The end of Billy Sharp’s love affair with Doncaster Rovers last night cast a shadow over the club’s return to their Championship survival battle as they travel to face Hull City at the KC Stadium tonight without him.
The 25-year-old travelled down to Southampton for a medical yesterday afternoon after the two clubs agreed on a deal earlier in the day.
No details of the fee have been made public - though The Star understands that it will be paid in full - but it is believed to be much less than the £3.25m the Saints had been prepared to pay in the summer to land the man who had cost Rovers a club-record £1.15m from Sheffield United 12 months earlier.
On that occasion Sharp decided against linking up with his former boss at Scunthorpe Nigel Adkins, but he had a change of heart, after rejecting a move to Leicester City earlier this month, when the Saints came in for him again less than 48 hours before the January transfer window closed.
“Obviously I’m disappointed to lose Billy,” said Rovers’ boss Dean Saunders. “But I knew when I joined the club that he had a clause in his contract so I did know that this could happen.
“I’m sure that he’ll score goals for Southampton and hopefully he’ll get them into the next league.
“It’s tough (losing Sharp) but it’s part of football and I’ve never shirked away from a challenge. I quite like adversity in fact; it’s a challenge.
“I’ve asked the players whether they are up for a challenge and they all said they were so there is a good spirit in the camp.
“The team have been doing well though I know that our league position doesn’t show that. We were completely out of it when I first came but we’ve got back with the pack and are on their tails and if we can string together two or three wins we’ll be out of the bottom three.”
Saunders, who is now hoping to complete the signing of El Hadji Diouf before tonight’s game - though he admitted that he could face competition from other interested clubs - has also targeted two other players but didn’t know whether he had the necessary money in view of the departure of two major shareholders last week.
Irrespective of whether he is able to add to his squad, Saunders is hoping that someone will seize the chance to grab Sharp’s mantle.
“I’ve played at clubs during my career where I’ve got goals and then got transferred and the player who had been playing alongside me has come out of his shell and started banging in the goals and I’m hoping that is going to happen for us,” he said.
One of the players Saunders will be looking at to try and do that is former Preston striker Chris Brown, who hopes to be back in full training in a week or so after a long lay-off with a knee problem.
More good news for Saunders is the fact that James Coppinger will back in full training in five weeks’ time after being told by his specialist yesterday afternoon that he will not need an operation to repair the cheekbone he cracked in the game against Bristol City at Ashton Gate ten days ago.
Saunders has also secured the services of 22 year-old Spurs’ keeper David Button on loan for another month.
He is expected to line-up against the Tigers, where in addition to losing the services of both Sharp and Coppinger, Rovers will also be without centre-back Habib Beye, who starts a three-match ban tonight against a Hull side looking to bounce back from a shock FA Cup defeat at home to Crawley at the weekend.
“They got turned over by Crawley but it wasn’t a surprise to me because Crawley have got a winning formula and they have beaten some big clubs,” said Saunders.
“Hull made seven or eight changes so they will have a different starting line-up tonight
“I’ve watched a couple of their games and they are a high energy workmanlike team. We’ve got to match them for energy and effort and if we can do that we can beat anyone.”
Sixth-placed Hull have struggled to score goals this season but have kept 13 clean sheets. Centre-backs James Chesters and Jack Hobbs have played in every league game,
Sharp has been shortlisted for the 2011 Mitre Goal of the Year award for the volley against Middlesbrough.