The striker says he turned down a move to tonight’s opponents Ipswich Town because he wanted to make an impression with United. After scoring against Watford he is hoping to start tonight. Phil Hay reports.
If honesty is the best policy then Billy Sharp is following it to the letter. He knows a demoralised look has been painted on his face for weeks but in the circumstances he can’t bring himself to raise a disingenuous smile.
At Thorp Arch yesterday, he was speaking about “getting match-fit” and “getting sharp” when the reality of it all dawned.
“That sounds daft,” he admitted. Telling might be a better word.
It’s March 4 and Leeds United’s season finishes in 12 games’ time. Sharp has felt it passing him by.
That feeling is manifesting itself in displays of dissent. On Boxing Day the striker reacted to his substitution in a 2-0 defeat by Wigan Athletic by hacking a water bottle towards United’s dug-out.
Last week he favourited a number of posts on Twitter, all of them questioning Neil Redfearn’s decision to leave him on the bench while Leeds were losing 2-0 to Brighton.
As Sharp conceded, there have been fillips too: the finish on his debut against Middlesbrough, the 90th-minute winner at Huddersfield Town and the tap-in in Saturday’s loss to Watford which brought up the 150th goal of his career.
Sharp has, statistically, the most prolific strike-rate at Leeds in terms of minutes on the pitch but he does not try to dress the figures up: 10 starts, four goals. Not enough on either front.
“I set myself targets and targets for goals but I’ve started 10 games,” he said. “Four in 10 isn’t too bad but I’ll be disappointed if I only start 10 games this season. It would be the same as being injured in my head.
“I think people know how I’ve been. I’m frustrated and I can’t hide that.
“But kicking a bottle when I come off doesn’t mean I’m a bad team-mate.
“It’s not me saying I should be on the pitch. I’m just frustrated that I’m not on the pitch.
“Not having a smile on my face when I’m not playing is another problem but if I had a smile on my face then I probably wouldn’t get picked at all.
“I’m at an age where I want to be playing for a Championship team so I’ll be disappointed when I’m not.
“That’s goes for any professional.
“If Sam Byram wasn’t playing he wouldn’t be happy.”
Redfearn shares that view. United’s head coach has defended Sharp’s attitude and defended it on the basis that he himself was impatient as a player.
“I’ve heard stories that he was quite mardy,” Sharp jokes.
That’s not to say that Redfearn is apologetic for Sharp’s limited appearances.
He realises that if Sharp had no cause to complain, someone else would.
And for several weeks after Christmas, Leeds’ formation and results left no room for the 29-year-old.
Sharp’s argument is that his natural instinct as a striker diminishes when the best he can hope for is the odd outing here and there.
He scored the opening goal in Leeds’ 3-2 defeat to Watford but missed another glaring chance early in the second half, failing to connect with the ball.
“I am fit, don’t get me wrong,” Sharp said. “I can get through 90 minutes week in, week out but there’s a difference between that and spinning in the box first time and and smashing the ball into the bottom corner. The difference is that is comes naturally.
“On Saturday I should have connected with my shot in the second half.
“It was right in front of goal and there for the taking. In different times that would come naturally and I’d have swept it away.
“That says it all. When I’m in form, that sort of finish comes instantly.”
More than that, Sharp said that a striker in form finds it “harder not to score than to score” but he was still in the perfect position to poach his goal on Saturday and he should start against Ipswich Town this evening.
By any estimation, not least Redfearn’s, he did well as a lone striker at the weekend, in the absence of the injured Steve Morison.
Leeds as a team did well for 39 minutes, rattling Watford into an early mistake and driven into a 2-0 lead by a vicious shot from Rudy Austin, a strike which Redfearn described as “goal of the season.” What followed, however, was a concerted fightback in which Watford’s front three of Troy Deeney, Matej Vydra and Almen Abdi sliced United’s defence to pieces.
“I was happy with the first half, personally and we were happy as a team,” Sharp said.
“We pressed Watford very high and played at a tempo.
“We got balls in behind to stretch them and when we got into their half we passed it like we can.
“In the second half I still can’t get my head around what they did to us.
“As a team they moved the ball around and passed it like nobody else this season. We just couldn’t handle them.”
Tonight’s opponents have a different style; more direct and abrasive and minus the pace that Watford brought to Elland Road in spades.
Ipswich’s formula has been equally successful in its own fashion and they tried very recently to add Sharp to it.
Mick McCarthy, the Ipswich manager, attempted to exploit the forward’s situation in Leeds by bidding to sign him on loan in January.
Sharp said it came down to a simple “yes or no” decision for him, though the clubs were at odds over financial aspects of the proposed transfer.
United, for their part, were ready to lose him at the right price. Sharp joined Leeds from Southampton on a two-year contract last summer – a deal which cost United around £600,000 – and Ipswich wanted to take him for the rest of this season with a view to a permanent move.
Sharp was tempted but ultimately dissuaded by the thought of how often he would play with Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick lodged in Ipswich’s line-up.
“It was a matter of me saying yes or no,” Sharp said.
“It could easily have happened and it would have been a good move.
“But I said no because I felt that Ipswich had two strikers bang in form.
“There was no guarantee of playing.
“If a team had said ‘look, you’re going to play 10 games on the spin for us’ then I’d probably have gone because I enjoy playing football.
“It’s that simple. Instead I thought I could stay here, bite my tongue and fight to get in the team.
“I’m 29 now and I want to play week in, week out.
“I don’t want to be running with our fitness coach after games every week.
“This is the thing – I’m happy at Leeds United, really happy to be at this club.
“I always wanted to play for this club.
“I’m just not happy with how much I’m playing. That’s the puzzle for me.”
“It’s a puzzle he is yet to properly solve.