Football: The real Lee Sharpe is about to stand up

After a season on the sidelines with a knee injury, a former golden boy is back on the big stage. By Steve Tongue
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LEEDS UNITED supporters may find themselves doing a double-take as the team come out for tomorrow night's first home match of the season against Blackburn Rovers.

Even those right up to date with George Graham's rummagings in the bargain basement, who can tell the new Dutch striker Clyde Wijnhard from his compatriot Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink at a glance, could struggle to identify the spiky- haired bleached blond following them up the tunnel.

His only first-team appearance on the Elland Road pitch in 1997-98 was for the pre-season photo, and the hairdo was more conventional then. But the name SHARPE on the No 7 shirt ought to prompt a few memories: a pounds 4.5m signing two years ago who arrived talking about a new era that he hoped would lead to glory with England at the World Cup finals only to endure an uneasy relationship with the new manager - then a whole season spent in the purgatory of prolonged injury.

Now Lee Sharpe - for it is him - is back, having spent his summer not in France challenging for Graeme Le Saux's place, but ensuring that his wounded knee was fit for the rigours of a Premiership season. Given 70 minutes at Middlesbrough last week and a further 45 in the friendly away to Shelbourne on Wednesday, he has been eased back in and hopes now to be released to run at the Rovers tomorrow night in the style that once made him foremost among "Ferguson's Fledglings" at Old Trafford, while a boy called Giggs was still cleaning the boots.

"The knee's given me no trouble at all," he said. "So far I've been running on adrenalin. I know I've got a big job this season to hold on to a first- team place, especially as we've got so many left-sided players. But it's up to me to do well enough to make sure I stay in."

There speaks the beneficiary of an eight-week course in positive thinking and self-assessment which he undertook to bolster his confidence during the darkest days of his missing year. A spell as presenter of Junior Gladiators ("I enjoyed it, though I was petrified before I first went on, much more than before any football match") also offered new experience, while Graham praised his public relations and charity work on behalf of the club.

That was not always the case at Manchester United, where time occasionally hung heavily on his hands, fame and money at an unusually early age leading to some unwanted headlines, and suggesting that he had not read the George Best story carefully enough.

Brought up in Kidderminster as an Aston Villa supporter, Sharpe somehow escaped the clutches of all the Midland clubs and at 16 found himself in Torquay United's first team instead. Alex Ferguson did a notable piece of cradle-snatching by sitting incognito at the back of the Plainmoor stand to watch him, then squatting in the car park and refusing to leave without his signature. The deal, which even with various add-ons, totalled no more than pounds 185,000, amounts to one of the best Ferguson ever did in his pounds 76m worth of cheque-signing on United's behalf.

Aged 17, Sharpe was making a debut against West Ham in the first of more than 20 League games he played that season, while also becoming the youngest- ever England Under-21 cap. Part of his appeal was the versatility which meant that as well as playing left-back (his original position for United) he could use his pace and control on the left-wing as well, or in a halfway- house between the two.

Graham Taylor called him into the full England squad as a teenager in 1991, before two hernia operations and what United eventually diagnosed as "viral meningitis". England's critical World Cup game in Holland then proved to be not a passport to the finals, but a halt to an international career, as Terry Venables replaced Taylor.

By that time, too, the boy Giggs had stopped cleaning boots and started cleaning out Premier League defences, and Sharpe was earning the nickname "Odd Job" from his team-mates. Howard Wilkinson sought several times to buy him for Leeds and eventually succeeded in the summer of 1996. "He'd burst on to the scene as a youngster with exceptional pace, and ability to beat people and score goals and do the unusual - he was very, very exciting," Wilkinson said.

Only five games into the season, a 4-0 home defeat - by United - cost the manager his job, and meant for Sharpe the beginning of a difficult period as Wilkinson's successor, George Graham, tightened things up in order to stave off any threat of relegation.

He would certainly have enjoyed last season's positive approach more, but did not take part in any of it, after injuring a cruciate ligament in the final pre-season friendly. "I never thought in terms of my career being over, but sometimes you wonder if you're going to do all this work and still have it not be right," he said. "Leeds fans haven't seen the best of me yet. Now I want them to see the real Lee Sharpe." With or without spiky blond hair.