Football / FA Cup Countdown: Royle family rely on Sharp's experience: Oldham's elder statesman has the know-how to find a route past United. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
A GUT feeling that this could be Oldham Athletic's year in the FA Cup swept over Graeme Sharp in the most unpromising of settings - the visitors' dressing-room on a freezing February night at Stoke.

Premiership clubs had been falling to First Division opponents like icicles in a thaw. Oldham, stuck in the relegation zone and unable to see off Stoke at home, were expected to receive the cold shoulder in a fourth-round replay. But the scene stirred a sense of deja vu in Sharp that he shared with his colleagues, and which he believes helped inspire their 1-0 win.

Ten years earlier, Sharp was in the Everton team who travelled with some trepidation to Stoke in round three. Entering the same room, Howard Kendall had thrown open the window to let in the sound of the passionate support from their fans, saying: 'That's my team-talk'.

Kendall's side, then seemingly doomed to live in Liverpool's shadow indefinitely, were fired with a new self-belief.

They won 2-0, and with Sharp rapidly developing into a formidable marksman alongside the veteran Andy Gray, duly overcame Graham Taylor's Watford in the final to launch the greatest era in the club's history.

Echoes of Everton's proud past are, of course, no harbinger of ultimate success for Oldham. And in these days of playing the penultimate round of the Cup at the venue once rightly reserved for the May showpiece, a player might have vivid visions of performing beneath the Twin Towers and then find it was 'only' the semi-final.

But of all those involved in Sunday's Wembley derby with Manchester United, notwithstanding the likely return of Bryan Robson, Sharp is an unrivalled specialist in the competition's crucial stages. In the seven years from 1984, the 33- year-old Glaswegian appeared in no fewer than four FA Cup finals with Everton.

Only the Watford match, when he scored the 'other' goal (ie not the one Gray allegedly headed out of Steve Sherwood's grasp), ended in triumph. In terms of semi-finals, though, Sharp literally does not know the meaning of defeat. Against United, he will be going for an extraordinary nap hand of victories.

'In my experience, semi-finals are always incredibly tense and tight, and usually decided by one mistake,' Sharp said. 'Against Southampton in '84 I came on as substitute and we won it right at the end of extra time. Twelve months later we were 1-0 down to Luton with five minutes left but went on to win in extra time.

'The following year I got the winner against Sheffield Wednesday - in extra time again - which was a fantastic feeling. But the last time, when we beat Norwich 1-0, it was completely overshadowed by what happened at Hillsborough the same day.'

After 157 goals for Everton in nearly 12 years, during which he formed productive partnerships with Gray, Adrian Heath and Gary Lineker, Sharp was disappointed when Kendall decided to offload him three years ago. As a six-footer with the skill to play off a front player as well as providing the target, he saw the irony in Goodison's dearth of tall strikers so soon after his pounds 500,000 move to Oldham.

'It's no fault of my own that I'm no longer at Everton - I didn't want to leave, but Howard Kendall wanted me out,' the former Scottish international said pointedly. 'It's sad to see them in danger of going down but I could see the present situation coming. I felt they were buying people who weren't Everton players, who didn't realise the traditions of the place.'

For all the medals and memories, he is revelling in his role of elder statesman at Boundary Park. 'It's a very homely, happy club and Joe Royle has been great to me personally. He knew it was a wrench for me to leave Everton, because he'd had to do it himself as a player.'

Sharp is still among the goals, too, the latest coming on Monday at Old Trafford. It was his 15th in games with United, a sequence stretching back to soon after he joined Everton from Dumbarton, though a 3-2 defeat did not nothing for Oldham's prospects of dodging the drop.

'We can take a lot of positive things from that game into Sunday. We've certainly no need to be frightened of United. They'll miss Cantona, though with Robson coming in you couldn't really say they've been weakened. But if we play to our capabilities and get at them, we've got a chance.'

The few who have beaten the champions have done it, in the main, by massing in the face of pressure and hitting them on the break. Sharp admits that Oldham have no one with the pace of Tony Daley or Dalian Atkinson, so Aston Villa's League Cup final tactics are not an option. Getting at them is.

'I was having a laugh with Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister on Monday when Darren Beckford and Roger Palmer came on, and they said: 'What's this. . . five up front?' It was, and it nearly paid off. We had them going at the end. That's the cavalier approach the gaffer has got.'

When United's merits are debated the comparisons are invariably with Liverpool, Everton's claims having perhaps been understated. In the mid-Eighties they finished first, second and first again in successive years, also winning the Cup-Winners' Cup. Sharp, who wonders aloud whether the European Cup might have been added but for Heysel, has a revealing perspective for one steeped in Evertonian culture.

'I think United are the best side in the country,' he said, admitting that his seven-year-old son, Christopher, has fallen under the Red Devils' spell and would have mixed emotions on his first trip to Wembley. 'But I honestly feel they've a long, long way to go before they can compare themselves to Liverpool, who were up there for 25 years.'

England's finest against the team from a town of chimneys: it still looks odds-on a United victory. Like the Oldham optimist he now is, Royle's centre-forward demurs. 'I think of Crystal Palace beating Liverpool,' Sharp said. 'In semi- finals, anything can happen.' And he should know.

(Photograph omitted)

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