A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting to Sheffield United legend Billy Sharp for a couple of hours. We talked all things Sheffield United; past, present and future. We also talk about his dream strike partner, toughest defenders, fantasy football, personal life and life after football.
Billy, now 33 years of age, has turned out for a number of clubs over the course of his prolific career scoring goals wherever he’s played - plying his trade predominantly in the EFL alongside a spell in the Premier League with Southampton and now of course back there with the Blades.
On New Year’s Day 2019 Billy surpassed former team-mate Rickie Lambert's record to become English football’s highest goal scorer of the century netting his 220th goal against Wigan in a 3-0 home win to break the record.
Billy has played for United on three separate occasions having broken through the academy into the first team as a teenager. Now captain of his boyhood club, he is enjoying the most prolific form of his career.
Billy has amassed over 100 goals for United and counting and has achieved legend status along the way - captaining the Blades to the League One title, promotion from the Championship to the Premier League and most recently netting United's first goal back in the Premier League with an injury time equaliser away at Bournemouth on the opening day.
I’d like to thank Billy for giving up his time to meet me for a couple of hours and for giving such a great insight into his career and the goings on at Bramall Lane.
What is your first ever memory of Sheffield United?
My first kit was when I was around 5 years old, it was the red and white thin stripes with the black pin stripe! Everything was Brian Deane for me growing up. One of my earliest memories was Deano nut-megging Chris Woods in the Sheffield Derby. Another memory would be Simon Tracey doing his jaw against Liverpool and then Brian Deane’s header to score the first goal in the Premier League.
Was Brian Deane always on the back of your shirt?
Yeah he was, he was always my Sheff Utd hero from an early age. Some other strikers that I really liked were Jan Arge Fjortoft, I used to love his celebration along with Marcelo who was always a fans favorite. Growing up at that time I just dreamt of playing for Sheff Utd. Then I broke into the Blades academy and the likes of Jags, Monty and Tongey were all in there and those lads were the ones I aspired to be like.
Were those lads all there when you started out?
Yeah, they were great role models for me and they really helped motivate me to keep pushing towards my dream.
Were there any lads in the academy you played with who you thought would go far in the game that it didn’t really work out for?
Yeah, Jonathan Forte who played for United a few times. He was always the one that stood out. He had blistering pace, power – he knew his strengths and his athleticism got him a long way. He’s had a good career from football but I always thought he’d maintain a career at the top level. The likes of Ian Ross, James Ashmore to name a couple more that didn’t quite make it for whatever reason.
If it wasn’t football, what was the backup?
No, there really wasn’t. At school and growing up it was my dream and I was always told to dream big and that’s what I did. My main priority was always to be a professional footballer, if it didn’t work out for me – I don’t know what would’ve happened. In work experience I tried my hand at plumbing very briefly but that really wasn’t me. I just worked really hard knowing I could achieve my dream and dedicated my life to being a footballer.
How intense was the academy process?
It was intense, but it’s so much more intense now though. Kids at 5, 6 years old are getting called up by academies – which could almost spoil things for some kids, by the times they’re in their early teens quite a few of them are done with the game and have stopped enjoying it. I just played Sunday football until I was around 11, 12 years old. I then started to do pretty well and some clubs came sniffing. There was Liverpool, Sheffield United and Rotherham.
Was it always Sheffield United?
Rotherham were in the Championship (Division One) at the time, and they gave both me and my Dad a really good feeling about the place. They were a school of excellence at the time and really highly regarded. My Dad had a better feeling in his stomach about Rotherham as a place to start my career so that’s where I went. Things didn’t really work out for me there though and I soon found my way back to Sheffield United which just felt right when I ended up signing after it had gone to a tribunal as I was only 14 at the time.
Were you always a striker growing up or did you try any other positions?
I was only small as a kid, actually I’m only small now… for school I played in midfield which I didn’t really enjoy but they saw I had the ability and wanted me in the middle of the pitch to try and help out. For me football has always been about scoring goals. I just loved getting on the end of crosses and seeing the ball hit the back of the net.
