Billy Sharp Reveals Story Behind Mick Foley 'Sock' Celebration And Having Breakfast With WWE Legend
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"Wow," exclaims Billy Sharp, puffing out his cheeks. "I couldn't have written it any better."
'It' being the 88th minute between Bournemouth and Sheffield United on Saturday, August 10, 2019. The Blades were 1-0 down at Dean Court with two minutes to play when they won a free-kick in a dangerous position. George Baldock crossed, the ball pinballed off a cluster of bodies and Sharp reacted quickest to poke home the equaliser. Cue mayhem.
Supporters sprung out of seats. Bodies collapsed over advertising hoardings. Hi-vis jackets tried to control the carnage. Police officers formed a barricade. Sharp jumped straight in. You love to see it. "It wasn't the best of goals," he laughs. "But I can't tell you how much it meant, how good it felt. It was a special day."
Enjoy Billy Sharp's goal vs Bournemouth from every angle :raised_hands::fire: pic.twitter.com/COMFkTDgGG
- Sheffield United (@SheffieldUnited) August 14, 2019
It was the goal that had eluded him - the Premier League goal - the goal that completed the quest to score in all four of England's top divisions. Another moment to cement his status as a hometown hero. The fans who travelled 225 miles to watch their team on the south coast know Sharp would have been in the stands belting out a verse of Greasy Chip Butty, if it wasn't for his knack of finding the back of the net. And it's no different in the changing room, where he shares a strong bond with his teammates.
"After the game the lads stood up and gave me a standing ovation which was nice," he tells SPORTbible. "That's something that sticks out in my mind - it was special." This goal was the culmination of a lifetime of work. Rewind 15 years ago today and Sharp was on the touchline at Bramall Lane preparing to make his professional debut against Watford. Since then there has been hand puppet celebrations, WWE superstars, life-changing tragedy and goals. Lots of them. But through it all Sharp has remained the same - just a fat lad from Sheffield who made it to the big time. Except, he's much more than that as we find out during our time with Mick Foley's favourite footballer.
The idea a three-time WWE champion, who wrestled under the alias Mankind - a mentally deranged schizophrenic that wears a leather mask and chains - would one day visit Bramall Lane to watch Sheffield United vs Brentford in the Championship feels like something from a parallel universe. But it's not. It happened.
In March of this year Foley accepted an invitation to visit Yorkshire following Sharp's 'Mandible Claw' celebration against Norwich City. The striker smashed a penalty past Tim Krul and pulled out a sock puppet that he shoved into the mouth of teammate Baldock - imitating Mankind's signature move. The Whatsapp group behind the celebration loved it.
"One of my mates from my old Sunday League team - Middlewood Rovers - bought the sock off the internet for $50 and was desperate for me to do it," recalls Sharp. "So I said, 'Ok I'll do it, but I'm only trying for one game'. If I didn't score then that would be the end of it.
Oh, this is TREMENDOUS! Thank you @billysharp10 & @SoccerAM https://t.co/fSEhpm68IJ
- Mick Foley (@RealMickFoley) January 26, 2019
"I had the sock down my shorts and was planning to get rid of it at half-time because it was doing my head in. We got a penalty, I managed to put it away and the sock came out. After the game I had 200 odd text messages off the lads and then god knows how many on Twitter. Next thing I know Mick Foley is having breakfast at my house."
Dining with wrestling royalty is a parallel universe way from where he was on November 13, 2004 - nervously waiting to make his Football League debut with Neil Warnock in this ear. "I don't really remember much about it," he chuckles. "Did we win?" No, it was a 1-1 draw with Watford. This triggers a flashback.
Big mick @RealMickFoley is in the house, in my house to be exact. It's a bit surreal to have breakfast with a true wrestling legend. pic.twitter.com/p3Z0IEhHQU
- billy sharp (@billysharp10) March 12, 2019
"I do remember the manager saying to me, 'Look, I'm going to get you on for your debut and then you're going to be playing more of a role next season', which didn't end up happening," he says. "But it put me in the shop window and I ended up having the chance to go on loan to Rushden & Diamonds in League Two. My dad said to me, 'You need to go, it's about making a career and not just waiting for it to come to you.'
