Ultimate United Articles
Lee Sharpe Heroes, Villains & Legends
A lookback at the career at one of Manchester United’s most exciting players of the early 1990’s.
By Philip Meese, Chief Editor
26th May, 1999. Manchester United had just won the Champions League, the third part of that historic Treble. Even more impressive was that they had achieved this, despite the backbone of the team being made up of players who had made their debuts for the club while still only a teenager. While every Red on the planet was been in celebratory mood that night, there would be one former player who must have been looking back, and thinking what might have been. That man is Lee Sharpe.
There is no doubt that when United fans talk about the team of the early 1990’s, Lee Sharpe’s name will feature quite prominently. Bought from Torquay United in the summer of 1988 aged just 17, he had made less than 15 league appearances. As Jesper Olsen’s time at the club was coming to a close, United needed another left winger. A year later they would sign Danny Wallace from Southampton to strengthen the position, but Sharpe both preceded and outlasted him at the club.
Rather than making his bones in the United reserve team, Sharpe was already so well developed as a footballer that he was thrust straight into the first team picture within a couple of months of his arrival, making 30 appearances in the 1988-89 season. Even as a teenager he was the sort of player who got fans off their seats – although it is fair to say that United were so average at this point that nobody else in the team was doing this, not even the recently returned Mark Hughes.
When Wallace was signed, Sharpe found his path to the first team blocked at first, and his second season saw him make just 20 appearances, and completely left out of the match day squads for the 1990 FA Cup Final & replay with Crystal Palace. He did score his first goal for the club, in a 5 – 1 thrashing of Millwall in September 1989, but initial good form by Wallace, plus the fact that Alex Ferguson liked to rest his younger players whenever the chance permitted, meant that he would find himself on the bench or in the stands on a match day.
The 1990-91 season is where Lee Sharpe began to make himself a household name, illustrated superbly by a fantastic hat trick in the 6-2 thrashing of Arsenal at Highbury in the League Cup. United have given the Gunners various good hidings over the years, but back then, nobody did that to George Graham’s team, such was the meanness of their defence.
Sharpe was an integral part of the team which lifted the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup in Rotterdam, and started in the final against Barcelona, showing he had come a long way in being selected ahead of more expensive team mates such as Wallace and Neil Webb. That same year, Sharpe was given his first cap for England.
Towards the end of this season, a certain Ryan Giggs had just made his full debut, and would provide the main threat to Sharpe’s position over the next half decade. United had also just bought USSR international Andrei Kanchelskis, and the base of Ferguson’s first title winning suad was now starting to take shape. That summer United strengthened the back line by signing Paul Parker at right-back, and goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel.
With so much strength in depth, it was no surprise that United came flying out of the traps at the start of the 1991-92 season, comfortably taking the lead at the top of the table, in what would be the final season that the English top flight was called Division 1. Sharpe was now United’s first choice left winger, although when he and Giggs were selected on the flanks, they would often alternate. Unfortunately, United’s title challenge stumbled, and ultimately collapsed among a fixture pile up over Easter 1992, while Leeds United overtook them, ironically inspired by the man who would become an Old Trafford legend, Eric Cantona, and finished the season as champions.
Illness, Injury and Partying
During the early part of Sharpe’s career, it was well documented that he loved the party lifestyle. Good friends with Giggs off the pitch, the two would often get into scrapes, and fall foul of the wrath of Fergie. One story that is often told is how Sharpe, Giggs and a few (unnamed) youth team players were having a party at Sharpe’s house, and getting ready for a night out, when the manager turned up unexpectedly. This didn’t go down well, and after this incident, Giggs began to knuckle down and concentrate just on his football.
As the new era of English football dawned in 1992, the top flight of English football had been rebranded the Premier League. Sharpe, however, had been struck down with viral meningitis, and missed the opening two months of the season. When he did come back, however, he was as explosive as ever, and by the time United bought Cantona, Sharpe was really starting to hit top form.
By the age of 21, Sharpe was physically well developed, just as fast as Giggs or Kanchelskis, and probably a more accurate crosser of the ball than either of those two. Having been in the United first team squad for over four years, his football intelligence was now better than most players of his age, most of whom would be still trying to break into the first team picture. He played an important part in securing Manchester United’s first league title in 26 years, and Cantona would have certainly appreciated his input, scoring away to Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester City from crosses put in by Sharpe.
As the 1993-94 season began, anyone who thought that United’s title win was a one-off, like that of Leeds the previous year, would soon realise their mistake. The Reds began the season in blistering form, winning their first five games in a row. Lee Sharpe marked his first appearance of the season by scoring both goals in a 2-1 win at Villa Park. He scored in his next two games, and was unplayable at times, forcing his way back into Graham Taylor’s England squad. He also scored a fine 20 yard volley against Everton at Goodison Park.
His form did tail off a little midway through that season, although, in fairness, not many players can sustain that level of performance over the entirety of a season. He was also laid up with injury for two months at the start of 1994, but returned to score both United goals in a 2-2 draw at Highbury, but these would be the last two goals of Sharpe’s season. As United’s quest for the domestic Treble was quashed by a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa in the 1994 League Cup Final, the Reds’ still made it a double. By now, Sharpe’s form could be described more as solid, rather than the spectacular performances seen earlier that season. He came off the bench as United crushed Chelsea 4-0 in the FA Cup Final, to complete their first Double.
