As a young sports journalist I was told there are no sporting heroes.
A hero is a soldier who puts his life on the line, not a highly-paid footballer who steps over the line.
But in Billy Sharp, this century’s leading scorer in English football, Sheffield has produced one of its favourite sporting sons to mention in the same breath as Derek Dooley and Gordon Banks.
He will step out at Hillsborough tonight in the red and white of Sheffield United for the Steel City derby, but even supporters from fierce rivals Wednesday would begrudgingly acknowledge the 33-year-old’s status as an ambassador of football in Yorkshire.
Not bad for the self-proclaimed ‘fat lad from Sheffield’, who is finally earning the plaudits he deserves in his third stint with his boyhood idols.
Sharp – who recently earned a new two-year deal stretching until 2021 – admits his heart has always been with the Blades despite a nomadic career that has seen him pull on the shirt for Scunthorpe United, Doncaster Rovers and Leeds United, among others.
“I never wanted to leave Sheffield United in the first place,” Sharp told The Yorkshire Post, “but I needed to for the benefit of my career.
“In the back of my mind I always wanted to come back and, I am not scared to say it, to be a hero. It didn’t go as well as I wanted the last time, and I wanted to play for Sheffield United and be remembered.
“I have achieved one thing by playing for Sheffield United, to get promotion with them once, up to now, has been special, and I just want to be here for the next couple of seasons to make more memories with this great club.
“I am living my own dream. To play for Sheffield United was a dream. To do some of the things we have collectively over the years will live with me forever.
“I just want to continue working hard and being successful in a successful team.
“I have had to work hard to get the contract and I am glad it’s been sorted now and I can concentrate on playing and push on with the rest of the boys.”
Having captained the Blades to the League One title two years ago, the Blades are in the running for a top-two finish this season.
With a dozen games left ahead of tonight’s visit to S6, Sharp concedes he has allowed himself a few rare moments of imagining leading out United in the Premier League in August.
“I am not going to lie, I have thought about it.” he said. “It’s quite a bit away, but I have been told you have to dream, to believe to achieve, and, at the minute, I think the boys are believing. I think that’s why we are doing so well. Whoever goes out on the pitch, like last week (against Reading) when we made a lot of changes and won 4-0, that shows how far we have come from last season.
“The team will rotate between now and the end of the season, and everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction. When you have that it gives you a right good chance. The dressing room is similar to other groups I have played with at other times in my career. But it’s hard work why we are in this position we are in. The gaffer and his backroom staff have trained us every day to become better every day, and I feel we have got better this season. We are doing better at this stage than we did last season.
“We just need to keep pushing to reach our target, which is to get promoted out of the Championship.”
Both Sharp and manager Chris Wilder are in agreement that the striker is in the best form of his career.
He has netted 23 goals already this season – helping to break Rickie Lambert’s 219-goal record for the leading English goal-scorer in the 21st century – and shows no sign of slowing down.
“People say players come into their peak at 27 or 28, but I don’t know how they can say that when at 30 you have 10 years experience of being a professional,” he said.
“I do agree with the gaffer, I think I am playing the best football of my career.
“But I think it helps playing in the team that I am playing in.
“I know what my jobs are, I know what my team-mates’ jobs are and it’s important we get around each other to make sure we perform as a unit. Credit to the boys, they have been superb.”
Sharp will be 35 when his new Blades deal expires, but he is adamant he will not play for another English club if he has to leave Bramall Lane for a third time in 2021.
“I don’t want to play for any other club in English football,” he said. “If the time comes at the end of my contract and that’s me, then I do believe I will be going further than that. As long as I keep on contributing like I have this season I want to be part of this team; it’s a very special team.
“What we have built up over the last couple of years, I wanted to make sure I was part of it for the next couple of years.”
Sharp had been tempted to play abroad in America’s MLS earlier in his career, but his focus is now entirely centred on taking the Blades up.
He said: “I have thought about it, yes (playing abroad). That was just because after Southampton I had two seasons when I had a nothing career. I was going on loan and wasn’t really settled. That’s why it was important to get this contract signed because I know now I have a goal in my head and I want to keep driving myself – and the team – forward. To keep entertaining the fans at Bramall Lane and obviously try and achieve the best target in football, to reach the Premier League.”
If the Blades are to reach the top flight they will have to do it the hard way with four of their remaining 12 games against Yorkshire rivals.
Three of their next four fixtures see United travel to Hillsborough and Leeds United, while Rotherham United visit Bramall Lane fighting for their own Championship future. A trip to Hull City – to go up against former manager Nigel Adkins – comes up next month.
Sharp, who has banked over 100 goals for the Blades, countered: “Having the Yorkshire derbies will help us.
“We have talked about the games, very tough games, but they are games you want to play in. They are big games, good atmospheres and between now and the end of the season the games mean everything. We are playing for something and we just need to keep grinding out results to give us a chance. We have some great games coming up in the next month. A lot of them are on TV, the derby will be a special occasion.”
One glaring omission from Sharp’s CV is a Steel City derby goal, having first played in this fixture in 2008. He was on the bench at Hillsborough last season as the Blades triumphed 4-2, while the following two games ended in 0-0 draws.
“I want to play in the derby games, but maybe I wasn’t fit (at Hillsborough) to start the game,” he recalled. “I declared myself fit if I was needed, but the day as a fan was very special.
“It was great to see the lads go out and perform and make memories like we did that day. That will give us a lot of belief going into this game.
“I would take any score this time if we can win the game.”
A winning goal from Sharp tonight would certainly cement his Blades hero status.