Football: Sharp eyes European return

If Bangor City beat Connah's Quay tomorrow, a former Everton striker will make it back to the Cup-Winners' Cup . Alan Nixon reports
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The Independent Online
GRAEME SHARP'S away trips are at the likes of Anglesey not Anfield these days, but those roads may lead to Europe both for him and Bangor City.

Sharp has waited an unlucky 13 years for his chance to return to the European Cup-Winners' Cup since Everton's triumph in Rotterdam. Now he is manager of Bangor he has that unexpected opportunity presented by the Welsh Cup final against Connah's Quay tomorrow.

The Scottish striker who was once the key to Everton's team of the Eighties has taken the north-Wales side to the brink of Europe in his first year in charge. He hopes it will also be a passport back to the public eye for him.

Sharp took on the challenge following his departure as Oldham's manager. He was on the sidelines and on the Northrop Manor golf course, where he lives. As he looked out on to those fairways he admitted: "It would have been the easiest thing in the world to walk away and spend my time out there every day. But I've been in the game since I was a kid and I didn't want to let go.

"It was through a neighbour, Ken Jones, that I got into Bangor City. He owns a few garages and is the club's main sponsor. He was always on at me to watch them and one day asked if I would like to help their manager at the time, Kevin Langley. I said OK, as long as it wasn't stepping on his toes. He didn't get back to me.

"The next thing I knew Ken offered me the job a few weeks later. I said no at first and told him I wanted to get back into the League, but he kept on and they came up with a good package for me. I took it last summer, but on the one condition that if a League job came up I was free to leave."

After a career spanning over 15 years at the top Sharp suddenly found himself taking charge of a part-time club at a level he knew nothing about. He said: "I went into the job completely blind. I needed an assistant who knew the scene and they came up with a lad called John Holse, who was a boss in his own right and a big Evertonian so we hit it off immediately.

"I found it hard at times dealing with part-time players who have jobs and you only see them for an hour or so for training a couple of days a week on an artificial pitch. Lads would miss out through their work and it was different to everything I had been used to, a day-to-day professional atmosphere.

"These are a good bunch of guys and keen to succeed. They only miss games if they really can't avoid it, but it causes problems all the same. One of our strikers pulled out at an hour's notice the other week and I even had to put the boots back on and sit on the bench."

Yet Sharp's culture shock was one that has kept his enthusiasm alive. He said: "I've been to parts of Wales I never knew existed. Haverfordwest feels like the other end of the world. It's our one overnight trip of the season. We can't afford any others. But everywhere you go the people are genuine football fans.

"There is a lot of feeling for the game among them even if the crowds are small. I'm pleased we've reached the Cup final to reward our fans. I hope we can bring them some glory and make the European Cup-Winners' Cup. It would be a dream to get a Scottish or English team in the first round, but knowing our luck we'll be going to the Ukraine."

Ironically Sharp has been exiled from Europe since Everton won the final in 1985. Because of the English clubs' ban after Heysel, Everton could not continue at that level and then came their recent decline. Sharp said: "It would be good for me to go back to Europe, but it's better for the club. I've been there, the lads in the team have never known anything like this and the fans could get a great trip out of it.

"Hopefully, someone will see that I have something to offer as a boss out of this. I think my record at Oldham is better than you would imagine. I kept them up in the first season and left them higher than Joe Royle had done when he went. We stayed up the year after and I think I would have done it again if I had not quit.

"I wanted the job, but the first thing I was told was to move out eight top players. A year later I had to cut again. Then they told me I could only sign free transfer men and I couldn't offer them signing-on fees. I felt I was being made a scapegoat for people behind the scenes who made the decisions.

"In the end I had to go. Oldham's ambitions did not match up to mine. Instead of being strong as a club and being honest with the fans it was all coming down on me. It was an alarming experience and I definitely want to get back in as a manager, assistant or coach. I just want people to look at the whole Oldham picture."

Sharp is waiting for that call while honing his skills on the golf course in the summer months. He said: "Even now I've got a dream lifestyle... I see a lot more of the family too, but after being in football all my life I long for the day when I have that involvement again."