Before the likes of David Beckham and Ryan Giggs launched their way onto the Old Trafford stage in the early to mid-nineties, another fleet footed winger was busy wowing the crowds at the Stretford End as Manchester United were slowly growing some serious Premier League momentum.
Born in 1971 in Halesowen, a young Lee Sharpe began his career in Torquay United as a youth training player in 1988. He was quickly snapped up by Manchester United after 16 games for a record fee of 200,000, fee significantly high for a youth player at the time.
A speedy left winger with a real whip of a cross, Sharpe was hastily launched into his debut game at the tender age of 17, coming on as a substitute in a 2-0 win over West Ham United on 24th September 1988. Fast forward a couple of years, the player was gaining the adulation of the critics, winning a PFA player of the year award, not to mention a signature corner flag goal celebration to boot.
Whilst the future England player would go onto help his side lift the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991 courtesy of a fine win over Barcelona, as well as a famous hat-trick against Arsenal in the 4th round of the League cup (when the competition very much meant something), Sharpe would instead forever go down in cult football history following his brush with a fiery Alex Ferguson.
Lee Sharpe Party
The explosive Scotsman got wind of a party hosted at the wingers house, incensed that his players were drinking with a match on the horizon, Ferguson turned up to break up the fun.
“I opened Sharpey’s door,” said then teammate Ryan Giggs “I was holding a [bottle of] Becks and there was no escape.” Ferguson proceeded to lash out at Sharpe and the other reprobates. It wasn’t to be an isolated incident.
Rumours of drug taking and endless benders followed Sharpe like a bad cold, indeed one fateful meeting with Sir Alex, flanked by compadres Gary Pallister and Giggsy, seemingly spelt the end for the former Torquay United spell. Quizzed on why he and others couldn’t just have a few beers at home rather than the lads’ weekly Wednesday night out, Ferguson took exception to the player’s attitude. With the emergence of friend Giggs in his favourite left sides position as well as fellow fledgling David Beckham in his new right position, not to mention poor fitness and a bout of meningitis holding him back, Sharpe was sold to Leeds United for £4.5million.
After a career stretching from 1988 to 1996, culminating in 36 goals from 265 appearances, the moved was considered naive on the part of Ferguson. The Scotsman however, like many times in his career, would be proved right.
Asked in a future article with the Guardian whether Ferguson had been a good coach? Sharpe grinned. ‘No. The lads used to laugh when he tried to take the warm-up. He wasn’t a coach. He was a manager, that was his thing.’
At least Sharpe could reflect on the memorable times. And to be fair there were many. Three Premier League trophies, two FA Cup winners medals, one League Cup and one Cup Winners Cup. Not to mention this absolute beaut of a strike against Barcelona…
Signed by Howard Wilksinson, George Graham replaced the former League One winning gaffer after just one month. Buoyed by Graham’s promise to resurrect his England career, his last game being the infamous World Cup qualifier defeat away to Holland, Sharpe’s career with the Yorkshire club began with great optimism.
The former Red Devil’s spell with United’s mortal enemies was sadly one of great frustration. A pre-season knee injury ruled him out for the entire 1997–98 season and he was unable to regain his place in the team on recovery. In the autumn of 1998, Graham’s successor David O’Leary loaned Sharpe to Italian Serie A strugglers Sampdoria, where he played under English head coach David Platt.
Yet again however, luck would play against him. After Platt made a sharp exit (pun certainly not intended) due to Coaching permit issues, Sampdoria awarded the position back to Luciano Spalletti, a move effectively ending his spell in Italy immediately. Reflecting on his time with the Serie A giants, Sharpe told SkySports;
‘Spalletti came in and said: “I don’t really know you. I’ve got my players from when I was here before that I’m going to stick with because I know them.” And that was about it really. I was enjoying it but when you know you’re not going to play and you can’t speak the language it becomes a bit of a lonely place so I decided to come back.’
A move to Bradford City followed and, whilst he helped them secure promotion to the Premier League, Sharpe lost his place in the Bradford team and just before Christmas went on loan to Division One side Portsmouth. He returned to Bradford during the 2001–02 season but when his contract expired at the end of the season he was given a free transfer.
Spells in Iceland and Exeter followed along with a brief cameo at Grimsby town. On June 2003 he announced his retirement from professional football at the age of 32. He did make a brief return to football in 2004 with Hoobrook Crown who play in the Kidderminster Sunday League, before signing for Northern Counties East Premier League side Garforth Town the following summer.
Since ending his association with the game, Sharpe carved out a career seemingly on the D-list trail, appearing on Celebrity Love Island and Celebrity Wrestling. Whilst much of this has be interspersed with short pundit roles, he also went on to appear in Dancing on Ice in 2007 as well as Coronation Street as an extra.
Whilst the flying winger struggled to make the grade in the second half of his career, it’s worth considering what a Premier League force Sharpe could have been if injuries and the odd beer hadn’t taken precedence.
Here’s the best of the man in action.