Lee Sharpe was just 17 when he signed for Manchester United from Torquay United in June 1988, for £200,000 – a record for a footballer on a Youth Training Scheme.
The 1987-88 season shows Sharpe made nine starts, but it was plenty to attract United royalty. Ferguson and assistant manager Archie Knox took the trip to Plainmoor to see Sharpe for themselves. Knox recalled Sharpe turning out against Colchester. ‘For only 16 at the time, he was a big lad, strong, athletic, a good crosser. We signed him straightaway, went round to his digs at two in the morning, a bit of a whirlwind thing for the boy.’
For a footballer at that age, making such a big move, they would probably expect a stint in the reserves, and gradually try and work their way into the first team at some point. That would be the dream. For Sharpe, it didn’t quite work out that way. Having signed in June, by September 1988, Sharpe was thrust into the first team spotlight. His debut at left back, against West Ham in the old English First Division brought a 2-0 victory. Sharpe had “arrived” and wasn’t fazed by his meteoric rise. ‘It was probably not as fast as a Third Division game is… but mentally it’s harder, more subtle’, Sharpe said. By November, the club’s first choice winger, Jesper Olsen, had departed. Olsen’s replacement, Ralph Milne was inconsistent and never reached the same heights as at Dundee United. The door to the first team, was firmly open in Sharpe’s case.
The next two years came and went, probably in a blur. Sharpe became a regular in the first team, and it’s fair to say he enjoyed the 1990-91 season. He notched a famous hattrick wearing the number seven shirt at Highbury in a 6-2 League Cup victory. And promptly followed it up with the winner at Goodison Park a few days later. The Sharpie “shuffle” in celebration of the winner, was born. Much to the manager’s chagrin, it should be said. A newspaper article penned a few days later, would not have helped Sharpe’s cause. Ferguson preferred his players to do their talking, where it mattered, out on the pitch.
But in 1991, Sharpe suddenly found himself, up against it. Having seen off messrs Olsen, Milne and Danny Wallace, signed as Milne’s replacement, there was noise coming from United’s youth team. A young welsh lad found himself promoted to the first team, and United’s left wing. On the other wing, a flying Russian, imported from Shaktar Donesk, was becoming a force. Andrei Kanchelskis was a miracle, as he appeared to be able to run as fast with the ball, as he could without it. Competition for places was hotting up. It often meant that Sharpe, Giggs and Kanchelskis, had to “duke” it out to land a place in the starting eleven.
Sharpe was probably the first superstar of the Premier League era, given his rags-to-riches rise from Torquay and Murderball* to the United first team. A quicksilver winger, who just seemed to line his opponent, before steaming past him in a Lamborghini type blur, before guiding precision crosses to the onrushing Hughes, McClair et al. Sharpe, really played the game as if he was just a fan. The goals, the assists and the trademark celebrations. Let’s face it, if we wired one to the top corner of the Goodison Park net, wouldn’t we take off to the corner flag and ‘do an Elvis’?
But there was a downside. As Sharpe enjoyed himself on the pitch, he began to enjoy his life off it. In equal measure. Sharpe was Giggs and Beckham before they even “made” it themselves. Sharpe enjoyed fashion and fast cars and also the Manchester nightlife. In the days before mobile phones, he was also the victim of some vicious rumours that he was taking drugs. Around that time, Sharpe suffered a groin injury and would be struck down by viral meningitis. Added to this, was a manager who simply wasn’t a fan of all the things that Sharpe enjoyed. To a man of Ferguson’s stature, with the job of restoring Manchester United to all it’s former glories, there was no time for anything other than the job in hand. He wanted this players to “knuckle down… or else!” He certainly wouldn’t tolerate “distractions”. Distractions that some might say, were starting to get in the way of Sharpe’s football. Lee Sharpe fan club, anyone?
Sharpe’s penchant for fast cars, fashion, girls and all the things that came with his newly found star status, were always going to irk the manager. It culminated in the infamous tale of Ferguson descending on Sharpe’s house. Somehow Ferguson had got wind of Giggs and Sharpe preparing for a night out. Ferguson disrupted a house party in full swing. Girls in the vicinity, and Giggs swigging from a bottle of beer, as Sharpe spruced himself upstairs. Ferguson sent packing all those present that were surplus to requirements, and then proceeded to tear a strip off the petrified Giggs and Sharpe. The latter was threatened with a return to digs, while Giggs, being the younger of the two, probably breathed a huge sigh of relief. In hindsight, those youth team players who had managed to hide or escape, probably wished they’d hung around and claimed front row seats!
The Sharpie shuffle was probably the beginning of the end for Lee. The way he tried to handle the fame side, ultimately might have helped Giggs enjoy the longevity that he went on to achieve. But it caught up with Sharpe. Having been the pacey, mercurial winger of the old First Division, Sharpe had reached a point where his lifestyle choices, meant he was in danger of making himself surplus to requirements. At least in the managers eyes.
There was still the odd glimpse of what he could do, such as the back heel goal against Barcelona in the new Champions League. There was also the brace, in the splendid black and gold Sharp Viewcam kit at Villa Park too. But ultimately, it was his lifestyle choices that brought about a sad end to his United career.
Sharpe’s meteoric rise in English football that took him from the fourth to the first division at 2:00 a.m. in the morning, that brought him a European Cup winners cup medal, the PFA Young Player of the Year and the first of eight England caps between 1991 and 1993. Sharpe made 263 appearances and scored 36 times for United. But I can’t help but wonder, what might have been, for the original, “boy wonder.”
*Murderball: Sharpe recalls. ‘There was a patch of concrete, and the first years would play the seconds. No rules. Someone put their foot on the ball, and then everyone began kicking hell out of each other. It was to give you the arrogance to keep the ball.’