You played for Southampton in the Premier League – how has it changed from then to now and how does it fair to playing in the Championship and League One?
I don’t really have any regrets in football but I feel like I was quite hard done to at Southampton. I didn’t really get the opportunity there to show what I can do. Then when I dropped down to Leeds and then to Sheffield United in League One it was never a problem for me as the most important thing for me was to play football and I got that here and now had some incredible years with United and now we’re back in the Premier League which is obviously great for both the club and the city.
How do you rate the standard in the Premier League this season?
I think there are 3 or 4 teams that are above everyone else, but we’ve played against some of those teams already this season and done really well. Football is about belief and if you have belief you can do really well in football. It’s about believing in yourself and believing and trusting in your team mates like we do and with that we are surprising people, progressing and getting stronger as a group.
How is it now being on Match of the Day every week?
Well the first Match of the Day of the season was bizarre, my eldest kid stayed up to watch it. When we got promoted we were messing around in the ground singing the theme tune and now the lads are on it week in week out.
How does Chris Wilder instill the togetherness across the squad and how have you supported that as captain over the last 3 seasons?
It was such a great honour when I was given the armband and was asked to become Sheff Utd captain. It was something I’ve never done before so I’ve had to learn a lot and I’m still learning now. Chris just told me to make sure the changing room was right and that I had an important role to play in terms of managing the dressing room and off the field elements as well, it’s fantastic to have that responsibility.
Prior the Chris Wilder taking the reins, is that the element that was always missing at the club whilst in League One?
Yeah, if you look at it now, the connection both me and the gaffer have with both the club and the fans is fantastic as we’re both fans ourselves. That’s one thing that Adkins didn’t quite get right. He (Adkins) is a good manager, someone very different to the gaffer (Wilder) but not really a motivator and that’s potentially where it went wrong for him. All United fans want is for the lads to go out there and have a proper go, all the blame goes from the stands goes to Nigel Adkins for those times but it has to go to the team at the end of the day.
He doesn’t kick a ball; he just puts you out there. Regardless of the team selection, formations and anything else we just didn’t do well enough for him as players. It was disappointing to see how things ended for him personally as I’ve always had a great relationship with him, but clearly it was the right decision and since the gaffer has been here the club as just transformed.
At the end of that season under Nigel Adkins, could you ever have imagined being a Premier League player again?
I never had a problem dropping to League One in the first place because it was Sheffield United, if it had been any other club I wouldn’t have entertained the idea. But I knew I always wanted to get back to the Premier League one day, after the opening game of the season when we got beat away at Gillingham 4-0 I did have that voice in the back of my head thinking, ‘oh no, what have I done here’ but then things got a little better that season but ultimately never panned out the way we all wanted.
I scored quite a few goals personally but I was just gutted. At the presentation evening at the end of that season, I took home a couple of awards but I was really hurting and I knew the fans were as well. It has obviously panned out well for us now though, we had such a tough time of it in League One but the fans would take that for what we have now.
Did you think it was going to go the same way after the first 4 games under Chris?
It was a really tough start as we all know but it was never just going to click straight away. A lot of new players were in the building and the gaffer was working hard away from the pitch to get things right as well. That relationship with the fans is something that’s always been there from day one – even when we didn’t start that well you could tell all the fans and players alike were behind the gaffer.
It just took that one result to kick start us and we never looked back. We gained momentum that season and have kept building that with each season, as a club now we’re in fantastic shape and we’ve found ourselves in the Premier League once more, we now just need to ensure we stay there.
The first 4 games of the 2016/17 we never played the 5-3-2 formation that we’ve used ever since, was that something that was worked on or was it just another roll of the dice?
The gaffer had played 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 at his previous clubs, and I think that’s what he initially wanted to do here, but we didn’t start great and had a few injuries and instead of playing people out of position we used the lads we had which developed the formation we now play. We had a go in training, it really suited and worked for everyone and we’ve stuck with it. It’s now been something the staff work on and think about every day and that’s almost our identity as a club now.
