Football: Sharp's pace and power made for modern game

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The Independent Online
FEW players this side of the Channel speak the same language, in terms of French or football, as Eric Cantona. Kevin Sharp is a semi-fluent exception in the former respect, and already this year he has pitted his wits against the Parisian magician without embarrassing himself or Leeds United.

Though his own attributes are about as Gallic and enigmatic as Yorkshire pudding, the 19-year-old Sharp's career has curiously mirrored that of the Frenchman. His first club was Auxerre - where Cantona established himself under the same manager, Guy Roux - and when their respective spells in France reached the crossroads, both found refuge in the unlikely setting of Elland Road.

Their time at Leeds overlapped long enough to strike up a rapport which has survived Cantona's controversial relocation. Sharp once acted as unofficial interpreter for his colleague when English journalists sought a few bons mots, and they exchanged friendly Franglais during the blond midfielder's stint as substitute in an otherwise bitter New Year's Day reunion.

His appearance before a full house at Old Trafford, home of the team he idolised as a boy who wanted to be Bryan Robson when he grew up, capped 15 months of wildly fluctuating fortunes for Sharp. Born in Canada of Liverpudlian emigres who returned to live in Blackpool after his birth, he had gone abroad himself after graduating from the FA National School in 1991.

Along with Jamie Forrester, a striker now also with Leeds who scored twice in the FA Cup against Crewe recently, Sharp signed a long-term contract with Auxerre, whose scouts had spotted them playing for England Schoolboys at Wembley.

After 12 months lost in France - 'it felt a lot longer' according to Sharp - they were back at Lilleshall in the summer of '92 for the school's caps ceremony. Both had sampled first-team fare but were 'terribly homesick'. By coincidence, the guest of honour was Howard Wilkinson, although Sharp believes the Leeds manager was then oblivious to their plight.

'A few clubs contacted Jamie and me when the word got out,' he recalled. 'We had trials at Everton, but as soon we came to Leeds I loved the place and made up my mind I wanted to sign.' Almost unnoticed, Wilkinson paid Roux pounds 120,000 for the pair, who expected to play themselves in quietly through the juniors and reserves.

But before last season was out, injury to Tony Dorigo led to Sharp, nominally a central midfielder, demonstrating his versatility at left- back. Then came an FA Youth Cup medal, Leeds surprisingly winning both legs of the final against Manchester United before more than 60,000 spectators, followed by triumph with England in the European Youth Championship.

Teenaged talents often fail to develop, physically or as players, but this season Sharp has built on his breakthrough. David Batty's departure and Wilkinson's use of Gary Speed in a central role created an opening on the left, where several sagacious judges have observed a combination of power, pace and confidence made for the modern game.

'I've never felt overawed by playing in the Premiership,' Sharp said. 'To me it's the same as the reserves except that the crowds stimulate you. It's also been a help to have someone as good as Tony Dorigo behind me, and Gary McAllister, who must be the best midfield player in Britain right now, alongside me.'

Three moments stand out from his latest run in the side. At West Ham last month, Dorigo spotted Sharp's characteristic surge from a deep position and sent him clean through: 'Even though (Ludek) Miklosko made a good save, I really should have scored my first goal.'

Then came a bone-shuddering challenge in which he got the better of Manchester City's Steve McMahon, no slouch in the tackling stakes. 'The ball was there to be won and there was no way he was going to bottle it. We both had gritted teeth, but we got stuck in and then we just got up and got on with it.'

Finally to Manchester United, where he faced Robson for the first time on the senior stage. 'It was a big thing for me just to be on the same pitch as him,' Sharp said. 'I'd played against him once for the reserves and he was a tough opponent even at that level.

'In the programme he was quoted as saying that Leeds were setting an example to other clubs with their youth policy, and he cited myself and Gary Kelly as examples. I was really chuffed to be mentioned.'

Sharp, who lives modestly in digs run by a landlady, has no grand ambitions beyond establishing himself in the professional game. He now reflects positively on a chequered past: his time at the much-maligned National School, where the then director, John Cartwright, worked hard on improving his right foot; the lonely sojourn at Auxerre, where Roux's emphasis on technique also stood him in good stead.

The new Cantona he is certainly not - but neither Leeds nor England will be complaining should Kevin Sharp come close to emulating his early role model from Old Trafford.

(Photograph omitted)