It was during the 1990/91 season that Lee Stuart Sharpe announced himself, in earnest, on the British and European football scene. The 20-year-old, from Halesowen in the West Midlands, made his England debut, starred in Manchester United’s triumphant Cup Winners’ Cup run, scored a hat-trick in a 6-2 Highbury demolition of Arsenal, and was rewarded with the PFA Young Player of the Year Award. The world very much appeared to be at his considerably gifted feet.
Overlooked by Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion as a youngster, the Black Country boy made his professional debut for Torquay aged just 16. After a handful of games for the Devon outfit, Sharpe caught the eye of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, who had been tasked with reviving the club’s fortunes when appointed in November 1986.
The Glaswegian had revamped the club’s youth set up and expanded the recruitment department; Sharpe was a pertinent example of the positive new direction he was taking the club in. Sharpe headed to Old Trafford in the summer of 1988 for a fee of around £200,000, debuting at left-back in a 2-0 home win over West Ham in September. It was a disappointing season for Manchester United, who finished 11th in the league and were yet to show the signs of the giant they would become, on and off the pitch.
The Red Devils hovered just two points above the relegation zone at the turn of the decade, a 5-1 derby defeat to Manchester City symptomatic of the malaise that led to a 13th place league finish. However, the campaign also gleaned Ferguson’s first trophy in the form of the FA Cup. On a personal level for Sharpe, the season saw his first goal for the club, in a 5-1 win over Millwall at Old Trafford. A hernia injury restricted him to just 14 appearances in all competitions and saw him fall below Danny Wallace – signed from Southampton at the start of the season – in the left-wing pecking order.
Sharpe’s first goal of the 1990/91 season came in a 1-0 win against Everton, at a freezing Goodison Park on 1 December, and the resulting celebration saw the birth of the “Sharpey Shuffle”, much to Ferguson’s chagrin. The clash between manager and player over personality and expression would become a regular sticking point during the rest of Sharpe’s Manchester United career, an underlying wound that would never truly heal. The finishing league position of sixth hinted at future success and the Old Trafford faithful could sense what was to come: the average attendance crept over the 40,000 mark for the first time in five seasons.
Sharpe saved his best form for the cup competitions, where seven of his season’s nine strikes came, including the famous Highbury hat-trick in the League Cup, wearing the iconic blue and white Adidas “leaf” kit. United were beaten finalists later in the competition, losing to Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley, although consolation came in the form of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Sharpe scored in the semi-final second leg against Legia Warsaw to smooth the Red Devil’s passage to their first European final in 23 years, where Johan Cruyff’s mighty Barcelona were beaten 2-1.
The reigning PFA Young Player of the Year failed to build on the best season of his career as a bout of meningitis at the start of the 1991/92 season restricted him to just nine starts in all competitions. Ryan Giggs, who had debuted for the first team in March 1991, made over 50 appearances as Manchester United finished second in the league, and succeeded Sharpe by inheriting his PFA award.
Sharpe netted just two goals during a disrupted campaign, although one of them came in the semi-final second leg of the League Cup, a competition that United would go on to win at the expense of Nottingham Forest, to record their third cup triumph in as many seasons.
Manchester United famously won the FA Youth Cup in 1992, guided by the late Eric Harrison, producing a crop of players that would later furnish the first team: the Neville brothers, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and David Beckham. At his peak, Sharpe’s personality and infectious smile made him a massive hit with female fans, but in Beckham he’d soon have a serious rival in that department.
Finally, after an excruciating 26-year wait, United won the championship in the first season of the new Premier League. After a slow start to the season, the signing of enigmatic Frenchman Eric Cantona, from champions Leeds, proved to be the catalyst for glory. Sharpe made 30 appearances in all competitions, predominantly on the right of midfield; Giggs dazzled on the left and retained his PFA Young Player of the Year award.
For Manchester United, the trophies kept on coming. The 1993/94 season brought a Premier League and FA Cup double, and Sharpe was back to his best form and fitness. Four goals in three games in August and September propelled United to the top of the table, where they’d remain all season. United were denied a domestic treble after losing the League Cup final – for the second time in four years – to Aston Villa at Wembley. On a personal note, Sharpe’s haul of 11 goals in all competitions was a career best.
The 1994/95 season was largely forgettable for Manchester United, who were second best in both the FA Cup final and the Premier League title race. One of Sharpe’s six goals proved to be one of his most memorable in the red shirt. In the Champions League group stage, European giants Barcelona – finalists in two of the last three years – visited Old Trafford and shared a 2-2 draw with their hosts. With the Catalans leading 2-1, with ten minutes to go, Sharpe turned in a Roy Keane cross with an audacious backheel to salvage a point. One week later, the injury curse struck again. Sharpe broke his ankle.
United were back to winning ways in 1995/96, capturing another domestic double of FA Cup and Premier League. For the third successive season, Sharpe completed more than 40 appearances and once again scored six goals, including strikes in round five and six of the FA Cup. The final, against fierce rivals Liverpool, was settled by the right boot of Cantona. The league title looked unlikely before Christmas, with Newcastle opening up a seemingly unassailable lead, but Ferguson’s men relentlessly hunted Kevin Keegan’s side who later wilted under the immense pressure.
Despite Sharpe’s stellar and reasonably consistent contribution over the past three seasons, it was clear that his status was now that of a squad player, with Denis Irwin, Giggs and Beckham all entrenched in the positions which the Halesowen lad was able to operate. Injuries, and long-seated suspicions from the manager surrounding Sharpe’s outgoing character and penchant for Manchester nightlife, led to a sale to Leeds in the summer of 1996. At this point, it was hard to believe Sharpe was still only 25.
Howard Wilkinson, the man who made Sharpe the Elland Road outfit’s record signing and attempted to reinvigorate his confidence, was sacked less than a month later. His successor George Graham, of “boring, boring Arsenal” fame, led a Leeds side that scored only 28 league goals in the 38-game campaign. Despite scoring six in 25 appearances, a natural attacker like Sharpe’s abilities were suppressed under the Scot.
Sharpe missed almost the entirety of the 1997/98 campaign with a cruciate ligament injury and the following season new manager David O’Leary shipped him out to Sampdoria and Bradford on loan deals. Sharpe later joined the Bantams on a permanent deal and enjoyed something of an Indian Summer, but retired aged 32 after unenjoyable spells with Portsmouth and Exeter, as well as a short stint in Iceland.
For those too young to have experienced Lee Sharpe’s heyday it is perhaps easy to underestimate the level of his star appeal at its height. The first poster boy of the 1990s, Sharpe preceded the likes of Giggs and Beckham – two players who would surpass him on and off the pitch – in terms of his profile and popularity amongst the female population. He was the first bona fide superstar of English football’s new dawn, following the lows of the 1980s and the post-Italia 90 rebirth.
The charismatic West Midlander was a popular terrace hero at Old Trafford and managed to win seven major honours in over 260 appearances for Manchester United during an eight-year period, longevity which shines a light on his immense ability. Although on the surface it may seem like an insult to talk of his failed potential, perhaps it is more of a compliment and a wonderment as to the heights he could have reached had the cards fallen differently for him.
By Dan Williamson @winkveron