The story of the Doncaster Rovers' club record signing of Billy Sharp - ten years on

A transfer fee of £1million-plus for Doncaster Rovers still feels an astronomical figure.

Tuesday, 7th July 2020, 6:03 pm
Updated Tuesday, 7th July 2020, 8:17 pm

Ten years ago, even at the height of the John Ryan driven dare to dream era, it seemed like madness.

But the club record fee laid down for Billy Sharp on July 7, 2010 continues to look like one of the very best investments made in Rovers history.

A loan spell that brought 15 goals in 35 appearances from the striker had the mouth of chairman Ryan watering profusely.

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Billy Sharp with Rovers boss Sean O'Driscoll and chairman John Ryan after his club record transfer from Sheffield United

For a club on the rise, brimming with wonderful technique and talent molded by manager Sean O’Driscoll, Sharp was the missing piece in Ryan’s starry eyes.

At 24, and with a pretty impressive season of goalscoring in the second tier under his belt, Sharp represented a decent opportunity for a cash-in for his boyhood club Sheffield United, where he was given little opportunity for regular starts despite having been brought back to Bramall Lane from Scunthorpe United for around £2m.

In short, the striker would not come cheap.

While that would typically have ruled out Rovers as potential purchasers, that was not taking account of a chairman whose ambition at the time knew no bounds.

Billy Sharp celebrates scoring at the Keepmoat

“That was John,” O’Driscoll told the Free Press.

“The club couldn’t afford it but John was prepared to wheel and deal and make decisions that didn’t really make financial sense for us at the time.

“There wasn’t really anyone who could stop him.

“He was an entrepreneur and sometimes entrepreneurs do things that don’t really make sense.

Billy Sharp in action for Rovers against Sheffield United

“It was down to John and his ability to get a deal done.”

Ryan was not to be denied - despite a transfer fee the club probably could not afford and rivals circling for Sharp’s signature that could offer him better terms.

“I asked Billy to come over to my house with his dad,” the former Rovers chairman told the Free Press.

“I said to Sean to come over. He said ‘what’s the point? He’s signing for Burnley. They’ve offered him 12 grand a week.’

Billy Sharp celebrates scoring

“I said to him ‘I know that Sean but just do me a favour and come over.’

“He thought he was wasting his time but I was urging him to come over.

“He came over and by the time he arrived Billy had already agreed to sign for us for ten grand a week.

“Ever the salesman, John Ryan.

“The other problem I had was paying for him!

“And this is where I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Dick and Terry [Watson and Bramall, Ryan’s Rovers co-owners].

Billy Sharp scores for Rovers

“We had a board meeting and I said I’ll put £400,000 in, will you? And both of them said yes.

“The three of us put £400,000 in. It was £1.15m and a bit of money for the agent. The three of us bought him.”

The fee dwarfed the previous record, £300,000 paid to Manchester City for Matt Mills two years earlier. It is an amount that has never come close to being surpassed.

It was, of course, not the transfer fee that made Sharp a Rovers icon.

Had his time with the club been restricted to that season on loan, he would be fondly remembered as arguably the best temporary signing in the club’s history.

But it was what he accomplished both individually and part of the Rovers collective after a seven figure sum was paid for his services that cemented him in club folklore.

Prior to Sharp’s arrival, O’Driscoll’s team had pretty much everything - a brilliant veteran goalkeeper in Neil Sullivan, a solid defence featuring the likes of James O’Connor, Gareth Roberts and a young Mills and a midfield packed with technical prowess in Brian Stock, Richie Wellens and James Coppinger.

What they were missing was a prolific goalscorer.

Sharp was at a crossroads in his career.

Having failed to make the breakthrough at Bramall Lane, he switched to Scunthorpe United where he scored an incredible 56 goals in 93 appearances with Iron surging to the League One title in his second season.

It earned him a switch back to the Blades, but he again struggled for regular game time in a side desperately attempting to orchestrate a return to the Premier League.

“Billy was probably a victim of being a small player but he was a number nine,” O’Driscoll said.

“Traditionally in English football, number nines are big and strong.

“I remember seeing him for Sheffield United and they tried to play him with a big man.

“There’s nothing wrong with that and I’m not saying he can’t play like that but for me he was far better as a number nine with someone working off him.

“I can remember when we took him from Sheffield United and they put no clause in to say he couldn’t play against them.

“We were playing them and Billy was desperate to play but I remember saying to him ‘Billy, I know you want to play but I can’t play you because they’re doing us a favour and it’s not right to do that.’

“He was gutted. I remember Sam Ellis came up to me and told me how much they appreciated me not playing him that day. Sometimes in football you have to do the right things.”

Sharp slotted in superbly to the Rovers set up, not just with his goalscoring but with the manner in which he adapted to O’Driscoll’s fluid, technical style of play.

Both a focal point and a pivot, he brought others into threatening areas as much as he looked to score once within a range where he was exceptionally potent.

O’Driscoll said: “That changed the dynamic of the team a bit for us when he came in.

“We brought in a goalscorer and a player that linked really well with four or five others.

“We improved the team obviously because Billy is a goalscorer. But he also improved the way the team functioned.

“I can remember him moaning about playing up front on his own and not scoring, because he wanted to score in every game.

“But I’d laugh and joke with him, saying ‘Bill, you want to play up front on your own, that’s where you’re at your best, just get on with it.’

“He just fit in with the rest of the players.

“He just loved scoring goals.

“If you played five-a-side in training and Billy was on your team, you invariably was going to end up on the winning team because he would get that winner, or the team wouldn’t be playing well and he’d get you back in it.

“He was crucial for us.”

In the following 18 months he netted 26 goals in 51 appearances, including ten in 20 during the final five months of his Rovers career that was punctuated by personal tragedy.

His goalscoring exploits meant there were constantly potential suitors.

Rovers could comfortably have trebled the fee they paid for his services inside a year of his permanent switch from the Blades.

But the ambition of Ryan and Sharp’s own desire to wait for the right opportunity saw him stay put.

In the midst of the ‘experiment’ season and after the death of his baby son Luey, Sharp moved to Southampton for around £1.8m, bringing to an end his time at Rovers.

He won promotion to the Premier League with the Saints but managed only 18 appearances in two-and-a-half years, a period which included loans at Nottingham Forest, Reading and six months back at Rovers, where he struggled to reach his previous heights in a side battling unsuccessfully against relegation to League One.

After moving to Leeds United, he secured a return to his beloved Blades for a third spell which brought unimaginable success.

O’Driscoll said: “I went to Forest and I took him there and he scored 12 goals before Christmas.

“He’s been a talisman for me on more than one occasion.

“He’s been fantastic.

“When you look at his career, he probably wouldn’t have it any other way because he’s ended up playing in the Premier League for his boyhood club and skippering them.”

Ryan added: “I’m chuffed to bits for him.”

In five years Sharp has seen United surge from League One to challenging for European football after a phenomenally successful first season in the Premier League.

He himself has become the top scoring English footballer since the turn of the millennium.

A banner at Bramall Lane reads ‘Billy Sharp scores goals’ - a blunt and undeniable statement.

Also undeniable, his standing in Rovers history - and it has little to do with a monumental price tag.

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