In his autobiography, My Idea of Fun, Lee Sharpe picked out his transfer to Bradford City as “the worst decision of my career.” But the biggest bill from that transaction was picked up by the club who sold him.
Sharpe’s relationship with Leeds United can be painted in simple numbers: bought for £4.5m in 1996 and flogged to Bradford three years later for £200,000, with fewer than 40 appearances to show for the money. Sharpe’s regret in 1999 was choosing Bradford over Manchester City, in spite of his better judgement. Leeds regretted signing him at all.
He was not, when the move to Elland Road materialised, a rash or particularly risky buy. At Manchester United, the club where Sharpe came to prominence as a direct and destructive winger, his reputation was solid enough. He was “strength and pace”, as Gordon Strachan put it, but some at Old Trafford believed Sharpe had fallen short of his potential. Injuries, discipline and competition in a strong squad made him surplus in the summer of 1996.
Howard Wilkinson was so taken with the 25-year-old that he broke United’s transfer record to bring Sharpe to Leeds. But Wilkinson failed to see out the first two months of the season that followed and Sharpe’s problems began there.
His memoirs made no effort to disguise his opinion of Wilkinson’s successor, George Graham. “When the call finally came for George Graham to take his true place back at the centre of British life and he left Leeds United for Tottenham, nobody cried,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe’s relationship with David O’Leary was no better. By the time he and O’Leary began working together as player and manager, Sharpe had missed an entire year with a knee ligament injury and O’Leary was openly questioning his physique and his influence on the dressing room.
His contribution at Elland Road was effectively compacted into one season, the 1996-97 Premier League term. He played 30 times and scored all of the six goals he would score for Leeds. There were occasional bright moments – a second-half winner at home to Wimbledon two weeks into the season and three in a month before Christmas – but Graham’s idea of effective football did not indulge out-and-out wingers.
“When I moved to Leeds I was signed by Howard Wilkinson and he told me to play on the left, take people on, score a few goals and enjoy myself,” Sharpe said. “But then George Graham came in with a whole new philosophy on the game. He was really defensive and dour and it was not the ideal style of football for me to play as an attacking midfielder.”
Sharpe claimed his lack of communication with Graham gave him no idea about whether the Scot liked him or rated him. O’Leary, who replaced Graham after serving as his assistant at Leeds, was honest enough to make it clear that Sharpe’s face didn’t fit.
The winger’s last appearance for Leeds was unexpected, a rare start in a UEFA Cup tie at home to Roma in November 1998. He lasted for an hour and within weeks he was gone, loaned to Sampdoria.
“Our fans started giving me stick: ‘You’re s**t! Rubbish!’” Sharpe said. “O’Leary brought me off before the end and I felt like crawling away into a dark room and never coming out.
“That was the last time I played for Leeds United so perhaps when the fans think I lost it there, they’re remembering that one game – when I had no chance.”
Bradford took a chance on him but Sharpe’s career had gone over the hill. He drifted on to Portsmouth and Exeter City and retired after an obscure spell in Iceland. He would later say that moving to Yorkshire ‘killed me’. Leeds would happily turn the clock back too.