Manchester United fans from the start of the 1990s will probably remember Lee Sharpe. Arsenal fans of that era will probably remember him too, albeit in a less enthusiastic manner.
In the 1990-91 season, Sharpe was an electric, precocious teenager who broke into the first team and making most of England sit up and pay attention. His fearless performances on the left wing turned heads whenever he played and, in that season, he memorably scored a hat-trick against Arsenal in the League cup.
Sharpe may now be 37 but he still retains his youthful exuberance and enthusiasm for life. And while he may have other interests outside of football — including a media career and his Lee Sharpe Foundation charity in South Africa — but he still relishes the chance to lace up his boots and get on the pitch, and tonight he’ll be doing just that.
Sharpe, along with Graeme Le Saux, will be among the younger players running out at Craven Cottage tonight when the England Legends take on their Irish counterparts live on ITV4.
“It’s still schoolboy dream stuff, as you say, to put on the shirt, to walk down the tunnel on a beautiful green pitch with the stadium full and the floodlights on, you know, the music playing. Yeah, that’s what you live for — that sensation — that’s why you became a footballer,” he says when talking about pulling on the Three Lions again.
“And, yeah, I still get nervous before every game and you want to play well and you don’t want your team mates taking the mickey out of you when you get back in the dressing room because you’ve played rubbish. You want to play well, you want to win the game, your competitive edge makes you want to win the game. So, yeah, it never leaves you.”
For Sharpe, it’s a chance to catch up with old friends and team mates, while getting that competitive football fix. He’ll be lining up alongside the likes of Paul Merson, Nigel Winterburn, David Platt, Chris Woods, Des Walker and Ray Parlour, but it’s one former England captain that still intimidates him.
“I’m always a little bit nervous around Bryan Robson because he’s that special a player. I had it while I played at Man U and he was captain and I still get that now. There’s an aura around him and it’s a privilege to play with these players, and yeah, I still pinch myself like I did when I was first on the pitch with them.”
And having shared the same dressing room and as the Manchester United and England Legend many times, Sharpe says Robson is up there with some of the best ever players ever to wear the Three Lions.
“At Man U his nickname was Captain Marvel — he used to run the game. He ran the referee, the linesmen, the crowd, the away team, covered every blade of grass, looked after everyone, protected everyone, scored goals, won tackles. He was just an all-round player — he was superb.”
Robson isn’t the only ex-team mate who’ll be taking to the pitch at Fulham’s ground tonight, as Sharpe expects to find himself up against Denis Irwin, who made the left-back position his own at Old Trafford in the 1990s.
But while Irwin offered defensive protection for the flying winger at Manchester United, Sharpe also knows what it’s like to play against one of Ireland’s greatest ever full-backs.
“It’s taking me back to my full England debut many many moons ago. I had to play against Denis,” remember Sharpe.
“He’s a good player is Denis, although he’s a bit older than me now, but I hope he doesn’t try to kick me too much. But I’m looking forward to it. They’ve got some great players — Niall Quinn, Jason McAteer, Ray Houghton — so it should be an entertaining game.”
While Sharpe will be patrolling the flank at Craven Cottage, two days later another exciting young teenage winger will most likely be doing the same for Fabio Capello’s England at Wembley.
Needless to say, as a player who could glide past defenders and score important goals, Sharpe is a big fan of Theo Walcott:
“He’s what the fans crave. I think people crave entertainment and excitement and he makes you sit on the edge of your seat. You never know what’s going to happen next with him. He’s direct, he goes past people, and he causes problems for whoever he plays against.”
But Sharpe knows what it’s like to have huge expectation on your shoulders at such a young age, and how hard it can be to live up to expectation. While Theo is currently England’s golden boy, Sharpe, speaking with the experience of somebody who’s been through a similar situation, warns fans not to expect too much too soon of the Arsenal player:
“He is going to have bad games — that’s what happens when you’re young, your form goes up and down a lot – but I think he’s going to have more good games than bad games. But be patient, give him time and just let him go out there and do his thing, and hopefully he’ll cause a lot of defences a lot of problems.”
While Walcott is currently flavour of the month, the international break has been less kind to another former golden boy, Michael Owen, who’ll be sitting in front of the TV rather than in the dressing room come Saturday.
But, while Capello has called for Owen to add more to his game, Sharpe thinks it’s only a matter of time before the Newcastle striker can force his way back into the team.
“He’s one of the best six strikers in the country and if you are struggling and it’s a bit of a tight game with 15, 20 minutes to go he’s the type of player you can bring on and he’ll get you a goal.
“I’m surprised he’s not in the squad. I think because the manager is looking towards youth when you’ve got the likes of Walcott and players like that. But I still think he’s worth a place in the squad and, touch wood, he’ll get his place back.”
Another player Sharpe feels deserves a chance under Capello is Ashley Young — hardly surprisingly when you consider Sharpe’s a Villa fan. But when he talks about the young winger, there’s genuine excitement in his voice.
“I think he could get in the squad and if you get to the last 15-20 minutes of the game and you’re two or three nil up, start putting him out and see what he can do.
“He’s a good player — [Gabriel] Abonglahor as well. They’re both exciting strikers, good forwards, they can cause problems and they’re our future, but you’ve got to start putting them in at some point and giving them the chance to excel.”
Typically, for a player who adapted pretty quickly to coping with the top flight as a teenager, Sharpe is also a believer in the ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough’ school of thought and sees plenty of encouraging signs for the future of English football, if the youngsters are given a chance.
“Sometimes you look at the Premier League and go “Well, I’m not sure they’re ready for England” but, you know, if you throw them into a squad, into a meetup, you’d be surprised how people can step up to the plate when they’re asked to, and around better players and with that extra bit of coaching players do step up that extra level.
“A lot of people watched Arsenal a couple of weeks ago in the League Cup. They’ve got 16, 17, 18-year-olds in their team who look quite comfortable playing at that standard so it can’t be too long before they’re stepping up a level and knocking on the England door. I think we’ve got plenty coming through.”
Despite claiming football isn’t his main interest these days, Sharpe is still very clued up on the game, as you’d expect from an ex-pro. He still looks out for Manchester United and Villa results, and has enjoyed seeing Hull confound predictions in their first season in the Premier League, but it’s clear there are other issues he’s now concentrating on.
Sharpe is currently preparing to climb Kilimanjaro to raise money for his charity — The Lee Sharpe Foundation — which helps disadvantaged youngsters in South Africa find a way out of crime through football, while the media work keeps him busy as well.
But, for this former Premier League star, it’s clear nothing quite beats lacing up your boots and getting stuck in on the pitch, and he’s just as pumped up for tonight’s Ireland game as he was when he played his first football league game for Torquay United.
“We all want to win, it doesn’t matter how old we are,” he says. “You pull that shirt on and step onto the park and it’s an amazing feeling still.
“I’m like a little kid in a sweetshop finding that you’re playing in a great team, on a great pitch with a great crowd and that’s why we all do it still — it’s fantastic.”
England v Ireland — Legends Live is on ITV4 from 7pm tonight (Thursday 9th October). Tickets for The Legends: England v Ireland are £14 for adults (over 16) and £8 for OAPs/Students, plus booking fee and available from Fulham Football Club’s Box Office on 0870 442 1234. All Legends football games operate a ‘Kid-A-Quid’ scheme; all children under 16 will gain entry to The Legends for just £1.