Leeds United 1 Middlesbrough 0: Sharp is back as he pounces to banish ‘fat lad’ tag

Billy Sharp scores Leeds United's late winner on his debut against Middlesbrough (Picture: Andrew Varley).
Billy Sharp scores Leeds United's late winner on his debut against Middlesbrough (Picture: Andrew Varley).
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Billy Sharp has been scoring goals at Championship level since long before Leeds United had become the apple of Massimo Cellino’s eye.

The diminutive striker first started tormenting second-tier defences when playing for unfancied Scunthorpe in the 2006-07 season, round about the same time that Mr Cellino was on his 23rd manager at Cagliari.

Sharp’s latest goal – some 100-plus strikes later – is one that gives the next man in Cellino’s firing line a precious bit of breathing space.

Dave Hockaday had started his tenure in the Leeds dugout in circumstances befitting the most inauspicious of head coaching appointments, but the healing power of a single goal – Sharp’s 87th-minute close-range pounce – can not be under-estimated.

It gave validation to Hockaday’s reign, reassurance to the striker that he can still contribute at this level after a couple of nomadic years, and the Elland Road faithful something to smile about at long last after a summer in which there have been precious few positives.

It also vindicated the owner’s decision to act swiftly in the wake of the listless season-opening defeat at Millwall by strengthening the squad available to Hockaday with the signing of not only Sharp, but also Liam Cooper from Chesterfield.

Former Hull City defender Cooper looked confident in the heart of Leeds’s defence, bringing the ball out from the back to great effect and helping central partner Jason Pearce to limit Kike – Middlesbrough’s big summer signing – to nothing more than scraps.

But it was Sharp who stole the headlines, as he has done on so many occasions down the years, whether it be for Scunthorpe, Sheffield United, Doncaster Rovers or even Southampton, a Premier League club where his face never really seemed to fit.

“I just had a feeling the ‘keeper was going to drop one. I thought he was going to in the first half but I managed to get onto this one and tap it in from two yards, which I like to do,” said Sharp, who pounced when Tomas Mejias spilled Michael Tonge’s 87th- minute shot.

“I’d been beating myself up for five minutes after missing a header that I should have scored, but I thank the lads for grinding it out and Tongey for having a good shot.

“He (Mejias) is not usually in the net for Middlesbrough so I wanted the lads to have more shots. I should have probably had one in the first half, but as a striker you’ve just got to keep gambling, especially after missing one a little earlier.

“Luckily for me, I got the chance.”

Coincidentally, Sharp’s previous goal had been scored in front of the Revie End, for Doncaster Rovers in March – a fact his father reminded him of upon his signing for Leeds on Wednesday.

“It’s nice to get another one there and, hopefully, I can get many more,” added Sharp, whose goal was greeted with an enormous outpouring of relief by the Elland Road faithful and resulted in the striker ripping off his shirt in celebration.

“It’s a superb club, the fans are amazing and I just wanted to show how delighted I was when I scored and try and get rid of the ‘fat lad’ tag I’ve got – or rather, I made for myself, but, hopefully, I’ve got rid of now.

“I’ll take the yellow card (for the shirt removal). Obviously you’re not supposed to do it but I was overjoyed.

“I won’t do it every time but for the first one I was more than happy to do it.”

It was the third time Sharp has scored on debut, with Scunthorpe and Reading fans also getting an early glimpse of his poaching prowess.

He nearly had one after 90 seconds when he raced onto a through ball to which Mejias beat him before Daniel Ayala retreated behind his goalkeeper to scoop Nicky Ajose’s follow-up shot from off the line.

Other than the header Sharp knows he should have scored from 10 minutes before he did slide in the only goal, Leeds barely threatened against a Middlesbrough side who looked neat and tidy in possession, if a little toothless in the final third.

Lee Tomlin, playing in support of Kike, was a constant threat in the first 30 minutes before Leeds finally shut him down.

Boro should have been rewarded with a goal on 25 minutes when poor defending from a long throw saw the ball bounce through to Albert Adomah, who swivelled and launched a boot at it to send it into the bottom corner.

Referee Stuart Attwell, though, deemed the foot to be too high and too close to the face of Stephen Warnock.

Leeds would be thankful for Warnock’s interventions either side of the break that denied what would have been clear shots on goal, one of them to thwart Adomah, who was left bemused at the decision to rule out his earlier strike.

“It’s a shame, I thought it was a well-taken goal,” said the Middlesbrough winger. “But the referee obviously thought differently, he saw a high foot and disallowed the ‘goal’.

“Everyone else thought it was a goal. Even the linesman. I was speaking to the linesman afterwards and he said it was down to the referee.”

Adomah’s manager, Aitor Karanka, had empathy, but was wise enough to accept that his Middlesbrough side did not sufficiently threaten a home team who, while at times too narrow and a little anxious, did have enough character to stay in the game and then possessed the vital element in poacher-extraordinaire Sharp to win it.