We’ve naturally had to tweak this year from the number 10 role to someone sitting a little deeper to sure things up, but we still create loads of chances and still get down the sides.
Has the formation affected your game at all playing 5 at the back and with that many of the lads getting forward, are you having to find new pockets to find space in?
I’ve changed my game slightly in order to get better personally, but it’s a formation I love because crosses are always flying in from all sorts of angles and that’s what you want as a striker. It’s something that’s seemed to suit everyone and new lads need to adapt to when joining the club.
If you could pick one strike partner to play with for a full season who’s still playing today, who would it be?
It would have to be Sergio Aguero, if Alan Shearer was still playing it would definitely be him. But Aguero is unbelievable, for his size and stature he’s so strong, sharp and he just seems to always score and create for other players as well.
The toughest defender you’ve ever played against?
That’s a tough one! I’ve played against van Dijk and Vincent Kompany but let me tell you Jack O’Connell is so so tough to play against in training. He’s a proper defender and very similar to Morgs, likes to kick you to make sure you know he’s there! Jack trains as a he plays he has to be up there with one of the best trainers at the club and he’s so tough to play against so it would have to be him.
Who would you pick as an attacking midfielder to play behind you and serve balls up on a plate for you?
Another very tough question, I’ve been lucky enough to play with some great players such as Adam Lallana, James Coppinger and John Oster at Doncaster and of course Duffy and Didzy! I’ve played with a lot of good players so could never pick one out.
Are you looking to end your career here at Sheffield United?
Yeah, I’ve been away from this club a couple of times and now I’m back I don’t want to go anywhere so I’ll be staying put. I can see myself playing here for many more years to come.
You’re someone who loves milestones and targets and have hit so many of them, what’s next on the list to tick off?
To be honest with you, I need to get myself in the team first before I start thinking about anything like that. I just need to help the team out in any way possible to score goals and for the club to win games of football is the priority. If I’m not playing I need to be helping others who are playing, that’s something I’ve really had to grow into. It is frustrating but as a captain that needs to be part of my game. I just keep myself fit and strong to know I’m ready when the chance comes.
What are you looking to do following football? Punditry, management?
I’m just going to keep my options open but my main priority is 3 or 4 more years playing football for Sheffield United. The gaffer said to me when he got here that he sees me at the club long term even following my playing career. I’m doing my badges currently and that’s something that I want the option to progress.
I also have my soccer camps with the kids which is something I love and enjoy giving something back to the community which is important to me. The punditry is something I was asked to do recently on BT Sport (vs. Liverpool) which is something I really enjoyed, it was a different way of watching the game and seeing us play. I wanted to be out there playing but it was the next best thing, watching the game and giving my opinion as a fan.
What’s the best atmosphere you’ve ever played in?
St. James Park was fantastic, a proper traditional stadium – not like the West Ham stadium the other day!
Which has been the best Sheffield United game you’ve watched as a fan and not been a part of?
Certainly none of the play off games! The year we got to the semi-finals with Jags scoring against Leeds and Tongey scoring a couple against Liverpool were both special nights I would’ve loved to be a part of. And then the game against Wednesday when Michael Brown scored that screamer!
Which has been the best game you’ve been involved in for the Blades?
Playing for the club though, there have been countless over the last few years. Leeds away, West Brom away and then Northampton away was so surreal, just pure relief. One of the best days ever coming back on the bus. To work so hard that year and to see the fans reaction was all I’ve ever wanted and dreamt of – to do that as a captain was just incredible. The Ipswich game was fantastic also, to know we were just one win away from the Premier League again was very surreal.
If you could only re-live one of those days, Northampton away or Ipswich at home which would it be?
I think it would have to be Northampton. Because that was the hardest one, getting out of League One and I really don’t think many people expected us to, certainly not in the manner that we did. It was just that sense of relief and accomplishment!
What were your thoughts following Villa away last season?