"To this day, it was the best decision I've ever made. I scored nine goals in 16. It was really good for my development. The rest, they say, is history."
A history whereby Sharp has written himself into the pantheon of great English goalscorers. Netting the third in Sheffield United's 3-0 win over Wigan in January saw him take his tally to 220 and surpass Rickie Lambert to become the leading goalscorer in English league football this century. That's more than Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe. Eight different clubs have benefited from his precision finishing with fans of Scunthorpe, Doncaster, Southampton and of course, his beloved Blades, enjoying his most prolific spells. To date, he's on 239 goals in 554 games. Remembering them all is a struggle, but some mean more than others.
The first against Chester City in February 2005 got him off the mark. His first hat-trick in front of the Kop at Bramall Lane against Queens Park Rangers in August 2008 is a feeling he wishes he could bottle. But nothing means more than the goal he scored against Middlesbrough for Doncaster in November 2011. In isolation, it was a technically brilliant goal - a first-time volley that looped over Jason Steele - but the strength of character it required deserves special praise. It came just three days after his first child, Luey, had died from gastroschisis, a defect that affects the abdominal wall.
He celebrated by pulling his jersey over his head to reveal a t-shirt that read: "That's for you son." The magnitude of the goal was written all over his face. "It was all a blur at the time," remembers Sharp. "It was selfish of me to play, my wife was obviously grieving, but I had to get away from it. I needed a release, to give myself something to focus on. We lost 3-1, but I didn't care about the result, all I wanted to do was score a goal for him and I achieved it. It was unbelievable, overwhelming, special."
No one would have blamed him for losing focus on his career. The death of a child is an unimaginable tragedy few people recover from. But Sharp refused to succumb to the pain of grief. That's not how he wanted to honour his son. He took the pain and used it to maximise his talent.
"It could quite easily have affected my career, but I wanted to do it for him," he says. "My lifestyle at that time wasn't the greatest and this gave me a new drive and focus. Now I've got two more sons and whenever I kick the ball I do it for them and Luey. I just want to make them proud."
Sharp's questionable lifestyle choices are a reference to the laid-back approach he had taken towards diet and fitness earlier in his career. As a result, he often played with a physique unbefitting of a professional athlete and that invited jibes from opposition supporters and even his own manager.
"I was playing for Doncaster and we lost 3-2 at home to Derby (October 2010)," explains Sharp. "The manager Sean O'Driscoll said we'd played really well, but didn't get the result. I said, 'Gaffer you can't just end it on that! It wasn't good enough!' and he just put me in my place.
"He said: 'You just shut up and sit there. When you're like you have been the last few games, you're brilliant, but when you're like this, you're just a fat lad from Sheffield.'
"The kit man put it on a top I wore underneath my shirt in the next game against Sheffield United. I scored and revealed the shirt, which killed me for the next nine years, but I've embraced it and that's why it's my twitter bio. I was a little bit on the bigger side then, but now I'm in the best nick I've my career."
This, unsurprisingly, has coincided with the most successful spell of his career. Sharp returned to Sheffield United for the third time in 2015 and was handed the captain's armband a year later by Chris Wilder when he took over from Nigel Adkins. The club were in League One. Three years on they're fifth in the Premier League.
"It's been unbelievable," beams Sharp. "As a Sheffield United fan - to captain the club through two promotions - it's been unreal."
Sharp's 66 league goals in three seasons helped the Blades reach the Premier League, but since arriving in the top flight he's played more of a supporting role. This is an unfortunate consequence of ageing in a league that demands superhuman athleticism. Undeterred, Sharp believes he has a hack to combat that obstacle.
"The higher you go the bigger, faster and stronger the defenders get," says Sharp, who turns 34 in February. "But I've never really needed speed or height, I've always been able to get in the right place at the right time and I still believe I can do that in the Premier League. I've got lots more goals in me yet."
And then what? There's only one natural progression for a boyhood fan turned cult hero. "I'm doing my coaching badges at the minute," he reveals. "So who knows... Maybe I could become manager of United one day? I'm not going to lie, I'd love to have a crack at it, especially after seeing what the gaffer do it. He's a Sheffield lad, he's played for United and now he's managing the club. It would be a tough job to achieve what he has, but I'd love to give it a go."
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