Manchester United Career Details:
Signed From: Torquay United, June 1988 for £185,000 by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Position: Left-Wing, Right-Wing, Attacking Midfielder
Appearances (Goals): 263 (36) between September 1988 & August 1996.
F.A. Premier League Winner (3): 1993, 1994, 1996.
F.A. Cup Winner (2): 1994 (4-0 vs. Chelsea);
1996 (1-0 vs. Liverpool).
League Cup Winner: 1992 (1-0 vs. Nottingham Forest).
U.E.F.A. European Cup Winners’ Cup Winner: 1991 (2-1 vs. Barcelona)
P.F.A. ‘Young Player of the Year’: 1991.
You’ve all heard of Ryan Giggs. You should all have at least seen video clips of Andrei Kanchelskis, the Russian Flyer! Everyone knows who David Beckham is and what he achieved, both on and off the pitch. However, before any of them, there was Lee Sharpe. He was the original ‘pretty boy’ at United under Alex Ferguson, the player the girls all wanted to marry….but much like a certain George Best, Sharpe’s star fell back to earth all too soon, much more quickly than it should have done, and little more than a decade after breaking into United’s 1st team, his professional career was over.
Born and raised in Halesowen in the West Midlands, Sharpe was an avid Aston Villa fan as a kid, often standing in the Holte End to watch some brilliant players like Gary Shaw and Peter Withe turn out for a very strong Villa team. However his talent was first spotted by arch-rivals Birmingham City; however after a year as a junior at St. Andrews, Sharpe was released. Torquay United then picked him up via a Youth Training Scheme (the Y.T.S. was a Government-sponsored ‘getting ready for work’ programme during the Margaret Thatcher years).
Lee shone so brightly at the lower league level that he was spotted by a Manchester United scout after only a handful of appearances for the south-coast side. Alex Ferguson took a trip to Torquay, liked what he saw and swooped to sign young Sharpe for a paltry £185,000, reportedly just beating Liverpool (who had also noticed Sharpe’s potential) to the punch. Sharpe played only 14 games at Plainmoor, scoring 3 goals, before heading for Old Trafford in June 1988, having just turned 17. His transfer fee was a British record for a Y.T.S. player.
He had to wait until 24th September to make his debut in a home 2-0 win over West Ham United, but his chances of more 1st team appearances at United increased dramatically shortly afterwards with the departure of long-time darling of the Stretford End, Danish winger Jesper Olsen, for whom Ferguson’s patience for consistent performances had finally run out. When recent signing from Scotland, Ralph Milne, also failed to live up to expectations, Sharpe was thrust into the limelight, and put in some positive displays at left-midfield in a fairly mediocre Red Devils team that laboured to an 11th place finish in the First Division that season. He made 30 appearances in all competitions, though would have to wait almost a year for his first goal.
The autumn of 1989 brought bad news for the young left-winger when Ferguson signed Danny Wallace from Southampton for £1.2 million; it was a sign that while the manager might recognise Sharpe’s potential, he perhaps didn’t feel Lee had enough experience yet to be United’s first choice left-sided player. The season that followed was a turbulent period for the club, with the hoped-for league title challenge quickly dissolving into a relegation battle, the league campaign epitomised by the dreadful 5-1 drubbing at the hands of arch-rivals Manchester City at Maine Road. They eventually scrambled to a 13th placed finish, Sharpe (relegated to a rotation with Wallace in the league) having made just 18 appearances (5 as a substitute) and scoring his solitary goal for the season in the 5-1 battering of Millwall on 16th September. It wasn’t any better in the F.A. Cup, where he was left out of the team altogether as United salvaged their season by going all the way to Wembley, and winning the trophy after a replay victory over Crystal Palace; Sharpe hadn’t featured at all, and therefore did not get a winners’ medal.
Lee Sharpe’s real break-out season at United was 1990-91, and in many ways he has the ‘least’ of all the competitions, the League Cup, to thank for that. One advantage Sharpe had going for him was the ability to feature on either wing for the Red Devils, and the emergence that season of a young Welshman called Ryan Giggs on the left side meant that was going to be invaluable for the Halesowen lad.