The 1994-95 season saw United begin as overwhelming favourites to retain their title, and Sharpe displayed decent form during the early weeks of the campaign. When Barcelona came to Old Trafford in October, a side packed with superstars such as Hristo Stoichkov, Romário and Ronald Koeman, this was probably the last time we saw Lee Sharpe at his devastating best. During a frantic first half, Sharpe tormented right-back Luis, who just could not live with his pace, and sent a great cross over for Hughes to head United into the lead. Towards the end of the second half, with United trailing 2-1, Sharpe levelled the scores with the cheekiest of backheels.
The following week, in a League Cup tie away to Newcastle, Sharpe picked up an injury that would see him out of the team for more than two months. He did not return until January, but due to injuries and a loss of form by Giggs, Sharpe would play plenty of games in his favoured left wing position. With Cantona banned, United ended the season trophyless, as Blackburn Rovers lifted the Premier League title, and Everton beat the Reds in the FA Cup Final.
The 1995-96 season would be Sharpe’s last in the red of United. The departures of Paul Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis, and the promotion of the Nevilles, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, meant that despite being under the age of 25, players such as Sharpe and Giggs were looked up to as being among the more senior players in the squad. Sharpe began the season in fine form, scoring against Blackburn at Ewood Park and helping himself to another two goals away to Everton.
It wasn’t that his form tailed off as such throughout that season, he was merely overshadowed by other players in the team. Towards the end of that season, Cantona put every player in the country as in the shade United stormed to the title, but the form of Beckham, Butt and Scholes provided the other talking point. They had simply dazzled for most of the season. Sharpe, in contrast, was just there, never letting the team down when selected, but his appearances were becoming less and less frequent towards the end of that campaign. Sharpe remained on the bench for the 1996 FA Cup Final against Liverpool. He still picked up a winners medal, but he must have known by then that the writing was on the wall for him.
It wasn’t much of a surprise when United accepted a £4.5 million bid from Leeds in the summer of 1996, which apparently doubled the wages he was receiving at Old Trafford. No longer would we see the Sharpey Shuffle, his ritual every time he scored a goal.
He moved to Elland Road, but his chequered injury record would catch up with him once again at Leeds. Although he had a decent first season, Sharpe suffered a knee injury that would rule him out for the entire 1997-98 season. By the time he returned, Leeds had started to assemble a squad capable of challenging for honours (without actually winning anything), and Sharpe was unable to regain his first team place.
In the summer of 1998, while his old team-mates were about to embark on the biggest season of their careers, Sharpe was loaned to Italian club Sampdoria. He played just a handful of games in a side who ended the season relegated to Serie B, and returned to Leeds in early 1999, having been unable to cement a first team place. In March that year, he was loaned to Division 1 side Bradford City, who were pushing for promotion to the Premier League, which they eventually achieved.
Bradford made the move permanent in the summer of 1999, sealing a cut price £250,000 move for Sharpe, who helped the Bantams retain their Premier League position in the 1999-00 season. After this, Sharpe lost his place in the team, and was once again loaned out to a Division 1 side, this time Portsmouth. In the summer of 2002, Bradford released Sharpe at the end of his contract.
He turned out for Exeter City, and even had a spell in Iceland with Grindavík. In the summer of 2003, aged just 32, Lee Sharpe announced his retirement from professional football. Post career, he has had a couple of appearances on reality TV shows, and has done some after dinner speaking, telling various tales of his time at Old Trafford.
In his prime, Lee Sharpe was one of the best wingers in the country. During the 1992-93 season, with Kanchelskis seemingly out of favour at this point, Giggs was often shifted to the right wing to accommodate Sharpe on the left. Quick as lightning, great upper body strength which made him very difficult to knock off the ball, and with a good eye for goal.
Sharpe was part of the early 90’s “poster boy” footballers, along with Giggs and Jamie Redknapp, which suddenly made football popular among young females. When his official fan club was up and running he would hold regular events for its members, at places such as Discotheque Royale (a place familiar to anyone who partied in Manchester in the 1990’s).
A common conception of Lee Sharpe is that he enjoyed the status being a Manchester United player afforded him, and that this is one of the reasons his career petered out during his late 20’s. He was often seen at world famous Manchester nightclub The Haçienda, famous for its Acid House music and Ecstasy culture.
Sir Alex Ferguson said that he once told Lee Sharpe “If you ever lose that explosive pace, you’ll just be an ordinary player”. It turns out that he was right, because although he was still a useful player in the last 18 months of his career at Old Trafford, his role had been reduced to that of an experienced squad player. Gone were the ghosting runs past opposition defenders, followed by a pinpoint cross to one of United’s forwards. Even his final goal for the club, against Southampton in the FA Cup, was a tap-in on the line. He was no longer the player who would win matches for United, as he had been a couple of years previously. This is a shame as well because, at his peak, he would have been a valuable part of the Treble winning squad in 1999. Jesper Blomqvist was United’s back up left winger that season, and although he was a quality player, Sharpe, in his prime, was better.
Despite this, he won more in his eight years at Old Trafford than a lot of players ever will. Furthermore, he was a key part of most of those successes. We’ll never know whether it was his party lifestyle, or just the succession of injuries he suffered, in the early stages of his career that meant his time at the top was over by his mid-twenties – it could have been a combination of both.
But Lee Sharpe should be remembered for what he did achieve at Old Trafford, rather than what he could have achieved.
Added by Philip Meese on 05/07/2018 20:31:18