Leeds United: My Whites playing days - Kevin Sharp INTERVIEW

Kevin Sharp (left) and Nigel Worthington in defensive pose.
Kevin Sharp (left) and Nigel Worthington in defensive pose.
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Former Leeds United full-back Kevin Sharp signed for the Whites in a joint-transfer with Jamie Forrester. But he tells Leon Wobschall, the move never really worked out as he hoped.

KEVIN SHARP was entitled to feel the world was at his footballing feet back in 1993 – a truly golden year for the talented teenager.

Having helped Leeds United to a comprehensive FA Youth Cup final success over Manchester United’s Fergie Fledglings line-up that was their most hyped since the days of the Busby Babes and England to success in the UEFA U18 European Championships, life could hardly have got any better for the blond bomber, who also fitted in his first-team debut for the Whites for good measure.

After being fast-tracked to stardom via the FA National School of Excellence at Lilleshall, which preceded a spell at an acclaimed footballing finishing school at Auxerre, silverware success as a youth on both the domestic and international stage was simply the next stage in his career graph and the precursor to greater glories and prizes.

Or so most people thought.

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But for Sharp, now 37, those heady days proved a peak, with the champagne highs unfortunately not on tap.

A regular starting role at one of the top clubs in the land in United – reigning top-flight champions when they beat off fierce competition to bring him to Elland Road, along with Jamie Forrester, in September 1992 – never materialised with the full-back’s footballing journey destined for the provincial waters of Wigan Athletic, Wrexham, Huddersfield Town, Scunthorpe United, Shrewsbury Town and Hamilton Academical before winding down his playing days at Northwich Victoria and Harrogate Town, where he spent a short spell as assistant-boss.

To most observers, that would represent some comedown, with salt rubbed into the wounds by the sight of Sharp’s fellow international ‘Class of 93’ colleagues going onto read like a Who’s of Who of Premiership greats – with the likes of Paul Scholes, Robbie Fowler, Sol Campbell, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt reaching the game’s pinnacle.

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Sharp wouldn’t be human if he didn’t admit to possessing some ‘if only’ regrets over not truly making the first-team grade and staying in the big time at United. But he insists that’s due partly to his own actions along with those of the man who actually brought him to the club, Howard Wilkinson.

Yet time has moved on and the last thing that the full-back, who left to join Wigan in December 1995, feels is bitterness.

And Sharp is the first to acknowledge that he sampled footballing highs in his playing days that most average professionals would give their right arm for.

Sharp, born in Canada, but raised in Blackpool after returning to England at the age of 18, said: “I played all over Europe with some unbelievable players, Robbie Fowler, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Nevilles. World class players and not many can say they have played with them and been on a level with them during their career.

“That early period of my career was fantastic. I couldn’t have asked for any more.

“The Youth Cup final was fantastic and the crowd is what I remember more than anything. We played at their place in the first leg and got a good result and I remember both games being sell-outs because of the fierce rivalry.

“After the youth cup games, the Leeds players got untold interest. But once you get that full debut, as I did, you want more and get past yourself a little bit. I thought I should have been ahead of (Tony) Dorigo and stuff like that; the best left-back in England at the time.

“A few times, I played left-wing and the side did well. But I kept being put in and taken out and I got more frustrated.

“Things didn’t work out; the bottom line was (youth coach) Paul Hart got us in the first team. But Howard Wilkinson didn’t really believe in the youngsters and seemed more bothered about experience.

“Basically, it was the trust situation. If he (Wilkinson) had it his way, he probably wouldn’t have put us in. At that period, we’d been successful in England and Europe, with the youth team and he went out and bought – who are good friends of mine – Nigel Worthington, Paul Beesley, John Pemberton and Carlton Palmer. This when we’d a crop of youth lads who’d just beaten Manchester United’s best.

“At the time, no-one could understand it and we’d get more frustrated and it didn’t make sense. Alex Ferguson did the opposite. He had experience in his team such as Paul Ince and Darren Ferguson, but eventually let them go and brought the young players through in the right way.

“You need that push and guidance and I felt the club was quite divided between Paul Hart and Howard Wilkinson in that respect.

“I ended up going to Wigan and was the first piece in the jigsaw of a 10-year plan to get into the Premiership and it actually happened. Dave Whelan (Wigan chairman) got in that top flight in the tenth year!

“But in hindsight, I should have stayed patient (at Leeds). The best advice in football is to stay as high as you can, as long as you can. Maybe it was a bit of naivety and stupidity, but you get on with it and I don’t really regret it as we had some good and successful teams at Wigan.”

That said, it’s fair to say that plying his trade at Wigan wasn’t was seemingly mapped out in the brochure when Sharp was plotting his path as a teenager, with English football having high hopes for him and Lilleshall colleague Forrester when they made the bold decision to join Auxerre and learn their craft under legendary coach Guy Roux.

The duo ultimately became homesick in France and headed back home, to United, but from a purely footballing perspective, Sharp for one, doesn’t rue heading across the Channel, with his football experiences unquantifyable.

Sharp, who currently works for a Leeds-based sports management company called First Eleven, liaising with players, managers, coaches and chief scouts, said: “I remember at Lilleshall that most of the lads were signed with clubs as we were pretty much the cream of the crop and there was only me and Jamie who weren’t signed up.

“Some made good careers such as Sol Campbell, Nicky Barmby, Darren Caskey, Andy Myers and Andy Turner, while others made a steady living at League One and Two level.

“I remember scouts were watching Jamie and I from all over the country and then Auxerre asked us to go over for a trial and we ended up going there.

“It was just a massive step back then. It was probably the main reason why I actually left France in the end. I’d left home at 14, far too early, to Lilleshall and then straight from there to France.

“I didn’t know the lingo and was thrown into the deep end. I just got sucked into how good the facilities were there and what the club was like. They had brought so many big names through and when we were there, in the reserves, there was (Bernard) Diomede, a left winger who went onto Liverpool. Also Alain Goma, who joined Newcastle. In the first team. There were six full French internationals who were home-grown, which was phenomenal. Then there was Enzo Scifo, who is one of the best players I’ve ever set eyes on....

“I knew it would enhance my career and technically, I came on ten-fold – I could tell when I came back to play with the England lads and it was good for my development in that respect.

“I remember Liverpool delegates coming over to France and they modelled their academy on Auxerre and every club in England went from there.

“But away from football, I was still growing up and it was a tough time. Homesickness was a massive key for me and Jamie.

“When I decided to come here, I remember at the time that Everton, Leeds and Arsenal wanted me. I did well at Everton (on trial), but Howard Kendall was umming and arring about the fee. I said: ‘With all respect in the world, I’ve got to go to Leeds tomorrow.’

“I went to Leeds, loved it and played well and they quickly did the deal with Paul Hart, as Howard Wilkinson didn’t really have an input.

“It’s a shame I didn’t really make it at Leeds. After breaking into the first team, I injured my groin/hip and I had to take painkillers from 19 and it got worse and that didn’t help. But I still have some great memories and I always look out for Leeds’ results as I live in the area.

“I’m just glad to still be involved in football. Playing is the best, coaching is second-best and what I do now is the next best thing. I’ve got my B license and am working towards my A, but it’s just waiting for that opportunity and trying to grab it.”