After a patchy start to the league season (four defeats by Halloween effectively ruling United out of any chance of an unlikely title challenge), Sharpe first announced his proper arrival as a player with the third goal in a pulsating 3-1 win over hated rivals Liverpool in Round 3 of the League Cup at Old Trafford on 31st October. However, his direct rival for the left-wing spot, Wallace, scored twice in the league in the following weeks, and was again favoured there for the Round 4 tie against Arsenal at Highbury on 28th November. However, on the night Alex Ferguson decided to include Sharpe on the right wing; the result was an utter devastation of what was a superb Arsenal defence, a back line which would be the rock on which the Gunners’ successful title challenge of that season would be founded.
Put simply, Wallace, in his best ever game of a truly mediocre United career, tore Arsenal to pieces and provided Lee Sharpe with guilt-edged chances which he gobbled up, scoring a stunning hat-trick in a 6-2 United win in front of a muted North Bank, the enduring image that of Lee wheeling away, arms aloft and grin on face, in his signature iconic blue Adidas shirt. The Cup tie came only a month after United and Arsenal had been involved in a 21-man brawl during a league fixture at Old Trafford that had seen both clubs heavily fined and deducted league points, and was such a pleasant shock to the visiting supporters that swiftly manufactured tee-shirts celebrating the ‘Highbury Massacre’ with Sharpe prominent on the front were on sale outside Goodison Park as United visited Everton three days later.
He added to his growing reputation as a very useful player to have around by scoring the only goal of the game at Goodison Park, and United remained on the outskirts of the European places in the league table. Whilst ultimately a lack of consistency married to a lack of squad depth to cope with injuries to key players like Bryan Robson and Neil Webb would undermine any chance of United actually challenging Arsenal and Liverpool for the title, the team was more than good enough to raise itself for cup games, and so managed to reach both the final of the League Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup.
Sharpe was instrumental in the club reaching both finals, scoring twice in the two-legged League Cup Semi-Final 3-1 aggregate victory over Leeds United, and later nabbing a vital away goal in Warsaw as United progressed 4-2 on aggregate over Legia Warsaw in the Cup-Winners’ Cup Semi-Final.
Along with everyone at Old Trafford, Sharpe suffered the misery of a lost Wembley cup final, as United went down 1-0 to a John Sheridan goal for Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup Final, but less than a month later he had his first winners’ medal, and a European one at that, as two Mark Hughes goals (one a superb effort from an acute angle) gave the Red Devils a 2-1 victory over Barcelona in Rotterdam in the Cup-Winners’ Cup Final; it was a happy conclusion to a decent season of progress for both Sharpe and the Club.
His triumphant season was crowned by winning the coveted Professional Footballers’ Association “Young Player of the Year” award for 1991, and it seemed the future was very bright indeed for the West Midlands lad.
However, the following season was miserable for both Sharpe, and ultimately for United too. Expected to push hard for a first league title victory in nearly 25 years, the team did just that, losing only once in the league before Christmas, indeed only losing a total of 6 games all season. However, the number of draws (15) was indicative of an inability to convert enough of their chances to win games they dominated, and that allowed Leeds United to sneak past them right at the close of the season and snatch the last ever Division One title from their grasp… the earlier winning of the League Cup (with a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest in the Final) was supposed to be the morale-boost to propel United to Championship glory, but it wasn’t to be.
Sharpe, meanwhile, was enduring his own torrid time, out with niggly injuries and reduced to the role of a bemused spectator as a young Ryan Giggs emerged into the ‘void’ to effectively finish Danny Wallace’s United career entirely and send a strong message to the ailing Sharpe that his days on United’s left-wing were numbered. By the time he returned to action, his only meaningful contribution was a goal against Luton Town at Kenilworth Road in a 1-1 draw which heralded United’s permanent slip from the league summit.
1992-93 was eventually much better for both Sharpe and United, though the team struggled to convert chances right through the autumn period until Eric Cantona arrived from Leeds United in November; meanwhile Sharpe was suffering a horrendous time, struck down by viral meningitis two days into the new Premier League season, a condition which kept him out of the squad until November.
