huddersfield town 1 – 2 leeds united: good time billyBack
A couple of weeks ago, after the draw with Birmingham, I wrote that I couldn’t quite work out how Billy Sharp had become such a symbol of hope for this season.
His name was being sung around Elland Road before he even came onto the pitch that day; he replaced Mirco Antenucci for the last half an hour and was greeted like a returning hero. He didn’t play like one; in fact he was pretty dreadful, struggling to get involved and slicing one shot out for a throw-in. But it didn’t really matter. The effort was clear to see, and the will to win, and to try, and that willingness was felt by the fans and they in turned willed him to do well. Come on Billy!
That effort was there again on Saturday. It had been a frustrating afternoon for United; after allowing Huddersfield a soft equaliser from a corner that Marco Silvestri should have dealt with, they allowed Huddersfield a lot of the rest of the game and several good chances that meant hanging on for a point was a reasonable aim. Leeds weren’t overrun, but they weren’t in charge.
Before the equaliser, Sam Byram’s deft touch on Luke Murphy’s chipped pass had snuck around the laws of physics and the clutches of Joe Murphy to give Leeds an early lead. Leeds are benefitting from Byram’s lack of familiarity with playing right-wing, because since he’s moved there he’s developed this habit of making runs into the box less like a winger and more like a wide striker. If he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he’s doing it very well. The penalty at Bolton was the first reward, and now this clever finish to a clever pass put United in charge.
After the equaliser it was frustrating that there wasn’t more in the game from Leeds, and fortunate that there wasn’t more end product from Huddersfield. The only change to the side was Sol Bamba for Jason Pearce, and in his first outing he looked like an upgrade; bigger, stronger, more imposing, even more willing to head a brick. What he didn’t seem to add was much in the way of organisation or finesse, and you could sort of see the mistakes Leicester fans warn of waiting to happen. Bamba, Wootton and Byram all got caught up in one spectacularly hopeless bit of defending that ended with a cross flashing across Leeds’ goal line, and our back line looked as insecure as ever, only with a slightly bigger, madder bastard in the middle of it to whack the ball away when needed.
That it was still 1–1 by the time he came on owed as much to luck as judgement, but Billy Sharp didn’t look like he’d read the memo that said, by the end of the game, that an away point would do. On for a knocked Cook for the last few minutes, he took to the field with all the urgency and keenness of a striker being unleashed into, yes, a cup final. Charging after a dead ball and placing it on the six yard line for Joe Murphy’s goal kick, Sharp was determined to get on with it and get the game won. They say you make your own chances in life, and Sharp did more to make his winning goal happen in three minutes than Steve Morison did in ninety or Antenucci in his half an hour.
It’s awkward for Sharp, and for Redfearn, that Leeds’ improved form has come about by switching to a formation and a style that doesn’t suit him, because in any normal circumstances you’d swap Morison for Sharp in the starting lineup in a heartbeat. As a target man, Morison is certainly both a target and a man, but he’s not much more, and his apparent lack of alertness compares unfavourably with Sharp’s all action style.
You have to call it an ‘apparent’ lack of alertness because he could be as switched on as anybody out there, but he hides it very well. Jermaine Beckford used to be the master of looking totally uninterested, before bursting onto a through ball to score, because he would conserve his energy until an opportunity came along that was worthwhile. Beckford wasn’t interested in lost causes, because he wasn’t interested in losing. Morison, though, will face in completely the wrong direction, lumbering away from the ball, looking completely unaware that his teammates have taken a throw in and that play has moved on since he last took an interest; you can hardly describe him as poised and ready for the next sniff of an opportunity.
Doukara has been taken away with Tavares from the front line action, and unless and until Edgar Cani signs, Antenucci is the only other option in attack, and although his cross was brilliant for the goal, he overall was not; too easily bundled off the ball, not clever with it, and it should by rights have been him with the late winner, not Sharp, if only he hadn’t skied his chance over the bar from the penalty spot.
In all this there is the risk that Sharp becomes our best striker by default, because while he’s not playing, we can’t become as frustrated with his shortcomings as with Doukara, Morison or Mirco. I think that’s had a lot to do with the cheers that have gone up whenever he unzips his tracksuit top ready to come on; in Billy, we still have hope.
But in Billy, we also have delivery. His goals return so far is low, his appearances have been stuttering, his Leeds career has misfired, but you could say that about countless Leeds strikers over the years. What we have in Billy Sharp now are two late winners, against Middlesbrough and Huddersfield, and two great moments that will never be forgotten, and that’s more than we get from a lot of players. Leeds fans have been ready to hero-worship Billy Sharp from the moment he arrived; fortunately, he has stepped up and given us two heroic acts.
Part of the heroism has come from the celebrations, sure, but that’s okay. Goal celebrations are as much a part of football as goalposts. This is a club where the (ex) president’s off-pitch behaviour has been a lightning rod for a personality cult for the last year, so it’s fair for this to be a club where a footballer can build his hero status upon whipping his shirt off at Elland Road, or steaming into the crowd at the John Smith’s stadium, raised aloft and staring down the barrel of the cameraphones, his hair flying, his chest puffed out, his nipples hard; with thousands of United fans streaming down the seats towards him, he faced up to the hurricane of people as if willing it to take him up and fly him far away.
The goal was replayed thousands of times on phones and TV screens and in minds after the game, but the celebrations were replayed more, and if we want Billy Sharp to start against Brentford on Saturday because his goal celebrations are the best at the club, then so be it. We go to Elland Road to have a good time, after all, and that’s an equal consideration to whether Sharp can operate effectively as a lone striker in a 4–5–1 or whether he could form a partnership with Cani in a more traditional 4–4–2. Sod all that. Let’s play Billy Sharp because he tries hard and makes life fun. It’s as good a tactic as any other.