We watched the game back as a group, but none of my goals – just theirs, all 3 of them. To be honest it was so hard to watch, there were a few arguments and a few people digging each other out but it needed to be done.
That game was a turning point for us, it felt like a defeat. We’d have taken the point before the game but the manner it happened wasn’t good. We then went on to get 7 clean sheets on the spin. That really was the do or die game in my opinion, we could’ve fallen away, but we didn’t.
How is training under Wilder? What is the routine?
The toughest I’ve ever been a part of, but something I’ve got used to now. All the lads who have been here from day one with the gaffer are as well. You’ve heard the gaffer in the press, it’s all about winning tackles, headers and races. Then if you can add both quality and end product then you’re not far off.
Every player that’s come into the club has always said how hard the training is. It’s even cranked up this year in the Premier League – if you’re not playing you need to work as hard if not harder than the lads in the starting eleven.
In terms of incoming transfers into the club, how are they judged by the rest of the squad in training?
First impressions are huge, as in any walk of life. It’s always attitude first and then talent next but you have to do it on the training pitch to show you’ve got what it takes and to give the rest of the lad’s belief in you.
Is there a strict diet in place for the squad?
Yeah there really is, that’s the side the fans don’t see. There is a strict diet we have to stick to, especially the higher up the leagues you get. The athleticism in the Premier League is huge, and being fit and healthy is key. It also helps against injuries, if you’re not eating well and looking after yourself that how you can get injured. The demands of the Premier League are so high so you need to be on it with your diet every week.
Who within the current squad would you say is the most naturally talented?
Talent is all different things; pace, power, skill. But Flecky has really improved this year and is so talented. Every day he’s a 8/9 out of 10 and usually if he’s in your 5-a-side team you’re gonna win.
John Lundstram has been here for a few years, was he always a player who you thought would get his chance?
The only reason he didn’t get as many minutes last season is because we didn’t play 3 in the middle we played a 2 with Duffs in behind. Norwood and Flecky had great seasons which made it difficult for John to get his chance. Lunny sits next to me in the changing room and he was getting frustrated but I always said to him, bide your time and be a part of the journey.
I always knew he’d play more in the Premier League just by the way we would need to set up. He’s so fit, runs 14km a game and is so powerful and athletic, can play with both feet. His games now gone to another level and he’s obviously not missed a game this season.
Was there anything you bought yourself when you first realised you’d made it as a pro?
Nah, I’ve never really been like that at all – I’m an old school footballer, but I’ve tried to move on with the times as well. There’s what some people call an Instagram footballer these days but it’s not for me to be honest but as long as lads are doing it on the pitch it doesn’t really matter as long as the performances are there. Social media is a part of life and football these days, it never used to be there so no one used it and now it’s very prominent.
There are so many perks of being a footballer, yes its good money but I personally do it for the success and it still is a dream come true for me to play football let alone for the club I love and support.
Do your kids have a dream to be footballers one day?
Yeah my oldest is getting more into it and my youngest at 3 is absolutely crazy about football. I will naturally encourage them and push them along the way but if it’s not for them then as long as they’re healthy and happy – I’m happy.
Do your kids know quite how good you’ve been through your career?
My eldest gets a bit embarrassed at school when I’m doing the school run and stuff. But my youngest isn’t shy one bit and he thinks he’s me. He runs around saying “I’m Billy Sharp!”. It’s been so amazing having my kids come to watch me play and sharing all the special times we’ve had over the last few seasons with them.
And finally, do you play Fantasy Football?
Yeah we do, I’ve played it for some time now. We’ve got about 10 of us in the league this year. I picked myself at the start of the season and when I knew I wasn’t starting I put myself straight on the bench which was probably a mistake in the end. I’ve taken myself out of the team now! I’ve only got Jack (O’Connell) in my team, he’s still pretty cheap and plays every game and got me a nice assist the other day.
Thanks once again to BIlly for his time answering my questions, hope everyone has enjoyed reading - please share and follow @SUFC_memories across any social platform.