He returned to a side that had started to ‘click’ in a big way, and made 27 league appearances, as well as scoring a solitary league goal in the 5-0 thrashing of Coventry City, as Cantona inspired his new team-mates to a first league title victory in 26 years. With Giggs now firmly installed as the left-wing wizard, Sharpe had battled with Andrei Kanchelskis for the right-wing berth, but made more than enough appearances to collect a title winners’ medal on 3rd May as the new Champions beat Blackburn Rovers 3-1.
Without doubt, Lee Sharpe’s greatest season as a United player (and indeed his zenith as a professional footballer) came in 1993-94, as United set about defending their hard-earned Premier League crown. Alex Ferguson knew he was blessed to have a player of Sharpe’s ability who could play on either wing or as an orthodox attacking midfielder, and consequently Lee found himself largely both in form and in favour at United. His season started well with both goals in the 2-1 win against his beloved Aston Villa at Villa Park (which he celebrated in front of the delirious visiting fans with what quickly became known as his ‘trademark’ goal celebration, a gyrating hip ‘dance’ whilst ‘using’ the corner flag as a microphone stand…it was soon christened ‘The Sharpie Shuffle’!), and he followed that up with the opening goal in each game in wins over Southampton and West Ham as United stormed to the league summit.
By now, United were in formidable form, at least domestically, and Sharpe was having the time of his life. He opened the scoring in a 2-0 win at home to Stoke City in the League Cup Second Round on 6th October, scored the winner in a 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur on 16th October, hit the only goal of the game against Everton at Goodison Park a week later, and then scored again as United demolished Leicester City 5-1 in the League Cup Third Round on 27th October…it was as ‘high’ as his star was ever to rise in his career.
Galatasaray put paid to United’s hopes in Europe, but with Cantona and Hughes in red-hot scoring form, the team looked very assured domestically; Sharpe was a regular performer, scoring another goal in the 3-0 win at Sheffield United as Christmas approached, and then after the team dropped points with several draws in early 1994, he grabbed two very important goals in a 2-2 draw with Arsenal at Highbury in March to steady the nerves in the title run-in as United came under severe pressure from an Alan Shearer-inspired Blackburn Rovers.
By the time United secured their second Premier League title in a row with a 2-1 win over Ipswich Town at Portman Road on 1st May, Sharpe had an F.A. Cup Final to look forward to, as United faced Chelsea with dreams of a ‘Double’ still alive. By then Sharpe’s form had dipped enough to see him more often than not occupying a place on the substitute’s bench, and that turned out to be the case again on the day of the Cup Final; he came on for left-back Denis Irwin with only 6 minutes of normal time remaining, by which stage he knew he was assured of a winners’ medal, United leading 3-0. Fellow substitute Brian McClair added a fourth goal in injury time to seal a 4-0 thrashing of the West Londoners, and Sharpe joined in the celebrations afterwards, little knowing his ‘good times’ were almost over.
The following season started brightly enough for Sharpe, though he still struggled to secure a starting shirt in the 1st team; that changed, however, when bad injuries to right-back Paul Parker and winger Giggs forced Ferguson to reshuffle his pack, with Denis Irwin shifting to right-back and Sharpe given the role of stand-in left-back. From there, he ended up making a total of 28 league appearances for the season, and scored a memorable back-heeled goal in a 2-2 draw with Barcelona at Old Trafford in the Champions League Group stage. The team showed decent form in the league, losing only 4 games before Christmas, but they never gained any significant advantage over nearest rivals Blackburn Rovers, and when Eric Cantona was given a lengthy ban following his kung-fu kick on a racial abuser at Crystal Palace in late January, the blow was more devastating than anyone realised. Sharpe had, by then, again dropped to the role of substitute on many occasions, as Irwin reverted to his usual left-back role and the right-back shirt was handed to a young man named Gary Neville, with Giggs back on the left wing and Kanchelskis or Roy Keane preferred on the right.
He still managed two goals in successive home wins over Arsenal and Leicester City in the springtime, but by then the absence of Cantona was being felt, as draws were not being turned into victories, and the final day saw another draw at a stubborn West Ham condemn United to runners-up spot behind Blackburn Rovers.
