knows I’m a Sheffield United fan and Sheffield United are supposed to hate Leeds United, but for some reason there’s been a soft spot in my heart for Leeds. I always wanted to play for the club – and I’m not just saying that because I’m sat here now.”
Signed from Southampton, Sharp is United’s poacher and goalscorer; he is to Leeds what he has been to many clubs in his career – Scunthorpe, Doncaster Rovers, Nottingham Forest and others. When he met the Leeds’ owner, Massimo Cellino, this week, Sharp was told to “hurry up and score goals.” There has been urgency in Cellino’s behaviour ever since a defeat at Millwall last Saturday asked uncomfortable questions of the squad at Elland Road.
Sharp felt “overwhelmed” by the positivity surrounding his move from St Mary’s. It must be nice to feel wanted after two seasons in which Southampton sent him out on loan repeatedly and gave him no real chance. Promotion to the Premier League in 2012 was a satisfying moment for the 28-year-old but neither Mauricio Pochettino nor Ronald Koeman, Southampton’s new manager, made him feel welcome or at home. This is a clean and necessary break.
“I got promoted at Southampton, which was a dream, but it faded away after that,” Sharp said. “I never got a chance. If I’d got a chance and not done it then I’d have held my hands up but there’s still part of me that thinks I can do it at that level.
“The last two years haven’t been unhappy as such because I’ve been at Reading, at Forest and I’ve been back to Doncaster so I have been playing football. It’s just been frustrating to go from one club to another and then another. I’ve signed here for two years now so I know where I’m going to be. I’ll not have my missus on my back saying ‘where are we going to be next week?’
“But seriously, it means I can get my head down. I’m going to have spells when I’m not scoring goals but I’ll still know where I am and through the good and the bad I can concentrate on my football and concentrate on Leeds United.
“This (28) is an age where you’re supposed to be in your prime but the last two years have been frustrating. I have played football – just not as much as I would have liked.”
Sharp is the self-style ‘fat lad from Sheffield’ – the moniker his uses on his Twitter account. “My dad said I killed myself by putting that,” he joked. “I’ll need to take my shirt off to show it’s not true.” But all kidding aside, his reputation is sound. Sharp was deadly at Scunthorpe – form which, no doubt, persuaded Nigel Adkins to take him to Southampton several years later – and has never drawn a blank at any of the clubs he has played for.
Doncaster paid £1.1m to sign him in 2010 and Southampton put up £1.8m two years later. Leeds did not stump up a traditional fee for Sharp but they agreed to compensate the final year of his contract at St Mary’s, equating to an up-front cost of more than £500,000.
When Sharp accepted a two-year deal on Wednesday, he did so while another new recruit – defender Liam Cooper – was finalising his own move from Chesterfield. It gave the striker the chance to get to know a new team-mate before he’d even signed his contract. “It’s nice to sign on with someone else,” Sharp said. “It meant there was at least one familiar face here. But I know Paddy (Kenny) and Michael Tonge and at the last few clubs I went to I honestly didn’t know anybody. So it’s fine. The first day is over and that’s always the hardest one.”
Next up after his first training session yesterday is a debut at home to Middlesbrough tomorrow, United’s first home game of the Championship season. Sharp has joined a club who, as yet, are not quite sure where they stand: under new ownership, adapting to Cellino’s eccentricity, beaten badly by Millwall on the first day of the season and awash with new players. Sharp was signing number nine, and Cooper number 10.
Head coach David Hockaday quizzed him about his fitness yesterday and was assured by Sharp that he was in shape and ready to play. “I told the gaffer I’ve been training and playing through the summer and I’ve not missed a session,” Sharp said. “I’ve had a bit of game time (in pre-season) and that’s obviously not as competitive as tomorrow but I’m ready.” You feel like he’s been waiting for this, and for longer than anyone knows.