The following weekend Sharpe was surprisingly named at left wing in Alex Ferguson’s starting eleven for the F.A. Cup Final against Everton (United having fought through several difficult rounds to get to Wembley, with Sharpe scoring one of the goals in the 2-0 Round 6 win over Queen’s Park Rangers), but he had a quiet game before getting replaced on 72 minutes by a lad called Paul Scholes, with United losing 1-0 to a Paul Rideout header; that scoreline didn’t change and Sharpe suffered despair on what would be his last ever appearance at the old stadium in his career.
The last-minute sale of Russian Andrei Kanchelskis to Everton during the summer of 1995 seemed to be very good news for Lee Sharpe, who no doubt fancied his chances of claiming the right-midfield shirt at Old Trafford on a permanent basis. His chances of doing just that seemed even better when he scored the opening goal in the 2-1 win over new Champions Blackburn Rovers early in the season, and followed that up with two more goals in the following week’s 3-2 win at his lucky ground, Goodison Park.
By now Lee was no longer one of the ‘kids’, as the likes of Gary Neville, Scholes, Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs were 1st team regulars, and they were soon to be joined by a precocious Cockney lad called David Beckham… his graduation would end up being very bad news indeed for Sharpe. However, that was still the future; for now, Sharpe was an integral part of the side that found itself a sizeable number of points behind runaway league leaders Newcastle United, despite losing only 4 games before the turn of the year. When they were hammered 4-1 at White Hart Lane on New Year’s Day 1996, it seemed like Sharpe and United’s chances of overhauling the Magpies was all but gone.
However, with Cantona inspiring the team, and in sensational goalscoring form, United clawed their way back into the title race, and Sharpe did his bit, scoring the only goal in the 1-0 win over Blackburn Rovers in February, and assisting in several goals for the likes of Cantona, Andy Cole and Ryan Giggs.
He was also in good form in the F.A. Cup, scoring late to give United a 2-1 victory over arch-rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford in Round 5, before scoring even later again to secure a 2-0 win at home to Southampton in Round 6. Little did he know, but that goal would be his last for United.
For most of his time at Old Trafford, Lee Sharpe had been quite happy to foster an image of the “party-boy ladies’ man” off the pitch, and whilst that was all good and fine when things were going well for both himself and the team on the pitch, it probably did him no favours in Alex Ferguson’s eyes when things were not going so well. Despite the team successfully completing the pursuit of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle side to claim the Premier League trophy in 1996, Ferguson’s thoughts had turned to David Beckham as the future for the right-side of his midfield, and in particular his intuitive partnership with right-back Gary Neville.
When Ferguson named his starting eleven for the 1996 F.A. Cup Final against bitter foes Liverpool, there was no place in it for Lee Sharpe, nor would there be any appearance for him from the bench, as the team rallied to beat the Merseysiders with a late Eric Cantona strike to secure a second ‘Double’ in three years. Instead, Sharpe was left to wear a thin smile as he collected his winners’ medal, with media reports already hinting that his time at Old Trafford might be coming to a close. Despite making 41 appearances during the season in all competitions, 12 of those had been as a substitute, and with younger, faster, less injury-prone players pushing for places in the squad, Sharpe knew his time was as a United player was probably over, despite having just turned 25.
That was confirmed in August, as despite scoring against a League of Ireland XI in a pre-season friendly, Sharpe was transferred to Leeds United for £4.5 million. His grim expression in the official Manchester United team photograph for the 1996-97 season, taken only days before his transfer was confirmed, told its own story.
Sharpe’s time at Elland Road can be summed up in the statistic of only 30 appearances in three seasons; in short, injuries ruined any chance of Lee resurrecting his career in Yorkshire, even after moving to Bradford City in 1999. He won 8 caps for England, which for a player of his ability was a paltry return, and highlighted his inability to both stay injury-free and put in consistently good performances at the highest level, unable to displace an aging John Barnes from the national side.
Since hanging up his boots, Sharpe has made many appearances in the media, not least in various ‘celebrity’ game-shows; he published his autobiography in 2005, and has been involved with global football charity, Ambassadors in Sport, since 2009, including a charity cycle through Africa. He is still fondly remembered by the United faithful, and more than warrants a place on this ‘Greatest Transfers’ listing… after all, who can forget the ‘Sharpie Shuffle’?!